Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a convicted child sex abuser whose case is viewed as a milestone in raising awareness of abuse in the organized American Jewish community, has been officially granted residence status in Israel.
In 2002, Lanner was convicted of sexually abusing two teenage girls who were students in the 1990s at the Hillel Yeshiva High School in Ocean Township, New Jersey, where he was principal. An appeals court later dismissed one of two child endangerment charges against him. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, served nearly three years and was released on parole in early 2008.
He is currently facing a civil lawsuit related to the abuse in the New Jersey Superior Court.
The Law of Return, in principle, provides every Jew in the world with the right to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship. It stipulates, however, that the Interior Minister has the right to deny citizenship to certain groups of individuals, among them those with criminal records.
Lanner, now 72, requested citizenship together with his second wife. Rather than apply from the United States, where they were living, they arrived in Israel as tourists and then submitted their request for citizenship after landing.
By doing so, they were able to circumvent the Jewish Agency, which determines eligibility for aliyah applicants who submit their requests in the United States. The Agency tends to reject applications from ex-convicts.
Although Lanner’s wife was granted aliyah status, he was not. Instead, he received a temporary residency visa that will allow him to stay in the country while further background checks are being conducted on him.
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When asked for comment, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman said that as a rule, when individuals eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return have a criminal record, "We sometimes decide not to give them any status and sometimes decide to give them temporary status while examining their cases."
The spokeswoman said that a decision to grant Lanner temporary status had been taken during the period when Arye Dery, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, had served as interior minister. Dery held the position between 2016 and 2021.
"The details [of the Lanner case] will be thoroughly examined," the ministry spokeswoman added.
Lanner and his wife appeared in a celebratory testimonial video posted on June 23 by the law firm of immigration attorney Tomer Warsha.
With their faces blurred, the couple stood in front of a building that appeared to be the Interior Ministry and Lanner sang their lawyer’s praises.
“I had some legal issues in the United States and I never thought I would be able to make aliyah. I was told by Nefesh B’Nefesh that it would be impossible,” Lanner said in the video, referring to the nonprofit organization that facilitates aliyah from North America and Britain.
Lanner said “thank God” he was told by a friend to use the “very helpful” services of his law firm.
“They got it accomplished. My wife got full aliyah today and I got my A-5 and I’m on the way there, and with God’s help it will be completed.”
He praised the law firm for believing “in the right of every Jew to make aliyah, and they think that Israel should be the home of every Jew and nobody should be denied. And they stand by it. They’re not concerned with politics.”
A-5 visas are granted to people “whose lives are based in Israel.” They are often granted to those in the process of acquiring Israeli citizenship or permanent residency – in many cases, these are individuals who are married to Israeli citizens. The visa is given for a single year and allows its holder to work in the country.
In the comments below the video, numerous people who had worked with Lanner or been his students identified his appearance, voice and mannerisms, despite his blurred face, and expressed dismay that he was in the process of receiving permission to emigrate.
Following Haaretz’s inquiry to the law firm, the video was removed from its website.
Lanner’s case returned to the headlines last November, when four women filed a civil lawsuit in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County against him, the Orthodox Union and the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. The lawsuit alleges that the organizations allowed Lanner’s “willful, malicious and wanton” behavior to continue for years despite multiple complaints.
The suit was made possible following the lifting of an earlier limit on the statute of limitations on civil suits against abusers, which previously prevented such a lawsuit.
Hannah Katsman, an advocate for victims of sexual abuse in Israel and an immigrant from the United States, said that while Lanner was not technically a fugitive from justice – like some American Jews who have fled to Israel to avoid criminal prosecution – she was still “very concerned” about his presence in the country.
“Here in Israel, we have no sex offender registry," she said. "I worry that he will join a community and find a synagogue where people aren't aware of the danger. He should not be around young people.”
Katsman said that since the video was posted, she has spoken with Israeli Americans who knew Lanner and had interactions with him in the past. “They are all deeply troubled by his reappearance and the fact that Israel let him through,” she said.
According to Yadin Elam, an immigration and human rights attorney, the interior minister has the discretion to weigh whether an individual meets the criteria for being denied immigration based on the clause in the Law of Return that bars anyone with a criminal record who “endangers” the Israeli population.
Factors to be considered in that decision involve the severity and number of offenses, when they took place, the verdict of a criminal hearing, prison time served, release date, and how much time passes between release and the time of application. Cases that are denied by the ministry can then be appealed to the courts for reversal.
In practice, Elam said, “we know that the Interior Ministry has denied the applications of people who have a very minor criminal background. We’ve seen people who were charged 20 years ago for juvenile crimes, for theft or who smoked marijuana when they were 16 and had their records expunged, and they still didn’t get approved for aliyah.
“I think we should remember that some of the victims may live in Israel,” he added. “If we don’t let small-time thieves move to Israel, a sexual predator should be treated much more strictly than they are.”