Declaring that he is “not a monster” and acknowledging errors in judgment — but stopping short of apologizing to the girls he sexually abused — Rabbi Baruch Lanner was sentenced last week to seven years in a New Jersey state prison.
Rabbi Lanner, 52, once one of America’s most prominent Modern Orthodox youth leaders, was taken away in handcuffs Friday from the Monmouth County courtroom in Freehold, N.J., after delivering an emotional plea for mercy that invoked the Holocaust, God and his grandchild.
“The room was so quiet you could hear the click of the handcuffs,” said an observer who was in the courtroom.
His defense team, including new member Nathan Dershowitz, brother of the famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, filed an appeal asking that Rabbi Lanner be allowed to remain free on bail pending an appeal of his conviction, which could take months.
Judge Mary Catherine Cuff of the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court was expected to rule on the request this week.
Rabbi Lanner could have received up to 20 years, according to Monmouth County Prosecutor Peter Boser. Defense attorneys had asked for a four-year sentence.
The rabbi must spend at least a year and 10 months in prison before being considered for parole.
Rabbi Lanner, a divorced father of three from Bergen County in New Jersey, was convicted in June of endangering the welfare of the two girls — 14 and 15 years old — and sexually touching one of them in the early 1990s when he was principal of the Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township, N.J.
At the same time, Rabbi Lanner was a national director of the National Council of Synagogue Youth, the teenage outreach division of the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest Orthodox synagogue association.
The OU has admitted it failed to stop the rabbi despite years of warning signals.
New Jersey law enforcement authorities began investigating abuse complaints following an investigative series by The Jewish Week in June 2000. The series detailed accounts by former students who accused Rabbi Lanner of sexual and other abuse.
The students said they were routinely ignored by teachers and other rabbis, many of whom supported Rabbi Lanner and praised his magnetic ability to lead children to greater religious observance.
After the first story appeared, Lanner resigned as NCSY’s director of regions. Since then he has been silent on the charges and has declared his innocence. He refused to talk to the media during the trial in June.
On Friday, Rabbi Lanner publicly spoke about the case before being for the first time, sentenced by Superior Court Judge Paul Chaiet. Several observers in the courtroom who know the charismatic rabbi described his plea to the judge as “classic Baruch,” a dramatic and emotional speech.
“After lengthy introspection and self-evaluation, I stand before you shattered and destroyed,” he said, according to press reports.
“I am a religious person, despite whatever mistakes I have been accused or found guilty of. … I am not a monster, certainly not cold-hearted, and I don’t isolate and destroy children.”
Rabbi Lanner lamented his fate, saying that he is “a social outcast shunned by all. I teach no one, I study with no one. And the greatest tragedy of all, I learn from no one.”
Acknowledging that he will be barred from teaching children, Rabbi Lanner, who taught at The Frisch School in Paramus, N.J., in the 1980s, said: “Never again will I be entrusted with the greatest gift of all — the heart, mind and potential of a youngster.”
He did not directly admit guilt to the charges, but said: “I brought this upon myself … by poor judgment combined with impulsive behavior.”
Invoking God, he said: “I desecrated His great name. It is for this I am truly sorry and beg the forgiveness of all.”
Rabbi Lanner also said that he believes what happened to him is just. “Everything comes from the hands of God, and God is just.”
He regretted that his mother, a Holocaust survivor, had to be put through a second devastating trauma and that his newborn grandson would go through life with the name Lanner.
Asking the judge for mercy before his sentencing, Rabbi Lanner said tearfully: “Even as I mourn and pity my own wretched fate, my greatest anguish is for my innocent family. Your honor, what can you do to me that can possibly rival what I’ve done to myself?”
But Chaiet, according to press reports, said Rabbi Lanner deserved to go to jail “for abusing his position and inflicting emotional trauma on both these girls.”
The judge said he found the victims to be credible witnesses. “They both suffered greatly as a result of Rabbi Lanner’s actions.”
While acknowledging that the rabbi also has helped many children with their religious studies, Chaiet added that “along the way, he has apparently abused, battered and taken advantage of a number of people.”
Rabbi Lanner is subject to New Jersey’s Megan’s Law, which requires that a sex offender register with the local police authorities and the information be made available to his neighbors.
The younger of the two victims, whose names have not been publicly cited, attended the sentencing. Now 21, she stood in the courtroom and told the judge that Rabbi Lanner “destroyed my life and my family.”
The older woman, now 23, declined to appear. Boser, the prosecutor, said the woman feels guilty that she didn’t come forward to stop Rabbi Lanner before the younger woman was abused. She felt the rabbi “stole her faith,” according to Boser.
The younger woman’s mother told The Jewish Week the abuse her daughter suffered from Rabbi Lanner still troubles the family deeply. “He took away her teenage years, precious years that she can never regain,” she said. “We will carry the feelings of her torment for the rest of our lives.”
The Lanner case has been closely monitored by a group of Modern Orthodox Jews in New Jersey, many of whom have known and complained about Rabbi Lanner for years. They have maintained a Web site and an e-mail and discussion group for more than two years, sharing their views.
Despite the sentence, they are still concerned about the future of NCSY and the culture Rabbi Lanner fostered of emphasizing religious outreach and observance over all else. Several members of the group have been deeply involved in calling for drafting reforms for NCSY, and the youth group has adopted a number of these proposals increasing parental involvement and oversight of activities.
“Lanner’s incarceration should be considered a tragedy for the Jewish community in that an acknowledged talmid chacham [religious scholar] and man of great talent was allowed to go so far astray and become so corrupt,” Murray Sragow of Teaneck, N.J., one of the leaders of the Modern Orthodox group, wrote in an e-mail. “Those who failed to correct his behavior decades ago need to consider not only the plight of his victims who Lanner later abused, but also the loss to the community of such a [potentially] powerful force for good.”
Sragow said Rabbi Lanner is merely “the most egregious example of the dangerous culture that pervaded New Jersey NCSY, namely the notion of kiruv [outreach] at all costs.”
“If we allow ourselves to declare victory and go home happy because one man has been stopped,” Sragow went on, “we will be making a terrible mistake. The goal must not be the removal of a dangerous man but the removal of the philosophy that attracted and nurtured him.”
Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Yosef Blau, a leading critic of the OU’s handling of the case, agrees with that sentiment and called for the organization to provide psychological counseling not only for Rabbi Lanner’s victims but also his loyal supporters. The latter includes some rabbis still with NCSY who may be having trouble accepting the verdict and sentencing.
“There should be some attempt to get people together with the proper supervision so they can talk it out,” he said. “I would be very happy if the OU took the initiative.”
OU spokesman David Olivestone said the group offered counseling to victims early on and the offer still stands. He said if any NSCY or OU employee felt they needed counseling on the issue, “I’m sure they would get a sympathetic ear.”
- Baruch Lanner
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Ocean Township
- Mary Catherine Cuff
- Murray Sragow
- Nathan Dershowitz
- Peter Boser
- Paul Chaiet
- Alan Dershowitz
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- New Jersey
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