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Lawsuit: Camp Ramah showed ‘deliberate indifference’ to camper’s sexual assault

Ramah officials refused to remove the alleged assailant from camp until police insisted, according to the court filing

A Conservative Jewish summer camp in upstate New York mishandled a 2018 incident of sexual assault between two campers, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court last week. The lawsuit claims that Camp Ramah in the Berkshires and Rabbi Ethan Linden, the director, “acted with deliberate indifference” and failed to report the assault to police, inform the victim’s family or remove the alleged perpetrator from the camp.

The complaint describes an incident in which the plaintiff — who the lawsuit identifies only as a female minor — awoke to find a male teenaged camper with his hands on and inside her genitals.

The girl reported the alleged assault to her bunk counselor but did not hear back from anyone in camp leadership. A guidance counselor arranged a meeting with Linden at the victim’s request, during which Linden told the girl that he would “keep all of this a secret” and would not tell the victim’s parents. Two weeks later, the girl asked Linden to alert her parents but he allegedly said that would only lead to more people gossiping about the assault.

“I don’t really think this is that big of a deal, he [the assailant] is just a horny little boy,” Linden told the girl, according to the lawsuit.

The camp released a statement to the Forward Monday evening: “The allegations concern the camp’s response to an incident between two campers, both minors at the time, in the Summer of 2018. As the plaintiff’s complaint notes, camp called the authorities and cooperated with law enforcement in this matter. We stand with all victims of sexual misconduct and recognize the courage it takes for them to come forward. Then, as now, Camp Ramah is committed to protecting the safety, health, and well-being of all campers and staff in our care.”

The lawsuit comes at a time of reckoning over youth sexual assault for both the Conservative and Reform movements. The Union for Reform Judaism released an investigation into sexual misconduct at its summer camps in February, which identified dozens of instances of assault and harassment through the mid-1990s. And the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism announced its own investigation and two suspensions in August after several lawsuits were filed, alleging that the organization’s youth division had failed to act against a staffer who had assaulted several boys.

The Ramah lawsuit was publicized Monday by ZA’AKAH, an organization that works to stop child sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community, after first being noticed by Tasha Kaminsky.

The lawsuit claims that the victim’s experience “was not an isolated incident.”

“There is a history of improper and inappropriate sexual incidents against female campers at Camp Ramah during the time that Defendant Linden was the Director of this camp,” the lawsuit states.

A bungled report?

Camp leaders eventually agreed to inform the girl’s parents, according to the lawsuit, but described the assault as a “little incident” and a “small problem.” Linden and other camp officials limited the time that the victim was allowed to speak with her parents, rebuffed her request to speak with them privately, and eventually asked her to leave so that they could continue the conversation without her.

“The guidance counselor escorted Plaintiff back to her bunk, while Plaintiff cried uncontrollably the entire way and continued to cry uncontrollably in her bunk,” the lawsuit states.

Linden, who has worked at four Ramah camps, was profiled by New York Jewish Week in 2017 as an example of a camp leader working to strengthen policies to prevent child sexual abuse.

“The core mission of the camp is to care for children,” Linden said at the time.

Ramah eventually reported the incident to local police, although Linden allegedly warned the victim’s parents that the boy’s family would sue them if they pursued charges against him. Police told the victim’s parents that they had sent an investigator to the camp, which the alleged perpetrator was still attending a month after the assault was reported, and directed camp leadership to remove the boy, according to the lawsuit, but Ramah declined to do so until a second visit from police.

The lawsuit does not identify the alleged perpetrator but states that a criminal case was brought against him in local family court.

Wylie Stecklow, an attorney representing the plaintiff, declined an immediate request for comment. The lawsuit states that the family first notified the national Ramah Commission, which oversees the Conservative camping movement, about their concerns with the camp’s handling of the incident in early 2019, but that the organization had not improved its procedures. 

“Defendants have refused to take responsibility or to take any type of preventative or corrective action,” the lawsuit states, “instead choosing to allow and propel sexual assault against minors.”

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