Rabbi Baruch Lanner is due to be paroled this week.
Yochanan Lavie, a frequent FailedMessiah.com commenter, tells the story of his teenage encounters with rabbinic child abuser Rabbi Baruch Lanner.
These encounters include Lanner kneeing boys in the groin and Lanner sobbing about his own abusive childhood.
Read it all, after the jump:
My Encounters With Rabbi Baruch Lanner
By Yochanan Lavie
After my family moved around the corner to an Orthodox synagogue, I was attracted to, and envious of, Sabbath observance. Reform Judaism seemed pallid and churchy to me. The Hertz Chumash used back then in our Reform synagogue was a subversive text. It spoke to me; that one could believe in the Torah as divine revelation and not be a knuckle-dragger. My study of Jewish history and lore also convinced me that Orthodox Judaism was more authentic. An article in The Village Voice by Carol Getzoff called “Tripping Out on Torah,” about ex-hippies becoming Lubavitchers made being frum seem cutting edge and cool. Also, corny as it seems now, Fiddler on the Roof was inspirational to me. So I stepped in to the Orthodox shul around the corner, not knowing what reception I would get, and started my spiritual journey. A year later, I convinced my open-minded parents to send me to Frisch, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school.
In short, I became a BT without knowing that the letters NCSY could be strung together in any meaningful way. I was fully Orthodox both ideologically and in praxis in high school. I didn't "convert" through NCSY. I joined NCSY in high school, because I thought it would be inspirational, and help me meet people. I was immediately drawn to Baruch Lanner. He was fat, dumpy, talked like a duck, and dressed in bargain store chic before it was fashionable. Despite that, he was mesmerizing.
Lanner was indeed charismatic. He could leave a room full of kids spellbound, by his intense emotional appeals. Although obviously very intelligent, he preferred to go for the emotional jugular. For example, he talked about his father, who was a Holocaust survivor. I remember one speech (I think in was a Shabbaton in Asbury Park or Seaside Heights- one of those moribund former resort towns). Here is a close paraphrase:
One day my father asked me, “Baruch, what word can you make with the letters of the word moshiach?” I didn’t know, so he hit me. So he asked me again. I didn’t know, so he hit me. Finally, I said “yismach,” pleasure. And that’s the answer he wanted.
In another speech, he was crying about how he used to hate his father, who would lock him in a closet so he could be good. (I couldn’t make this up).
His typical Shabbaton havdalah service would involve dim lighting, a slow, emotionally evocative tune such as “Ani Ma’amim,” a sob story about the Holocaust, a Baal Teshuvah who was having a hard time, or some such thing. It would start off low key and pensive, and then be built up into a screaming, fire-and-brimstone guilt trip. Sometimes Lanner’s partner in crime, Nate Siegel, would be the one haranguing the audience. Nate and Baruch screamed into so many microphones I am surprised they never blew an amp.
Suddenly, after the service, “Boom, boom, boom,” went the drums, and “Yibeneh” would play. The lights would go on and “spontaneous” ruach dancing would ensue in a fast frenzy. From slow, introspective, and mystical, to an emotional crescendo and then a fervid release of energy. For hormone soaked teenagers, this was quite effective; this, despite the fact that Lanner never deviated from this formula. Dear reader, it worked on me.
What about recalcitrant Shabbaton goers who were not into it? I remember one Winter Regional Shabbaton when the harangue went on for about two hours. (I was getting disillusioned and cynical at the time, so I kept track- even though part of me was still buying it). Advisors stood with their arms folded at the doors. If a kid wanted to sit down, or go to the bathroom, he was physically prevented. A visitor from the Southern Region of NCSY, who I knew from the Israel tour, was appalled by this. In his region, he said, it was friendlier and low-key. This is an extreme example, but not far off from the strict micromanagement Baruch encouraged his advisors to enforce at all Shabbatonim.
At school, and in NCSY, Lanner played favorites. Years later, as an adult educator, I know how inappropriate such behavior can be. At one Shabbaton, he announced at a kumzitz that so-and-so was “the best kid in the region-“his exact words. Then, he had that youth read aloud a personal letter he wrote to his advisor about wanting to keep every Shabbat. When the guy finished, Lanner said: “This is the best kid in the region!” Later in the year, at another Shabbaton, he announced: “Remember that guy I said was the best kid in the region? Well, drugs became a little more important in his life than torah!” He brought no proof to substantiate this claim.
It's Lanner’s charisma that makes him dangerous. He encouraged a cult of personality, both in NCSY and at the school. He always had an adoring entourage. At the school, they would joking sing: "Lanner, Lanner, keil rachum v'chanan," to the tune of slichot. Maybe it's not avodah zarah 'cause it's clearly a joke, but it was creepy. So was the big grin he would have on his face when they sang it. (This is not secondhand. I actually heard & saw this!) He would almost always be accompanied down the corridors by his loyalists whom outsiders derisively called “Lannerians.” Any other kid, who wanted to join the inner circle, but wasn’t hand picked, was tolerated but ignored. (Yes, haters, I was one of them- circling like a lonely moth around a flame).
