'Tip of the Iceberg': How Foreign Sex Offenders Find Refuge in Israel

While the Interior Ministry says Rabbi Baruch Lanner will not be allowed to make aliyah, advocates’ group says about 100 rabbis, teachers and other figures who have been accused, charged or convicted of sexual abuse overseas have already found refuge in Israel

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 for the Allison Kaplan Sommer feature on sex offenders coming into Israel.
Credit: Photos: ingimage / Matan Mittelman. Artwork: Anastasia Shub

When Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced that she would not grant Israeli citizenship to convicted sex offender Rabbi Baruch Lanner two weeks ago, there was celebration and relief among the women living in Israel who say they were victims of his harassment in the United States.

Yet the cheering was tempered by a sobering reality. While Shaked’s statement that she had “no intention” of allowing Lanner – a former educator and leader in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) – to immigrate was an important statement, on a practical level it changed nothing.

Lanner, who was convicted in 2002 of abusing a student as principal of a yeshiva high school in the 1990s, still holds a residency visa that allows him to remain in Israel for a year. A new interior minister – and with the November election looming, change is a near-certainty – could extend that visa repeatedly, or even reverse Shaked’s decision and grant Lanner citizenship.

“Withholding citizenship is an important statement but it is mostly symbolic, since Lanner will still be able to live and work here. Without a registry of sexual predators in Israel, how will people know to be careful around him?” asks Marcie Lenk, who lives in Israel. Her history with Lanner dates back to her teenage years, when she was a leader in the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. She complained about him to senior rabbis in the Orthodox movement, but was ignored. She went on to testify against Lanner in a 1989 religious court proceeding, and was a source in the breakthrough New York Jewish Week exposé about him 11 years later.

Clockwise from top: Baruch Lanner, wearing glasses, next to Marcie Lenk at a New Jersey NCSY presidential election in 1982; Lanner when teaching at Frisch Yeshiva High School; and Lanner surrounded by high school and college kids at an NCSY event in May 1983.Credit: Marcie Lenk

Also, Lenk notes, in Israel, Lanner is “safely out of the jurisdiction of the class action suit that has been filed against him and the Orthodox Union. He has never admitted any wrongdoing at all, ” she charges.

Even more significantly, according to Shana Aaronson, who was involved in trying to prevent Lanner’s immigration since 2019 in her role as executive director at Magen for Jewish Communities, he “is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Aaronson believes there are about 100 rabbis, teachers and other figures who have been accused, charged or convicted of sexual abuse overseas and subsequently found refuge in Israel. When she began her advocacy work in this area and first compiled a list of such offenders in 2015, there were 30 – “and I thought that was an astronomical number,” she says.

The stories behind the individuals currently on her list vary. Some left a country as accusations piled up in one or more Jewish communities; some were charged with crimes; and others, like Lanner, were convicted of sex crimes abroad and even served time in prison.

Even if they are convicted offenders, there is no mechanism in place in Israel to monitor their movements or alert the public.

Rabbi Baruch Lanner in 2009.Credit: Florida Department of Law Enforcement

Raising awareness

Lanner’s high profile and long history made it relatively easier to quickly galvanize support in comparison to other cases, Aaronson says. There are numerous immigrants to Israel who were affected by his behavior.

This group helped pressure Shaked to take action. There are also Israelis among those party to the current civil court actions against Lanner (and the organizations who employed him) that are pending in New Jersey.

However, she says, addressing less public cases with fewer interested parties in Israel can be more challenging.

Awareness of this issue received a boost over recent years due to the case of Israeli-Australian citizen Malka Leifer – the headmistress of an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in Melbourne who fled to Israel in 2008 after allegations surfaced of her sexually abusing female students. She was ultimately extradited in January 2021, after an extended legal battle, and faces trial in Victoria on 70 charges of child sex abuse.

Malka Leifer in Jerusalem District Court in 2018. She was finally extradited to Australia in January 2021.Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

There is more room for maneuver when, as in Lanner’s case, an offender does not have Israeli citizenship and attempts to make aliyah. Under the Law of Return, potential olim deemed a danger to Israeli society, security or the Jewish people can be denied the right to immigrate. Problematically, however, Israeli law does not specifically define what “danger” means.

