Jimmy Cohen was a legend to the 47 Jewish teenagers who rode a big tour bus across the United States together in the summer of 1997.
The bus trip, officially Bus B of USY on Wheels, Conservative Judaism’s official teen tour, was a six-week-long excuse for the 16-year-olds to hang out, make friends, make out, and see the country. Cohen, 26, was their favorite counselor.
During the final weeks of the trip, Cohen molested four 16-year-old participants, three of them in their sleep.
Cohen spent nearly a decade in prison for his crimes. Yet until now, the 1997 sexual assaults of the four United Synagogue Youth members were part of a forgotten history of the Conservative movement, not even known by its current leadership.
This #MeToo moment has resurfaced the story, as alumni of that trip and the men who Cohen molested have begun talking about it again. Today, they have demands: an acknowledgment of what happened, and a guarantee that USY will work to prevent the same thing from happening to others.
USY’s parent organization, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says that both its leadership and protocols have changed. “Those of us who are responsible for youngsters and their families in 2018… are obligated to create a safe environment where our USYers can meet other Jewish teens, where they can take part in building meaningful Jewish communal experiences, grow, learn and have fun,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, USCJ’s current CEO. “I think we’re all clear that while we seek to learn from these horrific experiences that previous generations’ members were subjected to, those in positions of responsibility today cannot be held responsible for events that occurred decades ago.”
But some of the men Cohen molested, and some of their friends, say that Conservative Judaism shielded itself that summer, rather than helping the teenagers assaulted under its nose. And one expert said that its current policies still don’t do enough to ensure that abusers are stopped.
“My opinion of USY is that they have a tendency to want to protect the USY brand first,” one of the alumni of Cohen’s trip, Gil Varod, told the Forward. “That’s their No. 1 MO. And I have felt like that for years.”
Cohen disappeared one morning in Skokie, Illinois, just before the end of trip in August. He was there one morning, locked up in his hotel room soon after and then totally gone. The official word was that there had been a family crisis.
Back at home a few weeks later, FBI agents started knocking on the USYers’ doors.
‘Jimmy Cohen Is My Hero But His Feet Smell’
Bus B swept down the East Coast on its six-week journey, cutting west through Texas, north through California and then back east through Chicago. The group stopped at Yellowstone and the Alamo, sleeping in Holiday Inns and cabins and family homes, sneaking out at night and getting into trouble. In pictures from the summer, the campers look like typical ’90s kids: baggy T-shirts, jean shorts, lots of baseball caps. At Mount Rushmore, they posed together for pictures in front of the presidents’ big stone heads.
Cohen hung out like one of the guys. He chilled in their rooms, talked about how he needed to get laid and even wrestled with them. Early in the trip, at a hotel pool in San Francisco, Cohen pulled off the bathing suit of one of the campers, a 16-year-old from Westchester County, New York, named Sam Wolloch. “I was like, ‘That’s kind of weird,’” Wolloch said. “Like, ‘This guy’s crazy.’”
The boys recognized that Cohen was pushing boundaries. But while they may have thought his behavior unusual, they didn’t see it as worrying. It reminded them of the sort of roughhousing that was common at the Jewish summer camps they had attended when they were younger, places where naked streaking was not unusual and where counselors inflicted wedgies on campers as a sort of rite of passage.
“We all felt comfortable with each other, and I took advantage of that,” Cohen said in an interview with the Forward.
By the last weeks of the trip, Cohen had succeeded in ingratiating himself with the boys. When they had to memorize the melody for the chanting of the Book of Lamentations, one of the summer’s Jewish chores, they learned the tune to a bit of doggerel about Jimmy: “Jimmy Cohen is my hero / But his feet smell.”
‘White As A Ghost’
On August 9, 1997, Bus B spent the night at a Holiday Inn in Skokie. Late that evening, Wolloch left his room to meet up with a girl. They sneaked down to the hotel sauna together and stayed there for about an hour. Afterward, around 2:30 a.m., Wolloch, not ready to go to bed, was hanging around a hallway when he saw Cohen leaving another camper’s room.
Wolloch thought that was strange. He wondered if his absence had been noticed, and if Cohen was looking for him. He remembers hiding from Cohen. Moments later, the camper emerged from his room, looking stricken.
“He looked white as a ghost,” Wolloch said.