That brings me to the story of my friend Danny Winters. Danny was, and still is, a model BT. He would walk two miles to an Orthodox shul, rather than daven at a nearby Conservative one. He kept kosher using his own dishes, because his parents were ambivalent about him becoming religious (although they did send him to Frisch, at his request). He was, and is, one of my best friends. Danny became active in the NCSY chapter of the shul he trekked to. One day, when Danny, Lanner, and I all had a free period, (and the entourage was not around) he told Lanner he was interested in running for president of his chapter. This is what went down:
Lanner: I don’t think you should become president of your chapter. In fact, I will do everything in my power to make sure you are NOT elected.
Lanner: Well, you’re not popular enough with the kids, and with the parents. Also, you don’t have money, or the ability to raise money. This chapter needs a lot of money in order to be successful.
That was the point I left NCSY.
But backtracking before that point, there is the salacious part: He did inappropriate things with boys, as well as girls. With girls he made inappropriate comments about breast size, etc. (I didn't personally witness it, but I know the accusers and they are of good character). I did witness him kneeing guys in the balls for minor religious infractions (like not wearing talit katan if they "knew better"). He dismissed that as "horseplay" in the OU report.
An example of his “horseplay” was inflicted on another friend, Bobby Wiseman. Bobby, like many teenagers, had conflicted feelings about religion. He was raised in an observant Conservative family, but was always sent to Modern Orthodox yeshivot. He was pretty much orthoprax, but Conservative in ideology, and angry at God. (His father was tragically murdered in a mugging a few years before I met him.) The way he rebelled against God was by making minor, sarcastic comments, and not taking the mitzvah of tzitzit seriously. (Despite that, as I said, he still was pretty much observant.) It was school policy for boys to wear a tallit katan, so Bobby found the smallest one he could find- a toddler’s training pair. It was actually funny- more like a necklace. But he became active in NCSY and had a religious awakening, and decided to deepen his observance.
Like Danny, Bobby would walk miles to the nearest Orthodox shul; forsaking the Conservative one he grew up in. He decided to get a real tallit katan, but didn’t own one yet. He was afraid his “necklace” was too small to be a garment, and would therefore constitute carrying if worn on Shabbat. He asked a teacher in Frisch, a chareidi rabbi who is very knowledgeable in halacha, who agreed it is better to be safe than sorry. Don’t wear it on Shabbat, he advised. Bobby was not safe from Lanner’s knee, however.
At the Fair Lawn Shabbaton, Lanner asked Bobby if he was wearing tzitzis. Bobby answered truthfully, no. Before he could utter a further explanation, an advisor pinned Bobby from behind while Lanner kneed him in the testicles. Bobby doubled over in pain. When I asked him if he was okay, he said he is leaving NCSY, and Orthodoxy, and returning to Conservative Judaism. I couldn’t think of anything to say to convince him otherwise.
As for Modern Orthodoxy, Lanner seemed a subversive element, to me. He had an articulate Chasid (I think it was Meyer Schiller, but I could be wrong) debate unprepared kids about Zionism. Lanner said, “You’ll see there’s just as much kedushah on the right- and perhaps a little bit more” than Modern Orthodoxy. Of course, the intelligent, articulate adult made mincemeat out of the naive, emotional Shabbaton-goers. (This was in Washington Heights- for some reason part of NJ Etz Chaim region). He encouraged boys to wear black hats, such as Geoffrey and Peter Brown, and girls not to wear pants (this despite the fact that he was a disciple of Rav Yosef Soloveitchik who permitted female-tailored pants for women; modestly, of course). He encouraged kids to learn at Chareidi oriented Baal Teshuvah yeshivot, whether the kids were BT or FFB. It is people like him, who look over their right shoulder, that have caused the charedization of mainstream Orthodoxy. Not a crime, to be sure, but not what a then-Modern Orthodox institution (the OU) should encourage, in my opinion.
As to his actual crimes, I did not know the extent back then, but I tried to warn people that he was a loose cannon. They didn't listen- citing loshon hara, making excuses for him, talking about the good he did, etc. Sometimes, adults would literally cover their ears and say “I don’t want to hear this!” An FFB friend said “Didn’t Baruch make you frum?” when in fact, this friend knew my history and conveniently forgot it.
I told a school consular about all this. She was horrified but knew she was powerless to do anything, due to Lanner's standing in the school. She said he ran NCSY like a cult. Other adults thought I was emotional, was exaggerating, etc. I wasn't the only one; Danny and Bobby and others tried to tell their stories. Until the sexual stuff came out, we were not believed. I was trying to be Paul Revere. But I was treated more like Cassandra.
Some would still justify Lanner, saying he saved souls. True, but many kids, both FFB and BT were turned off to Orthodoxy by him as well. One FFB said “Lanner is an asshole. He only thinks you’re any good if you made yourself frum.” Another commented on a BT kid who was courted by Lanner and abandoned when Lanner lost interest in him. I don't know what the ratio is of saved ones to turned-off ones, but I suspect it's at least a wash. I know it put a lot of doubts in my mind; doubts I have not gotten over 30 years later...
Note: Some of the names have been changed to protect privacy, but all incidents are true, to the best of my recollection.