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Jews reeling in wake of Penn State scandal

Philadelphia (Jewish Exponent) — Rabbi David Ostrich, who leads the lone congregation in State College, Pa., couldn’t bring himself to sermonize last Shabbat on the scandal that’s on everyone’s mind.

For one thing, it’s all too raw and too much remains unknown, said the religious leader of Congregation Brit Shalom, a Reform synagogue.

Then there’s the fact that one of his congregants happens to be Graham Spanier, whose 16-year tenure at the helm of Penn State University came to an unceremonious end last week when the university trustees fired him.

“The revelation of these terrible secrets has shattered the sensibilities of this community,” said Ostrich, who serves on the board of Penn State Hillel, which also counted Spanier as an ardent supporter. “Many people are walking around in shock, like someone kicked them in their stomachs.”

Indeed, Penn State’s football program, the whole university really, has experienced a shocking fall. As seemingly everyone now knows, the allegations that an assistant football coach sexually abused young boys led to the firing of not only Spanier but also the legendary Nittany Lions coach, Joe Paterno.

The scandal has reverberated throughout the Penn State world, touching the emotions of Jewish alumni around the country, state and in the Philadelphia community.

One example is Constance Smukler, a Philadelphia philanthropist and major donor to Jewish groups, whose father was a Penn state alum and supporter. The campus’ state-of-the-art facility — the Louis and Mildred Lasch Football Building, where at least one of the incidents of abuse allegedly took place — is named for her parents.

She was among those in attendance earlier this year when the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee honored Paterno and his wife, Sue, with its National Leadership award.

Rabbi Mark Robbins, AJC’s regional director, said that the Paternos were honored for their general philanthropic work and support of interfaith programming on campus.

“It’s all very sad because they had been great supporters of the underprivileged and things that had been important to the Jewish community,” he said.

On campus, Spanier’s departure is being talked about as a potential loss for Hillel, which serves a campus with some 5,000 Jewish students.

The South African native, whose parents fled Nazi Germany, ran the state’s largest academic institution, with 96,000 students, 24 branch campuses and a $4.3 billion budget.

He also had championed the current effort to erect a brand new Hillel building on campus, serving as honorary co-chair of the capital campaign to raise the necessary funds.

He also helped broker the deal that allowed Hillel to buy land downtown, just off-campus, according to sources involved in the project. Just two months ago, he hosted major donors to the project in his private box at Beaver Stadium for a Lions home game.

His removal as president doesn’t spell the end of the project, but supporters acknowledge that it poses a setback.

“I think it is sad for Hillel to lose a champion and a very effective university president,” said Rick Jacobs, a longtime psychology professor who sits on the Hillel board. Jacobs would not go into whether he thought Spanier should have been fired.

“Will he be missed? Yes. Will we be all right? Yes,” he said, adding that non-Jewish officials, including acting president Rod Erickson, see the value that Hillel brings to the university and should be just as supportive.

Though he had his critics, Spanier, a family therapist by training, has mostly received kudos for his focus on academics, even as the school was perhaps best known for its performance on the gridiron.

Sources and media reports painted a portrait of Spanier as a somewhat idiosyncratic character. He’s a magician, pilot, washboard player in a Dixieland band and an elite racquetball player.

But when it came to Penn State, he was very serious, overseeing the creation of academic programs, a celebrated honors college and new infrastructure projects on campus.

As university presidents go, Spanier also had a reputation for being accessible and had a well-known policy of responding to an e-mail from a student within 48 hours. He also made a habit of attending High Holiday services at Hillel and addressing students.

“Everyone respected Graham Spanier. He did really good things for the university,” said Ashley Gold, a 2011 graduate who was active in Hillel, spent her junior year abroad in Israel and is now a reporter for the Reading Eagle.

“Everyone in Hillel knew that Graham Spanier was Jewish. I don’t think the whole college knew.

“The situation has become so complex and so complicated, it’s so upsetting,” she said.

Sources said that when Hillel sought his help, he responded more enthusiastically than they could have imagined.

The Hillel Foundation has had a presence on campus since the 1930s, well before the university population swelled in the postwar years. But since the State College community is so small, Hillel has typically looked to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for the bulk of its funding. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia allocated $45,000 for 2011-2012.

By many accounts, the campus Hillel has flourished in recent years. But it still operates without its own building, holding most programs in a student activities center.

Supporters are trying to change that. Last year, Hillel purchased land in a downtown commercial district from Citizens Bank, in part through a donation by alum David Pincus, who is a member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood. Sources said Spanier played a role in making that deal happen.

Now the Penn State Hillel board is undertaking a $12 million capital campaign to erect a 30,000-square-foot building.

“He was very involved, he was very anxious to see it happen,” said Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, who has taken a leadership role in the fundraising effort at the request of his congregant, Pincus. “I think that in some ways, he has not been connected Jewishly in his adult life. This brought back to him a certain degree of connection to the Jewish community. He was extremely responsive to whatever we asked him to do,” said Cooper, who said he had been in email contact with Spanier right up until the day he was fired.

Sources also said Spanier had a pro-Israel orientation. He recently led a trip to Israel and regularly met with the consul general in Philadelphia.

But not everyone was a fan. In 2006, Spanier figured into a campus controversy surrounding a canceled, pro-Israel art exhibit. The school of visual arts decided to nix a painting exhibit by Elkins Park native Joshua Stulman, who created a series of works depicting anti-Semitism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism in Palestinian society.

In 2007, an attorney representing Stulman filed a federal lawsuit naming as defendants two members of the art faculty, as well as Spanier. The suit claimed that Stulman’s First Amendment rights were violated. Now living in New York City, Stulman said the suit reached settlement and he couldn’t discuss the outcome, but he said Spanier had failed to intervene when, Stulman said, he was faced with a clear anti-Israel bias.

“The institutionalized tendency to obscure or simply not report serious allegations at Penn State is systemic. It is my hope that, with the passing of Graham Spanier as head of the university, this will usher in a new era of honesty,” Stulman wrote in an e-mail.

As for Spanier, one question has become the elephant in the room: Did he deserve to go?

“From what I understand, it’s less a matter of this being his fault and more a matter of it being his responsibility,” said Cooper. “He has to take the fall for that. I don’t think anyone is saying that he was involved in any wrongdoing.”

The overwhelming consensus seems to be, whether he deserved to be fired or not, Spanier’s departure is a major blow to the university.

“I know it is a loss for everyone involved because he is a wonderful person who has become a very good leader for Penn State,” said Ostrich, who said he has spoken to Spanier since the fallout but couldn’t go into details.

The rabbi’s immediate focus for now is finding a way to move forward.

“We still have over 5,000 Jewish students on campus with a job to do. This has been a very traumatic event, people are shocked,” said Ostrich, whose congregation numbers 200 families. “The lack of information is putting a good question mark in everybody’s mind. There are a lot of question marks.”