US Orthodox rabbis criticize Israel granting residency to convicted sex offender

Baruch Lanner, who served nearly three years in prison for sexually assaulting students, arrived in Israel as a tourist and is now applying for citizenship

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Baruch Lanner's mugshot and the exterior of the Interior Ministry building in Jerusalem. (Public domain; Flash90)
Baruch Lanner's mugshot and the exterior of the Interior Ministry building in Jerusalem. (Public domain; Flash90)

Leading American Orthodox rabbis on Monday night denounced Israel’s decision to grant temporary residency to an American rabbi convicted of sexually assaulting his students, and they called on Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to reject his request for full citizenship.

Earlier this month, the law firm representing the disgraced rabbi, Baruch Lanner, released a video about his case, tipping off activists about his immigration efforts. In the video, in which Lanner and his wife’s faces are blurred, Lanner praised the attorney, Tomer Warsha, for helping them, saying: “I had some legal issues in the United States and I never thought I would be able to make aliyah.” The video has since been deleted.

Lanner served nearly three years in prison for sexual assault crimes. Dozens of other victims have accused him over the years, but their allegations were not included in the indictments against him.

Lanner’s crimes were first uncovered by the New York Jewish Week newspaper, prompting an investigation in 2000 by Lanner’s former employer, the Orthodox Union, which found he was responsible for a series of incidents of sexual, physical and emotional abuse involving dozens of teenagers in his charge. He was convicted in 2002 of endangering the welfare of two girls during his time as principal of Hillel Yeshiva High School in Deal, New Jersey, in the 1990s.

On Monday, one of the leadership bodies of the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, sent its letter to Shaked about Lanner’s immigration case.

“We write on behalf of the Rabbinical Council of America, the leading membership organization of Orthodox rabbis in North America, to express our concern that convicted sexual offender Baruch Lanner was granted temporary residency status in Israel and that his request for citizenship is under consideration by your ministry,” the group wrote.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone who is Jewish or who has at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship. However, requests can be denied if they are “likely to endanger public health or the security of the State” or are “engaged in an activity directed against the Jewish people.”

In the missive, the rabbis declared that Shaked would be legally permitted or even required to refuse Lanner’s citizenship request on the grounds that he would represent such a “threat to public health and safety.”

“Lanner served nearly three years in prison for sexually assaulting students at a Jewish high school. There are reports that he committed an array of sexual, physical and emotional abuse involving dozens of teenagers for whom he was responsible. These cases continue to impact his victims as well as the Jewish community in North America,” the rabbis wrote.

They also said that permitting Lanner to settle permanently in Israel, which does not have a public sex offender registry, would allow him to fully integrate into society and potentially harm others in the future.

“Lanner is on the US Sex Offender Registry. We are very concerned that granting him citizenship would erase the relevance of this listing and enable him to disappear into general society, clearly a threat to public health and safety,” the rabbis wrote.

The letter was signed by the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Binyamin Blau, and the executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch.

Magen, an Israeli organization that advocates for sexual abuse victims, especially in the ultra-Orthodox community, similarly raised these concerns when Lanner’s case first emerged earlier this month.

If granted citizenship, “Baruch Lanner could tomorrow walk into any school and apply for a job and be given a certificate of good standing from Israel law enforcement and get a job working with kids,” the director of Magen, Shana Aaronson, said.

According to the Haaretz newspaper, Lanner and his wife arrived in Israel as tourists and submitted their request for citizenship after landing, thereby circumventing the Jewish Agency, which handles citizenship requests in the United States and tends to reject those with criminal records. Lanner had been living in New Jersey and Florida.

“The details [of the Lanner case] will be thoroughly examined,” an Interior Ministry spokeswoman said.

JTA contributed to this report.

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