Magen, which began as a local organization founded by U.S. immigrants to identify and fight child abuse in the Israeli community of Beit Shemesh, has grown and expanded its mission since its launch a decade ago. It maintains a database of over 1,500 alleged and convicted abusers, and works with in-house and private investigators, Israeli police units, law enforcement in North America, South America and Europe, in order to prevent fugitives fleeing other jurisdictions from entering Israel and, when applicable, encouraging their extradition.

It is invariably a difficult task. “There are some prosecutors in the United States who don’t even bother requesting extradition from Israel for sex abuse offenders because, in their experience, Israel won’t do it,” Aaronson says.

Where removing the offender from Israel is impossible, Aaronson says they do as much as possible to raise awareness – alerting the communities where the alleged offenders are living and working in Israel.

A recent case, she says, involved an educator in the United States who had left behind a trail of victims.

“Horrifyingly,” she recounts, he managed to find a job as the principal of an elementary Jewish school in the ultra-Orthodox community. Ultimately, she says, “We put out the word about him and enough people called the school so they ended up letting him go.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In order to do so, however, organizations such as Magen rely on sources tipping them off about where an offender is living.

‘A year is a very long time’

Haaretz spoke with several women living in Israel who say they were abused by Lanner to varying degrees. Apart from Lenk, the women asked not to be identified by name.

Over the years, the women, who knew each other from schools and youth movements in the United States, had spoken of their experiences with Lanner to each other and followed his case. Some were sources in the 2000 Jewish Week article. Before he was exposed, when he was still a high-ranking educator in the Orthodox Union and at NCSY, some attempted to keep him out of their communities in Israel after it was announced he would be running summer programs for American youth there.

Marcie Lenk.Credit: Courtesy

Following his 2002 conviction and subsequent jail sentence, they viewed him as a closed chapter in their lives. Yet the revelation in Haaretz on July 7 that he was living in Israel, had been granted temporary residency status and intended to remain permanently took them by surprise.

One of them told Haaretz following Shaked's decision that Lanner's continued residency will require constant vigilance on the part of the public. "The problem is not solved,” she warned. “Over the past four decades, Lanner has proven himself to be resourceful and relentless in matters of self-preservation. I’m certain he will spend much time, energy and resources in finding ways to stay here longer.”

She adds: “Even if Lanner were to be successfully evicted, the problem of the lacuna in aliyah policies remains. This lacuna has been used by many offenders before him and needs urgently to be closed up, lest we become even more of a haven for sexual offenders. We desperately need a sex registry, comparable to the U.S.’ Megan’s law. It is untenable to allow sexual criminals – especially those who, like Lanner, have expressed no remorse – to settle in freely to unsuspecting communities.”

P., another woman involved in the group, is “relieved and thankful” that Lanner was denied citizenship, and gratified by the support shown by organizations and individuals who petitioned Israeli leaders to act.

At the same time, P. says, “I’m not comfortable with Lanner living in Israel and that we won’t be notified where he lives, with the possibility that he could move into my neighborhood.”

She is also “very concerned that the next government will grant him citizenship or extend his visa – that could too easily happen. It is unsettling,” she says.

Aaronson sees a major flaw in the Interior Ministry’s thinking on Lanner, who is able to retain his residency status despite being unable to become an Israeli citizen.

The right of return that offers Israeli citizenship to Jews, she says, “is a very basic right. If you’re not going to give somebody aliyah status, then it really needs to be for a good reason. The Israeli government only decides someone should be denied this right because they’ve been convicted of a crime that could deem them a danger to the Israeli public. Clearly, they have now determined [that Lanner] is a danger. So if he’s so dangerous, why the hell are they giving him a residency visa? If he’s dangerous, he shouldn’t be allowed to live here; you don’t let dangerous people live in your country. If he’s not, you shouldn’t deprive him of his right – let him make aliyah. You can’t have it both ways.”

The Interior Ministry had not responded to a request for comment by press time.

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