The camper told Wolloch that he had just woken up to find Cohen molesting him. Cohen had performed oral sex on the camper while the camper was sleeping. When the camper woke, Cohen told him it had been a dream.
Wolloch’s memory and the court documents differ slightly here on the sequence of events that night. But they both confirm that Wolloch responded to his fellow camper’s revelation with a revelation of his own: A little more than a week earlier, when the bus was in Yellowstone, Cohen had put his hands in Wolloch’s underwear while Wolloch was asleep. Cohen had done the same to Wolloch’s bunkmate.
Back home, Wolloch was about to start at a new high school. He says it was a weird time in his life. USY, which runs programs through the year at Conservative synagogues, had been a social boon, a place to make friends and get involved. On the trip, he’d formed a particular bond with Cohen, who had been his favorite counselor.
At first Wolloch had chosen not to come forward after the Yellowstone incident. It wasn’t the first time he had been sexually abused in his life. “I didn’t really think anything of it,” Wolloch said. “I didn’t speak up. I didn’t really say anything to anybody.”
The camper Wolloch ran into late that night made a different decision. On August 10, hours after his assault, he went to Bus B’s head counselor to report what Cohen had done. “I was met with a kind of disbelief,” that camper told the Forward. “Which I understand. It’s something no one wants to believe.”
The camper recalls the head counselor sitting him down with Cohen and asking him to repeat his claims. Cohen argued that the camper may have been dreaming, and the camper recalls the head counselor agreeing that it was possible.
“It was as if I had done something wrong,” the camper told the Forward in an email. “That was a very difficult encounter, to report what happened.”
The head counselor, Rabbi Aaron Melman, who now leads a Conservative synagogue in Chicago, recalls the meeting differently. He says that Cohen was not present, that he did not take Cohen’s side and that he “definitely did not support Jimmy’s theory.”
‘Allegation Versus Proof’
What happened next is memorialized in an internal report now held in the archives of the USCJ. The organization would not provide the document in full, but Wernick, who became CEO in 2011, summarized portions of it in an interview.
Melman reported the camper’s allegations to Gila Hadani Ward, the administrator for USY on Wheels. On August 12, Ward traveled to meet the bus in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she spoke with some campers and fired Cohen. Ward called the parents of the three campers who told her Cohen had molested them.
She didn’t tell anyone else.
“I think there was a concern about, there was some discussion about allegation versus proof,” Wernick said, basing his comments on the internal report. “And I think that there was, there was a decision not to tell people beyond those directly impacted by what happened.”
USCJ refused to call the police. They didn’t tell the other campers on the bus or their parents. And they may not have fully warned Cohen’s home community.
Jules Gutin, at that time the leader of USY, spoke with the parent of one of the boys who had been abused. When the parent asked USY to call the police, the organization declined. The camper who first reported Cohen told the Forward that Gutin’s meeting with his father left the family feeling that USY was circling the wagons. “They [USY] were very defensive about it,” the camper said. “The impression was more that they didn’t want to get sued than they wanted to do anything.”
In late 2017, the USCJ severed ties with Gutin after an internal investigation into unrelated allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with a youth group member.
In 1997, the teen’s family did go to the FBI, which quickly dispatched agents to interview the campers from Bus B.
“It was weird,” said Rabbi Avi Olitzky, one of the Bus B alumni. The FBI flew Olitzky to Chicago late that summer for an interview. “I remember being really on the defensive, because I didn’t want to believe anything. I spent the whole time praising Jimmy up and down.”
Gutin did not respond to a voicemail left at his home. Jerome Epstein, leader of the USCJ at the time, referred questions back to the organization, saying he did not recall specifics and did not have the appropriate records. Contacted later, he said that USCJ had asked him not to speak with the media.
Reached via telephone, Ward declined to speak with the Forward, but said that anything she did at the time would have been done in consultation with the USCJ’s attorney, Howard Kalb, who is now deceased.
Wernick said that after the survivor’s family called the FBI, the USCJ cooperated fully with the investigation, turning over its files to the agency.
“What I see in here is that USCJ was very concerned about the safety of the people involved,” Wernick said.
Some of the Bus B alumni disagree.
‘Nobody Asked Any Of Us’
Even with the FBI visiting teenagers who had left its trip just days before, USY remained silent. In the place of official word, the Bus B alumni shared gossip, according to one of the alumni.
