When Leonard “Len” Robinson, the now-73-year-old former executive director of the largest Jewish camp complex in North America, invited Hildy Somerville to spend the night at his house in the Poconos in July of 2007, she thought little of it.
After all, Somerville, who was 25 at the time, had known Robinson since she was a girl. All of her summers between the ages of 8 and 15 were spent on the leafy campgrounds of Camp Nah-Jee-Wah and Cedar Lake Camp, tucked into the rolling hills of Pike County, Pa. Robinson was the executive director of NJY Camps, of which the two camps were a part, throughout her time there.
So when she traveled to Milford, Pa., for an onsite job interview for a position as a social worker at the recently launched Kislak Adult Center — another NJY Camps program — she didn’t think twice when Robinson invited her to his private residence to save her the long car ride home.
“I thought his wife would be there,” said Somerville, 36, speaking to The NJ Jewish News over the phone this week. “And, I had known this man since childhood.”
According to Somerville’s account, what happened when they got back to Robinson’s house shocked her. After taking “shot after shot” of vodka and insisting that she have a “vodka on the rocks,” Robinson, whom she described as “totally wasted,” began asking her intimate questions about her sex life. “He said I was the ‘perfect height’ to give my old camp boyfriend oral sex,” she recalled. All the while, he continued to move his chair “closer and closer to me” until he reached out to place a hand on her arm.
Confused and frightened, Somerville said she ran to the guest room, locked the door and called her brother on the phone crying. It was 1:30 a.m.
Shortly after the encounter, Somerville told several family members and close friends about Robinson’s actions, but she never reported the incident to the police or the NJY Camps board.
(In NJY Camps’ staff handbook, called “Personnel Practices for Camp Staff,” the issue of “harassment” is dealt with in three sentences: the first two establish that “harassment” is forbidden. The last sentence says that if a staff member “feels they are not being treated fairly,” he/she should discuss the matter with their “resident director or the executive director.” For the past 25 years, Robinson was the executive director. A spokesperson for the camp said “NJY Camps is looking at how policies need to be revised going forward.”)
“A big part me of me was ashamed about what had happened. For a long time, I didn’t want to face it. I hoped that somehow, it would just go away.”
“I was so disgusted and confused by what had happened,” said Somerville reflecting on her decision not to report the incident to police or NYJ Camps board members. “A big part me of me was ashamed about what had happened. For a long time, I didn’t want to face it. I hoped that somehow, it would just go away.”
As a result of the incident, Somerville said she “deliberately never returned to visit the camp,” despite it being a place she had previously held close to her heart. “I never wanted to see him [Robinson] again,” she said. “What happened forever tarnished my camp memories.”
Today, the mother of a young daughter, Somerville said she would “never” sent her child to an NJY Camps led program.
The NJ Jewish News has confirmed details of her account from the two contemporaneous sources; her brother, Michael Dorfman, whom she called on the night the alleged incident took place, and her close friend, Rachel Dawn Davis, whom she first met as a camper at Nah-Jeh-Wah.
Somerville’s story came to light a few days after NJY Camps announced that Robinson, who was the director of the network of nine camps and year-round programs for the last quarter century, had resigned under pressure after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced. The The NJ Jewish News exclusively reported that story here last Friday.
In a memo Friday afternoon to the board of NJY Camps, its president, Peter Horowitz, said Robinson, who assumed his post in 1993, resigned “after being confronted with allegations of sexual harassment and impropriety in a role prior to his employment with NJY Camps.”
The memo said no allegations were made against Robinson during his time at NJY Camps. “However,” the statement noted, “these previous allegations are deeply disturbing and antithetical to the community we have created. Out of an abundance of caution, we are launching an immediate investigation into his tenure here.”
Horowitz declined to comment. Several other board members did not respond to requests for comment. When reached by The NJ Jewish News about the allegations, Robinson said, “No comment.”
The JCC Association of North American (JCCA), of which NJY Camps is a member affiliate, provided public relations support and counsel to NJY Camps to “help them navigate this difficult period of transition,” said a spokesperson.
The spokesperson, who requested not to be named, said “no one from the camp is taking interviews.”
‘I’m Redeeming The 23-Year-Old Me’
The announcement of Robinson’s resignation follows less than a month after Debbie Findling, a philanthropic adviser in the San Francisco Bay Area, wrote an opinion article in The Jewish Week entitled “Is the Jewish Community Perpetuating Sexual Harassment?” (March 20) In the essay, Findling said she was sexually harassed three decades ago by her supervisor at a JCC on the West Coast where she had been hired to oversee the center’s summer day camp. Then a recent college graduate, she described how the supervisor, whom she did not name, asked in the course of a single conversation if he could hold her hand, tried to kiss her, and propositioned her to have sex with him and his wife.
When she refused his advances, she said she was chastised by him. Though she reported the incident at the time to the JCC’s top official and the head of human resources, her supervisor was not terminated, though JCC employees assured her that he felt remorse for what he had done and was seeking therapy. Findling claims to have received threatening phone calls from the supervisor at the time in which he accused her of “ruining his life” by reporting the incident.
