Freehold, N.J.: She was 14 and an incoming freshman at a yeshiva high school in New Jersey. He was 45, a married rabbi with three children, and the principal of the yeshiva at the shore. He was also one of the most prominent Orthodox Jewish youth leaders in America.
Yet once a week, the rabbi would call the 14-year-old student at home, proclaiming his love and promising she would be his wife someday.
At school he would summon the teenager to his office, where he would grope her private parts while she sat powerless and disgusted.
That was the testimony from a New Jersey college student on Tuesday, as the trial of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the former principal of the Hillel Yeshiva in Deal, N.J., entered its second week in Superior Court in Monmouth County.
The student, now 21, graphically detailed how her principal and religious mentor (she was affiliated at the time with the Orthodox youth group Rabbi Lanner helped lead) repeatedly molested her. She said the abuse took place in his office in 1995 for nearly the entire school year before she finally challenged him and was expelled.
The woman was the second of three witnesses (including her mother and a second female former Hillel student) who testified against Rabbi Lanner this week.
Judge Paul F. Chaiet has ruled that the media cannot publish the names of the two victims or the mother.
Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor Peter Boser rested the state’s case on Tuesday.
Rabbi Lanner, 52, is charged with aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal sexual contact and endangering the welfare of a child in the incidents involving the two women. If convicted, he could face up to 40 years in jail.
Rabbi Lanner’s defense team was expected to begin calling witnesses Wednesday before a jury of seven men and seven women (two alternates). Contending that the abuses could not have occurred in Rabbi Lanner’s office because of its lack of privacy, the defense planned to call school employees to testify the Venetian blinds in his office were always open and that they never saw or heard any disturbances there.
"That fishbowl of an office is not a private office," defense attorney Tama Kudman told the jury in opening statements last week.
The trial is expected to last another week.
The short, heavy-set rabbi with close-cropped hair and glasses is a former leader of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the largest Orthodox youth group in the nation. He was also principal at the Hillel Yeshiva for 15 years until he left quietly in 1997 amid rumors of his alleged misconduct.
Through nearly three hours of testimony and cross-examination, the student testified how the relationship with the rabbi began innocently with his offering to help her with personal and academic problems.
But she said Rabbi Lanner quickly moved to putting his hand around her shoulder, then rubbing her breast and thighs during private meetings after he summoned her to his office during the school day several times each week.
"I always thought he was a little creepy," said the woman, dressed in a white blouse, black slacks and black sweater.
In later testimony, the student’s mother tearfully told jurors how she "was shocked" after first learning about the rabbi’s advances. She said she overheard a phone conversation between her daughter and Rabbi Lanner in May 1996 in which he told the girl he loved her and pressured her to say she loved him.
The mother said she tried to discuss the incident with her daughter, "who was crying but wouldn’t say a thing."
She tried to confront Rabbi Lanner the next day, the mother testified, and at first he refused to speak to her. He then denied he made the phone call, then said he made the call but did not say the things she alleged.
When the mother shouted at the rabbi and refused his demand that she leave, she said she was manhandled by two male school employees, one of whom was a rabbi and assistant principal.
Last week and early Tuesday, the first alleged victim, a 23-year-old woman (a former NCSY member and Hillel graduate) testified that when she was a student at the school, Rabbi Lanner touched her breast at least four times in his office during school hours. She said the principal also repeatedly called her at home when her parents weren’t there and made crude sexual remarks.
The two students and the mother testified that it was an investigative report in The Jewish Week in June 2000 detailing a series of allegations of sexual, emotional and physical abuse against Rabbi Lanner by scores of former NCSY students that led them to contact New Jersey law enforcement officials and press charges. Rabbi Lanner was forced to resign from NCSY the day the first article was published.
Much of what the 21-year-old woman alleged in court this week was detailed in a Jewish Week article in July 2000 about her alleged abuse at the hands of Rabbi Lanner. On Tuesday, speaking in a clear voice in the small, wood-paneled courtroom, she recalled that her first day in high school was fine and the rabbi was "very nice and welcoming."
"The only unusual thing was he talked right up in my face," she said.
But almost immediately he began making sexual advances, she said, noting that Rabbi Lanner tried to convince her to become more observant and urged her to stay away from her parents because they weren’t observant by Orthodox standards.
"If they weren’t the solution, they were part of the problem," she quoted him as saying.
A couple of weeks into the school year, the physical contact began, she said.
"He would bring me in close," she testified. "He would put his arm around my shoulder."
That confused her, she said, because she was taught that Orthodox men and women aren’t supposed to touch.
"I didn’t say anything but I knew it was wrong," she testified.
She said during the one-on-one meetings in his office and elsewhere, Rabbi Lanner kept going further, trying to "cop a cheap feel" by stroking her legs, waist, breast area and inner thighs.
While she was testifying, Rabbi Lanner sat at the defense table with his three-person defense team. He mostly stared without expression at the young woman.
She testified that he repeatedly called her at home.
"The nature of the conversations was always the same: ‘You know how much I love you,’ " she quoted the rabbi. " ‘One day you’re going to be my wife.’ "
She said she just "yessed him" to avoid conflict.
"Rabbi Lanner wasn’t the type of person you talk back to," she said, stressing that he had a penchant for yelling at her. "He was a pretty scary guy."
But by May she confronted the rabbi in his office and a screaming match ensued.
"I just wasn’t scared of him anymore," she said.
After the shouting, Rabbi Lanner "told me to get the hell out of his office."
She never told her parents about the situation, but she testified that she told Hillel vice principal Rabbi Steve Amon that Rabbi Lanner had acted inappropriately, without getting into specifics.
"He told me I probably did something wrong," she said.
In May 1995, the girl was expelled after cutting school and going to the local mall, where she shoplifted, she testified.
In cross-examination, defense attorney Julian Wilsey brought up her poor grades in her freshman year. The defense has sought to suggest that the accusers, who have admitted having had psychological problems, were seeking revenge on their former principal for punishing them academically.
The young women maintain that Rabbi Lanner’s disciplinary actions came after they resisted his advances.
Last week, for example, the 23-year-old testified that when she finally told Rabbi Lanner to stop calling her at home, he punished her with detentions, transferred her out of the honors program and forced her out of NCSY: blocking her attempt to go on a trip to Israel.
Defense attorney Marvin Schecter asked why she sought to go to Israel on a group youth trip headed by a rabbi who had sexually harassed her. She said she did not know the rabbi would be leading the trip and that she wanted to go to Israel.
In contrast to her testimony, which seemed tentative at times and vague on specifics, the 21-year-old student spoke confidently and in detail about her encounters with the rabbi.
She revealed that she stopped attending morning prayers at Hillel, instead sneaking into the school gym to attend an "Atheist’s Minyan" where rebellious students smoked marijuana and inhaled nitrous oxide cartridges, or laughing gas.
Her mother testified she sent her daughter to Hillel because she believed the yeshiva "would keep her as innocent as possible for as long as possible."