“The entire bus, including Jimmy, were in constant daily email communication,” the man said.
That man later disclosed to friends from the trip that Cohen had abused him as well. His friends convinced him to tell the FBI. He was among the men whom Cohen eventually pleaded guilty to molesting.
“USY never reached out to me to find out what happened,” the man wrote in an email. “They were more concerned with minimizing damage and liability to the organization than seeing if anyone else was abused.”
When some of the Bus B alumni reunited with their counselors at a USY convention that fall, the man says that the counselors dodged questions about Cohen.
“The impression I received was, keep quiet, don’t talk about it,” he wrote. “I assume they felt like, we’re never going to see him again. Why should we know what happened?”
By the end of the summer of 1997, Cohen had been fired by USY and was under FBI investigation. But it took until 2002 for federal prosecutors to bring charges against him. In the meantime, Cohen was free to go about his life.
Within less than three years, he had allegedly assaulted another teenager in the same Tampa, Florida community where he had worked as a synagogue youth director before the summer bus trip.
Back home, Cohen remained an active member of the local Jewish community. He opened a deli called Kosher Corner that catered Jewish events.
“I don’t believe that anybody in the community was aware of what happened until, I want to say, many years later,” Cohen said. He married a woman in 2000 in a ceremony at Kol Ami, the Conservative synagogue where he had worked as a youth director. “There were some very prominent members of the community that attended the wedding,” he said.
In late 1999 or early 2000, Cohen allegedly molested a 13-year-old boy whom he had met in 1995 while working at Kol Ami, according to documents filed in Cohen’s criminal trial. One night, shortly after catering the boy’s bar mitzvah, Cohen stayed over the boy’s family home. Cohen allegedly entered the 13-year-old’s bedroom and fondled his genitals. According to a court filing, though the boy’s parents were nearby, he feared telling them because he worried Cohen would hurt him.
Cohen told the Forward that he did not deny the incident, although no charges were filed.
According to a victim impact statement, the boy later attempted suicide, was committed to a mental hospital and was treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to Wernick, the USCJ’s notes indicate that Gutin had been tasked in 1997 with speaking to Kol Ami’s rabbi about the allegations against Cohen. The details of their conversation are not recorded. The rabbi is no longer alive. But the rabbi’s brother told the Forward that he recalls his brother being angry that he had not been told earlier about Cohen. “They did not tell my brother the guy was under any suspicion,” he said.
Cohen told the Forward that the rabbi later visited him in prison to ask if the synagogue community had been “affected.”
Kol Ami, in a statement, said that the congregation terminated Cohen after learning about the USY molestation allegations but could not find the date of that termination in their records.
“I was put into this experience and now must suffer for the rest of my life,” the 13-year-old boy said, according to a 2003 court filing.
‘I Regret The Negative Impact’
In early 2002, the FBI concluded its investigation. Because the molestations had occurred in multiple states, including Illinois, Cohen was indicted in federal court in Chicago. He entered a not guilty plea and was let out on bond. A trial was scheduled for February 2003. On January 3, 2003, Cohen’s wife called the police in their town of Davie, Florida, to report him missing.
Nevada Highway Patrol picked Cohen up four days in Las Vegas driving a Mercedes that had been reported stolen. He was carrying a loaded handgun, a fake North Miami Beach Auxiliary Police badge and a large amount of cash. He later admitted that he had looted $158,000 from his condominium association’s bank account.
At that point, it was all over. Cohen admitted on January 29 to engaging in sexual acts with four 16-year-old participants on the USY trip. He was sentenced in July. He was incarcerated until 2011, then put on supervised release. He went back to prison in early 2012 for violating the terms of his release, then was set free again in 2013. He is now a registered sex offender.
“It’s taken me years and years to come to grips with the effect I’ve had on people negatively,” he told the Forward. “It’s been 20 years now. And 20 years is a long time to think about that kind of thing. And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t. I don’t regret going to prison and I don’t regret being caught. I regret the negative impact I had on somebody’s life, when I really should have been nothing but positive.”
‘The Jimmy Rules’
Even as it was handling the Jimmy Cohen situation in mid-1997, USY began girding itself against future abusers. The organization adopted new staff guidelines that seem to have been written not only to reduce opportunities for abuse, but also to change the culture of casual physical contact between staff and students.
