Penn State’s Jewish community weighs how to move forward

Former Penn State University President Graham Spanier was forced to resign following criticism of his response to the sexual abuse scandal at the school. (via Creative Commons)

NEW YORK (JTA) — One unlikely venue for fallout from the Penn State University sex abuse scandal is the campus Hillel, for which now ousted university president Graham Spanier — the school’s first Jewish leader — was a fundraiser and vocal supporter.

On Monday, the Penn State community was stunned when the NCAA levied a $60 million fine against the university and a four-year postseason ban on its football program based on a university-funded report by former FBI director Louis Freeh released several weeks ago. The report looked into the crimes of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who is now awaiting sentencing for multiple counts of child rape, and alleged a cover-up by Spanier, iconic football coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and retired vice president Gary Schultz.

Paterno died in January at 85, Curley is on administrative leave and Schultz has retired. Curley and Schultz are awaiting trial on perjury charges.

The school has about 40,000 students on its main campus in State College, Pa., some 10 percent of whom are estimated to be Jewish, according to data collected by Penn State Hillel.

Aaron Kaufman, executive director of the Hillel, declined to address specifics about Spanier’s impact on the organization.

“The events of the past year have reinforced the need for students to be part of a caring and supportive organization where they can engage in dialogue and address issues that are troubling them,” he said in a statement to JTA. “As we prepare for the start of a new school year, we remain steadfast in our commitment to helping our students — and the entire university community — heal and move forward in a positive way”

But Bill Jaffe, a former longtime member and past chair of Hillel’s board of directors, said the former president’s role was large. In addition to regularly attending High Holidays services, Spanier helped Hillel secure major speakers, such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and make a case for larger on-campus facilities for the Jewish student organization.

“Clearly his energy and enthusiasm will be missed as part of the Hillel community,” said Jaffe, a member of the university’s endowment campaign executive committee. “I don’t think one can deny the impact he’s had on Hillel and therefore, if he’s not here and not involved, I would think there may be some impact” on the group, he said.

Jaffe added that he could not measure to what degree Spanier’s absence would be felt.

Sarah Meretsky, second from right, co-director of the Penn State Chabad, runs a number of programs throughout the year with her husband, Rabbi Nosson Meretsky, for the approximately 4,000 Jewish students on the State College campus. (Courtesy Chabad of Penn State)

Shortly after the release of the Freeh report, Rabbi Nosson Meretsky, director of the Chabad of Penn State, wrote in an email to students and alumni that the difficult period could ultimately lead to positive change.

“In Judaism we believe everything happens for divine providence,” Meretsky told JTA this week. The rabbi noted that it is no coincidence that the report came to light during the three-week period leading up to Tisha b’Av, which Judaism attributes to some of its greatest calamities.

“Penn State has to look at itself and examine the culture, which in my mind is not a bad thing.  Examining yourself and that process of teshuvah can be a good thing,” he said, referring to the process of repentance. “Penn State has not been destroyed … I think it will only become better.”

For the past several years, Chabad had a letter of support signed by Paterno on its website. It was taken down in December, but Meretsky said that was because of a web redesign, not the scandal. The new site does not yet have a section for such comments, but once it does he is unsure that the Paterno letter would return, he added.

As for Spanier, the rabbi recalled bringing him matzah just before Passover and gift baskets, or shalach manot, for Purim. He said he will continue to reach out to Spanier.

Outside of State College, Jewish alumni are dealing with their school’s new image, too.

When the scandal broke in November, Rabbi Efrem Reis of Temple Beth Israel in Sunrise, Fla., and a 2006 Penn State graduate, urged people to reserve judgment until all the investigations were completed.

“Now it is clear that my university failed me and, much more importantly, the victims,” he told JTA. “They allowed innocent children to be scarred and hurt in a place that was supposed to foster and encourage youth to reach new heights.”

The fact that Paterno appears to have knowingly turned a blind eye is especially painful, he said.

“Joe Paterno made me a smarter person and helped me to be a better rabbi through his generosity” through donations such as to the Pattee-Paterno library and the campus spiritual center, which housed various student religious groups, including Hillel. “Unfortunately, his error tarnishes his legacy so deeply that it turns me away from connecting and donating to my alma mater.”

Despite his reluctance to donate to the university itself, Reis plans to continue giving to Penn State organizations and the university’s Jewish groups. He said alumni need to step up their efforts for these organizations so they can continue to help students — especially now.

Dan Greenstein, a 2008 graduate and a former Hillel religious chair, said Penn State provided him with a lifetime of memories that no scandal can erase.

“None of these things can be tarnished by the apparent failure of administrators to act like decent human beings,” the meteorologist said, adding that “The perception of Penn State has certainly changed to the greater public, and that will undoubtedly take a long time to repair.”

Reis hopes campus Jewish groups can play a role, urging Hillel and Chabad to work together to raise awareness of child abuse and “to be leaders in a campus coalition to restore the image of the university through good deeds and acts of loving-kindness.”

Rabbi David Ostrich of State College’s Congregation Brit Shalom, where Spanier is a member, believes the media and public have drawn conclusions from the Freeh report that go further than intended.

“I believe that Graham Spanier is an honorable man,” Ostrich said. “When he says that he was not covering this up, I believe him.”

When Spanier, Paterno, Curley and Schultz first learned of the allegations against Sandusky, they thought they were dealing with a moral individual, the rabbi said.

“As it turns out they were wrong, and I am sure they all feel terrible about their failure to identify criminal and immoral behavior,” he said. “However, there is a big difference between being deceived or incorrect judgments and conspiring to cover up wrong-doing.”