On March 27 of this year, Findling disclosed to The NJ Jewish News that the supervisor was Leonard “Len” Robinson.
“I was scared to be labeled as ‘one of those women’ and I was afraid I wouldn’t get another job.”
“I am 54 now,” Findling told The NJ Jewish News this week. “I have found the courage to find my voice and speak out against this injustice. I’m redeeming the 23-year-old me.”
She described watching from the sidelines as her alleged harasser rose through the ranks of Jewish leadership, first as the youth director for the JCC in Portland, Ore., then as the executive director of the JCC of Seattle; Greater Phoenix; Greater Los Angeles and then executive director of NJY Camps.
Rumors she heard of his alleged continued infractions weighed upon her, she said.
“For too long, I have remained silent,” said Findling. “I was scared to be labeled as ‘one of those women’ and I was afraid I wouldn’t get another job.”
But she felt “inspired” by the nationwide reckoning with sexual harassment of recent months and compelled by her Jewish values to “speak out with integrity and stand up for what is right.”
“My hope is that my experience will help empower other women in the Jewish community to speak out,” she said. Directly addressing other potential victims she said: “Your voice will enable our community to stop a terrible cycle of sexual harassment and complicity.”
Somerville said Findling’s story is what inspired her to come forward.
A Disturbing Pattern
In the days since Findling publicly named Robinson as her harasser, several more women have come forward to The NJ Jewish News with first-hand accounts of Robinson’s troubling behavior patterns stretching back decades.
Mindy Berkowitz, the executive director of Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley, worked under Robinson at the JCC of Phoenix, Ariz., from 1984 to `87.
“He had a reputation for harassing cute blondes,” said Berkowitz told The NJ Jewish News. “Among the women in the office, everyone knew: You can never be alone with Len.” Female employees would “leave work early because no one wanted to be left alone in the building with him.”
“Back then, JCC was an old boys’ network. Men in the field got away with so much.”
Though Berkowitz, who was in her late 20s at the time, was never personally propositioned by Robinson, she said she was “made to feel very uncomfortable at work on a regular basis.” Robinson awarded special privileges and attention to a woman on staff with whom he was allegedly having a very public affair, she recalled.
Berkowitz, who has dedicated her career to Jewish nonprofit work, said that, at the time, there was “no recourse” if the perpetrator was the executive. “Back then, JCC was an old boys’ network. Men in the field got away with so much.”
Len Miller, former president of the Phoenix JCC, told The NJ Jewish News that Robinson was “let go” after “several” accusations of sexual misconduct were brought to his attention.
“There were several instances where we had to have a talk with him [Robinson] after we heard from several different sources of sexual relationships he had with staff and community members,” said Miller.
(He later added that the relationships were “consensual” to the best of his knowledge.)
When confronted, Robinson repeatedly denied any misconduct, Miller said. “He said it wasn’t true, but it was obvious to us that there were serious improprieties. We told him it was time for him to look for another job.”
Shortly thereafter, Robinson was hired as an assistant director at the JCC of Greater Los Angeles, where he eventually rose to the position of executive director. The job in L.A. led to his hiring in 1993 as the head of NJY Camps.
“No one from L.A. contacted us for references,” said Miller. He put in a call to one of the board members at the time of the Los Angeles JCC. “We tried to warn them.” He never received a call back.
‘Shocking’ Conduct On Camp Grounds
Shelley Feingold, a New Jersey-based mental health professional, worked as a division head at Camp Nah-Jeh-Wah during Robinson’s first two years on staff. Though Feingold, who was 40 at the time, joked that she was “not in his age demographic,” she witnessed Robinson engage in “concerning, inappropriate and illegal conduct with female minors.”
She told The NJ Jewish News that he would invite young female counselors to “unwind” with him in a local sports bar after-hours. He would “buy pitchers of beer for underage female counselors” and drink and joke with them late into the night.
“I thought it was interesting that counselors could be fired for being found with alcohol on camp grounds, but Len felt perfectly comfortable buying drinks for 17-, 18- and 19-year-old girls,” she said.
Robinson made no effort to keep his seemingly inappropriate behavior under wraps, she recalled.
As further allegations have unfolded against Robinson, Feingold said she is “not surprised.”
“This man spent his entire career victimizing women, and people were afraid to speak up,” she said. “There are definitely young women out there who have been victimized by this man and who have not yet come forward.”
She finds the board’s claim that no allegations were brought to light during Robinson’s 25-year tenure at NJY Camps to be “very unlikely.”
“If anyone on the board did know, they should be ashamed of themselves,” she said. “This type of behavior destroys lives.”
Rachel Dawn Davis, a New Jersey-based mother of two and alumna of Camp Nah-Jeh-Wah and Cedar Lake Camp, worked in the Cedar Lake Camp office during the summer of 1997. She recalled a strange incident involving Robinson.
“He [Robinson] would come into the office every now and again to hit on two women on staff, both of whom were married,” Davis, who was 15 at the time, told The NJ Jewish News. “I remember one day he invited them to come visit his private house on the grounds. They rode off on the back of his golf cart.” When the two women returned to the office later in the afternoon, she recalled that “their hair was all over the place and they were acting drunk. They were all shrill about him [Len] being ‘inappropriate’ and ‘wild.’”