The new rules explicitly banned “horseplay” and “noogies” by counselors, along with any other “unnecessary physical conduct.” They instituted a Boy Scouts of America policy called “two-deep leadership,” which meant that staffers had to work in pairs. Other new rules included a ban on “one-on-one-contact” between staff and USY members. Personal conversations were to be held in public spaces. Staff members were barred from sleeping in students’ rooms, something that had been common practice in USY’s earlier days.
Wernick said that, to the best of his knowledge, the 1997 rules were written in direct response to the Jimmy Cohen incident. Olitzky, who became a USY staff member in 1999, said that he recalls referring to the regulations as “The Jimmy Rules.” Just two years after the incident, Olitzky says, the culture of the organization seemed to have changed radically, with new boundaries between the staff and the campers in the summer of 1997.
“It used to be friend first, staff second,” Olitzky said. “At least to me, it would seem that summer was a turning point in that transition.”
‘Excellence In The Field’
When Wernick arrived as leader of the USCJ in 2011, he ordered up new staff protocols for handling sexual abuse allegations. The organization maintains that they are best-in-class.
“The standards today, the best practices today, are wholly different than what they were in 1997 or even 2003,” Wernick said. The current rules “come from a great understanding of what is excellence in the field.”
But one expert has concerns.
Since 2011, USCJ has done background checks on all staff and volunteers who work with children. All major USY events have a designated youth protection officer to whom teen participants are told to report suspected abuse, harassment, bullying or other safety matters.
But the current protocols do not require that any staff member who becomes aware of an allegation of sexual abuse contact authorities. Instead, they require staff to report sexual abuse internally to the youth protection officers. “We’ve created a process where especially incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment are reported within 24 hours,” Wernick said. “Once that report is made, within 24 hours we expect there to be an incident report that is submitted to HR, and then HR determines what the next steps are.”
Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a think tank to end child abuse and neglect, said that requiring adults who suspect abuse to go directly to authorities is a “critically important element.”
“Reporting to the authorities has become the most basic of requirements,” Hamilton said. “Anybody over the age of maturity must be required to go to the authorities.”
The Boy Scouts’ child abuse prevention policy requires anyone involved in the organization to report suspicions of child abuse to local authorities, and only afterward to notify Boy Scouts officials.
“The only way to get the poison out of the system is for the authorities who are trained in this, and are the experts in this, to get involved,” Hamilton said. “It’s only when authorities come into the picture that there is a possiblity of real protection of children.”
Wernick defended the protocols, saying that the youth protection officer position exists so that USY members can know that there is someone at all their major events to report suspected issues. “They are usually the people who are most in contact with the USYers and are, therefore, the most accessible to them and likely the first person with whom the teens would report such incidents,” Wernick said.
He said that they expect that staff will report any allegations to the organization. “When those allegations are made, everyone can expect that there will be follow-up,” he said.
‘I Have A Happy Life’
Today, the Bus B alumni are in their mid-30s. Some still have close ties to the Conservative movement and its institutions. A number are prominent rabbis, including Melman, Olitzky, and Rabbi Rachel Ain, a counselor on the trip who now leads a Manhattan synagogue and who did not respond to requests for comment.
Others have drifted away. And a few say they are still waiting to hear from USY.
“It’s a lot harder for people to be angry with you when you’re upfront about the mistakes and problems that occurred,” one alumna told the Forward. “People become far more frustrated or angry when it’s years or sometimes decades later when they learn an organization was trying to sweep something under the table.”
The man who first reported Cohen’s abuse told the Forward that the incidents of 1997 were behind him. “I think that, because I reported it right away, it wasn’t, like, festering in me. So I was able to move on pretty quickly,” he said. “I have a happy life.”
More than two decades later, the senior leaderships of USY and the USCJ have turned over. None of the decision-makers from that summer are still active in the leadership of the Conservative movement. But the perception among some of the alumni of that trip that the organization tried to hush up the Jimmy Cohen affair at the time has left a legacy of ill feelings and mistrust.
“We were never contacted. Our parents were never contacted,” Varod one of the bus trip alumni, said. “Nobody has ever made the effort to do some sort of reassurance, [to say], ‘Hey, just to let you know, when you have kids, don’t worry, we’re a different USY than we used to be.”
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Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.