(Editor’s note: This article contains explicit sexual content.)
Amid a flurry of lawsuits and allegations that as many as hundreds of former members of United Synagogue Youth may have been abused by a longtime adviser, a prominent Sharon rabbi has become the first to publicly detail the alleged abuse.
Rabbi Jordan Soffer, the head of school at Striar Hebrew Academy in Sharon, has alleged that Ed Ward – who worked with Jewish children for decades as an educator, adviser and camp counselor for USY and its umbrella organization, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – sexually assaulted him during morning prayer services at a USY convention when Soffer was 15.
Ward, who most recently served as the executive director of a Jewish center in Long Island, could not be reached for comment.
The allegations against Ward were first published in an article this month by the Times of Israel.
In recent months, lawsuits have been filed against USY, USCJ and Surprise Lake Camp, an overnight Jewish camp in Cold Spring, New York. The plaintiffs allege that Ward repeatedly sexually abused them while on the job for USY and USCJ in the 1990s and from 2016-18. One lawsuit against Surprise Lake alleges sexual assault going back to 1989 and 1990. Another lawsuit includes an affidavit from the mother of a former Surprise Lake camper who said that she had notified the USCJ in 2002, and alleged that her son had been sexually abused by Ward in 1989.
In 2002, the camp fired Ward. But he continued to work with Jewish children for the next 18 years, rising up through the Conservative movement’s USCJ to serve in senior USY positions in Long Island and Manhattan and as a camp counselor at a USY overnight camp in New York.
Soffer, 32, who grew up in New City, New York, north of New York City, decided not to file a lawsuit and wanted to promote reform and transparency within the organization. “I was hoping to get USY to figure out how this could happen,” said Soffer, who went to a Conservative Jewish Day school as a child, and during his seven years in USY rose to become president of the Metropolitan New York Region of United Synagogue Youth chapter.
According to Soffer, he was 15 when he was approached by Ward during services at a USY convention in Long Island. Soffer alleges that Ward asked him to take a break from prayer, and accompany him to the bathroom. There, said Soffer, Ward began to masturbate in front of him and encouraged the teen to do the same. “He asked me why I’m not doing it with him; I gave him several excuses. I said ‘I’m scared, I don’t want to, and can I leave?’” said Soffer, who added that Ward told him afterwards, “if you’re going to be cool in USY, you’ve got to be less scared. You’ve got to be more chill.”
Soffer said he immediately told a USY youth counselor who was under 18 at the time but believes it was not officially reported to USY. Still, Soffer remained on guard and alleges that Ward started an online chat room with USY boys where “he would explicitly describe how he likes to masturbate and asked other boys in the chatroom” about the sex act.
Soffer said he and his brother, Lee – a former USY international president and now a Connecticut attorney – have been working for years behind the scenes to try make sure sexual predators do not work for USY or USCJ.
In 2017, the brothers say they ran into Ward and a teenage boy at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and immediately notified USY. The brothers say USY informed them that Ward would be banned from working at USY or USCJ. But in 2020, the Soffers learned that Ward had become the executive director of a Conservative-affiliated Jewish center in Dix Hills, New York. After they contacted the center, Ward resigned. Still, the brothers were unconvinced that the Conservative movement had conducted a thorough investigation into Ward, and its employee vetting process. That’s what caused Jordan, and Lee, to go public with their stories.
“I felt that at this point the only way they would take it as seriously as it needed to be taken was with a public statement and public retelling,” said Jordan Soffer.
In an interview, Lee Soffer, 36, described Ward as a charismatic youth leader who was capable of discussing Torah one moment and graphic sex another moment. Soffer said Ward was his counselor for two years at a USY overnight camp in New York. “He was a kingmaker of sorts,” said Soffer, who alleges that he witnessed Ward masturbate, and also convinced his campers to do the same daily.
In a statement this week, USCJ Chief Executive Officer Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, USCJ President Ned Gladstein, and Rabbi Joshua Rabin, senior director of USY, said that they have hired Boston-based Sarah E. Worley Conflict Resolution, P.C., as third-party investigators to review the claims and have set up a reporting hotline for potential victims. “Pending litigation limits what we can share publicly; we cannot and will not litigate these issues in the media. What we will do is engage directly with affected individuals, continue our search for the truth, hold those responsible for misconduct accountable, and safeguard all participants in our youth programs,” they said.
They also voiced concern about the allegations. “For all of us at USY and USCJ, the past several weeks have been deeply painful. We are very saddened by the heartbreaking narratives shared by students and alum of USY and admire their courage in coming forward to bring voice to their experiences. To those sharing their narratives: We hear you. We care deeply about you. We want to learn more and be sure those with information to share about any inappropriate sexual conduct from any time period have a full opportunity to do so.”
Meanwhile, the Soffer brothers have not heard from USCJ or USY. But in recent days, they say they’ve been contacted by people who say they were abused during their time at USY.
While Jordan Soffer wants the USCJ and USY to acknowledge the victims’ stories and make sure the organizations prevent any sexual abuse from ever taking place, he is holding out hope that change in the Conservative- run organizations can occur. Said Soffer, “My entire life is to help Jewish children develop self-confidence and a love of Torah and Judaism. And, in this too, though it’s not the easiest way I’ve ever done it, my only goal is communal growth.”
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.