Nineteen critics of convicted sex offender and former Orthodox Union youth leader Rabbi Baruch Lanner have signed a letter excoriating a respected rabbi, saying that he withheld for more than a decade a 1989 rabbinical court ruling that found Lanner guilty of abuse.
The January 24 letter accuses Rabbi Mordechai Willig, a highly regarded spiritual leader at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, of sharing the rabbinical court’s findings against Lanner only with select individuals who apparently “did nothing to remove him from children.” It also accuses Willig of pressuring one of Lanner’s accusers, Elie Hiller, to write a letter of apology.
According to the letter, Willig, who in 1989 led the New Jersey-based rabbinical court, or beit din, fed the public perception that Lanner was innocent while Lanner continued to have contact with children. Signed mostly by alleged Lanner victims and their families, the letter comes after a meeting earlier this month in which attendees say Willig stated, for perhaps the first time in so public a forum, that Lanner was found guilty of some of the charges brought against him in 1989.
“Rabbi Willig prioritized the reputation of a rabbinic colleague — a colleague who he knew was abusing kids — ahead of the safety of children,” says the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Forward.
Willig, head of the Wexner Kollel Elyon, a prestigious post-rabbinical institute at Y.U.’s affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, denied the charges in a January 28 statement sent to the Forward. The statement was signed by Willig and the two other members of the rabbinical court, Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual counselor to students at Y.U.’s seminary and Rabbi Aaron Levine, professor and chair of the economics department at Y.U.
“Several weeks ago, we met at length with Elie Hiller and a group of concerned individuals to discuss their perceptions, concerns, and expectations,” the rabbis say in their statement. “The group conveyed to us then its strong feeling that some perceive that in 1989 our bet din had vindicated Baruch Lanner and vilified Elie Hiller. On the contrary, we never intended this regretful result. In fact, we informed the group that Lanner was guilty of a number of charges.
“Our commitment to meet with Elie and members of the group remains steadfast. We do not think it is appropriate to comment publicly at this time.”
And in a separate development, famed Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz has been serving as a consultant to Lanner’s defense team, according to Dershowitz’s brother Nathan. Nathan Dershowitz is one of Lanner’s full-time attorneys. Lanner is appealing his July conviction that he sexually abused two teenage girls while he was their principal during the 1990s at Hillel Yeshiva high school in Ocean Township, N.J.
Lanner, 54, of Fair Lawn, N.J., received a seven-year prison sentence and is out on bail pending an appeal. Nathan Dershowitz said his brother Alan might join Lanner’s defense team full time. “It depends,” he said, without elaborating.
The letter criticizing Willig is addressed to four Orthodox synagogues in New Jersey. It urges them to reconsider their sponsorship of a February 2 lecture at Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, N.J., in which Willig will speak on Jewish parenting.
A report prepared in 2000 by a special commission appointed to investigate the O.U.’s role in the Lanner affair stated that Lanner sexually abused women and teenage girls and physically abused boys and girls while he was a leader for decades at the O.U.’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth. The report also cited the failure of members of the O.U. and NCSY leadership to take effective action, allowing Lanner’s conduct to “continue unchecked for many years.”
The commission report also stated, for the first time in public, that while the beit din exonerated Lanner of some of the charges, “it also found some troubling allegations to be true.” The commission found that members of the O.U. and NCSY leadership “misrepresented” the findings of the beit din ruling as being “an affirmative approval for Lanner to continue his employment with NCSY.”
Before the commission report, the beit din had only shared its findings against Lanner with certain organizational and community leaders involved with the employment of Lanner.
Willig is one of three candidates frequently mentioned as possible successors to Rabbi Norman Lamm as the spiritual head, or rosh yeshiva, of the Y.U. seminary, according to sources within the seminary. Willig, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Riverdale, N.Y., is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on issues pertaining to the agunah, a Jewish woman who cannot obtain a religious divorce because of a recalcitrant husband.
The chairman of the board of Y.U.’s seminary, Julius Berman, lauded Willig’s role in the Jewish community. “He’s a phenomenal rosh yeshiva,” Berman said. “He’s helping mold the future leadership of Modern Orthodoxy and he’s doing a real good job.”
Nevertheless, at least one signatory of the January 24 letter called for the ouster of Willig from his post at the seminary. “He is culpable for allowing Lanner to continue,” said Shayndee Hiller of Hollywood, Fla., the mother of Elie Hiller. “I think he should step down.”
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of biology at Yeshiva College and professor of Talmud at the seminary, defended Willig and the rest of the beit din. Tendler said if indeed Lanner was found guilty of abuse by the rabbinical court it was up to the O.U., and not the court, to follow through with the ruling by keeping Lanner away from children. But Tendler added that if members of the beit din convicted Lanner and were informed that Lanner continued to have contact with children — as the letter writers allege — “it certainly would’ve been their responsibility to do something about it.”
But Tendler also believes that Lanner’s sentence was “overly severe,” especially since Lanner now comes under the provisions of New Jersey’s Megan’s Law — requiring him to register as a sex offender when he is released from prison. “He has been lumped together with the Catholic Church scandal,” Tendler said.
The letter regarding Willig was drafted after the January 8 meeting between members of the 1989 beit din and Lanner critics, most of whom have spoken out against the O.U.’s handling of the Lanner incident. According to those attending the meeting, Willig stated publicly, to everyone’s surprise, that the rabbinical court found Lanner guilty of some of the charges. His statement caused those in the audience to question why the results of the beit din hearing were never made public.
The letter urges the four Orthodox synagogues in New Jersey to pull their sponsorship of the February 2 lecture unless Willig apologizes and addresses these matters. The other three synagogues, all located in Teaneck, N.J., are Congregation Rinat Yisrael, Congregation Keter Torah and Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. Bnai Yeshurun has refused to pull its sponsorship, according to the synagogue’s rabbi, Steven Pruzansky. “It’s not even being considered,” he said. Pruzansky called the letter “highly inappropriate.”
“It seems discordant he’s giving speeches on parenting,” said one signatory of the letter, former NCSY participant Howard Sragow of the Bronx, who testified in the 1989 beit din. “Obviously the most basic responsibility of parenting is keeping children safe, and it seems to me he has little authority to speak on this issue.”
But those who signed the letter also distinguished between Willig and the other two members of the beit din. They claim that unlike Blau, who has been a highly vocal critic of Lanner since the beit din hearing, Willig has not come forward until now.
“Of the three of them, Rabbi Blau has done the most to try and right the past,” said another signatory of the letter, Jordan Hirsch of Teaneck, N.J.
The January 24 letter also protests Willig’s actions during the beit din hearing. It claims Willig demanded that Hiller, Lanner’s main accuser, publicly apologize for lambasting Lanner in a letter even before Willig heard any testimony. After the hearing, Willig and Lanner drafted a letter of apology for Hiller to sign, in which Hiller apologizes for “brutal language” and “unintentional factual errors.” During the hearing, Willig barred witnesses from hearing rebuttals against their testimony and credibility, the letter states.