One of the women, whose name Davis recalled, has not yet responded to The NJ Jewish News’ request for comment.
‘Finger Pointing’ and ‘Broken Telephone’
Since Robinson’s abrupt resignation last week, the JCC Association of North America released a statement renouncing Robinson’s alleged behavior.
“Such behavior cannot and will not be tolerated in any JCC Association camp or institution,” wrote president and CEO Doron Krakow in the statement, released the day after Robinson’s forced resignation.
Krakow, who took up his post as president and CEO of JCCA last year, said no complaints about Robinson were brought to his attention. His immediate predecessor, Stephen Arnoff, said he had never heard any complaints against Robinson and that he was “shocked” by the nature of recent allegations.
Still, questions about whether or not the umbrella organization knew about concerns surrounding Robinson over the course of his decades-long career at JCCA-affiliating institutions continue to hover.
An employee of JCCA, speaking off the record for fear of professional retaliation, said that concerns about Robinson had indeed surfaced over the years, but had always been lost or disregarded on their way up the institutional ladder.
This employee had personally been privy to concerns over Robinson’s “verbally abusive” and “bullying” behavior patterns — the employee had not heard of sexual harassment allegations, though she said recent news of the allegations were “unsurprising.”
“Reporting instances of abuse — sexual or otherwise — becomes a game of broken telephone,” the employee said. “I assume complaints were dismissed as ‘insignificant’ somewhere along the way up the chain of command.”
Speaking to The NJ Jewish News Monday, Krakow said that while the organization has “procedures for all kinds of complaints within the JCCA,” there is no official policy or procedure to handle concerns that arise from among the group’s 29 member affiliates, 15 of which are JCCs. Krakow stressed that all member affiliates are independent 501c3s and that JCCA is not responsible for handling matters that come up internally within member organizations.
Krakow explained the nature of JCCA’s relationship with member affiliates: local JCCs and camps pay annual membership dues in exchange for consulting services, networking opportunities and community-building resources.
In the umbrella organization’s most recent “Criteria for Affiliation,” standards listed do not include requirements for abuse or harassment prevention policies, a status quo that is representative of most Jewish umbrella organizations today, said abuse prevention expert Shira M. Berkovits.
“It is common for umbrella organizations to exclude basic standards on preventing and responding to abuse and harassment from their eligibility requirements,” Berkovits, an abuse prevention consultant for Jewish organizations, wrote to The NJ Jewish News in an email. The reasons for this state of affairs might include “outdated terms or a fear of introducing liability,” she wrote.
Still, umbrella organizations — “especially those with a history of abuse who understand how critical these standards are” — are beginning to require abuse prevention policies as an eligibility requirement, wrote Berkovits.
The JCC Association is currently in the process of reviewing all of its internal policies, Krakow said.
No official policy dictates how a member organization would be removed from under the JCC Association umbrella, a spokesperson told the NJ Jewish News via email. “Generally, our goal is to work with our camps to help them excel at what they do, not push them away,” the spokesperson explained.
Jodi Sperling, JCCA’s senior consultant for overnight camping, would be the “point of contact” if a camp affiliate had a concern. It would then be Sperling’s responsibility to “bring the issue to the attention of senior management,” though this method is not set in stone, Krakow explained. “Important concerns find their way to the top of the chain of command.”
Replying to a request for comment, Sperling wrote to The NJ Jewish News in an email that in her current role she has “never received a formal complaint against Len Robinson, nor have I ever been aware of any accusations of sexual harassment made about Len.” She said her role does not include “supervisory responsibilities” for camp professionals.
“Each camp has its own reporting mechanism in place so their employees can have a safe space to report harassment at any time.”
NJY Camps’ current harassment reporting policy is as follows: a staff member who “feels they are not being treated fairly” should discuss the matter with their “resident director or the executive director.” Until last week, Robinson was the executive director.
Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director of CHILD USA, a think tank dedicated to preventing child abuse, said that umbrella organizations will frequently “do a lot of finger pointing” when charges of abuse arise from member organizations. (Hamilton is an independent expert and had no firsthand knowledge of Robinson’s case.)
“Look at the U.S. Olympic Committee,” she said, referring to the most recent scandal in which former USA Gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar was accused of molesting 265 girls and women. In the Jewish community, the same pattern has been seen from umbrella organizations like the Orthodox Union and United Synagogue Youth, both of which have in past cases deferred responsibility when issues of sexual harassment arose in their member affiliates.
“Somehow, umbrella groups claim that because they are so busy organizing everyone else, they are not responsible for wrongdoing taking place right under their own nose,” Hamilton said.
A spokesperson for NJY Camps, speaking on behalf of the board, said that plans for a full “independent investigation” are already underway. The organization has already reached out to several law firms, he said.
When asked about the necessity of an investigation, given the board’s assertion that no allegations were made against Robinson during his time at NJY Camps, the spokesperson said: “Nothing was reported. That doesn’t mean nothing happened.”