It began almost innocently. In the fall of 1995, on her first day of high school, “Marcia” — not her real name — was happy to be at Hillel, a coed yeshiva in Deal, N.J. A graduate of Shalom Torah, an elementary school in East Windsor, the 14-year-old chose Hillel in part because it seemed an ideal place to continue her quest toward becoming more observant after being actively involved in NCSY, an Orthodox youth group, over the previous two years.
On her first day at Hillel, Marcia was called into the office of the principal, Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who also served as director of regions of NCSY.
“I thought it was some kind of welcoming committee,” she said of that initial meeting. “He tried to come off very warm and caring, but I could see in his eyes this very distant, cold look. He put his arm around me and spoke directly in my face,” telling her how pleased he was that she was at Hillel.
Marcia said she wondered why he was touching her, having learned the laws of shomer negia, prohibiting contact between the sexes.
“I let it go, accepting it, and moved on because I was trying to make a good impression. “From there on,” she said, “it was all downhill for me.”
In an exclusive interview this week, Marcia, who asked that her real name not be used, told The Jewish Week that starting with that first encounter, Rabbi Lanner called her into his office almost every school day for the next eight months, always with the door closed and blinds drawn. At first, she said, he put his arm around her shoulder, then around her waist, always sitting very close and talking to her, inches from her face, telling her how beautiful she was and how much he loved her.
Gradually he began to touch her all over her body, including her breasts and “pubic area,” she claimed.
These sessions lasted usually for about 10 minutes, she said, during which she would “tune out.” Then the rabbi would dismiss her and, she claimed, call in the next of a number of students he had summoned over the loudspeaker and who were lined up outside his door.
“I would walk out of his office and never really say much,” Marcia recalled. “No one really did. It was always very uncomfortable and humiliating.”
During that year, she said Rabbi Lanner would regularly call her at home in the evenings to tell her he loved her and wanted to marry her — a statement Marcia’s mother said she overheard on one occasion.
The groping and fondling went on for most of the school year, Marcia asserted.
But she never told a soul.
“I was very confused at first. I feared him,” Marcia said. “Then I came to feel that this was my demon and I’ll deal with it. I never planned to tell anyone.”
All that changed several weeks ago when she learned from her parents of this newspaper’s June 23 report on Rabbi Lanner and his alleged abuse of scores of teenagers over the last three decades.
Marcia, who is now 19 and whose life has spiraled downward precipitously since that spring of her freshman year, finally admitted to her parents her claim that Rabbi Lanner had sexual contact with her. She wrote a 2,500-word personal account of her experience, titled “The Jewish Flame Burns Out,” which she asked The Jewish Week to publish (see excerpt, page 15).
Last Friday she told her story to Monmouth County authorities, filing a formal complaint against Rabbi Lanner. She is the first person to do so, according to Monmouth County Prosecutor John Kaye, who has launched a wide-ranging criminal investigation based on The Jewish Week article. (Kaye said published reports in the daily press last week of another woman pressing charges were incorrect.)
Monmouth County is where the Hillel school is located and where Rabbi Lanner served as principal for 15 years before leaving under a cloud of suspicion in the spring of 1997. A similar criminal investigation is being explored in Bergen County, where authorities are looking for minors with whom Rabbi Lanner may have engaged in illegal conduct.
Prosecutors say if their information is credible and can be proven in court, they will bring the findings to a grand jury. An indictment would lead to criminal charges against Rabbi Lanner.
Kaye told The Jewish Week that detectives and police will be interviewing former administrators, faculty and students of Hillel in an effort to identify possible victims of Rabbi Lanner’s alleged misconduct, whether or not they choose to come forward. The prosecutor said the investigation could include visiting Israel, where a number of alleged victims of the rabbi now live.
Marcia said she came forward because “it’s got to stop somewhere.” With her life deeply troubled, she said she has nothing to lose.
Her story is particularly compelling not only because she has filed a criminal complaint but because the events described are alleged to have taken place in 1995 and 1996, refuting the belief among some that Rabbi Lanner had not been involved in sexual contact with girls in many years. In addition, Rabbi Lanner has told other newspapers in recent days that he was wrongfully accused by The Jewish Week of alleged abusive behavior.
“I did not fondle anyone, even before I was a rabbi,” he is quoted as telling The Record, a daily newspaper in Bergen County, N.J.
Reached Tuesday by The Jewish Week, Rabbi Lanner preferred not to comment.
A Hellish Descent
But Marcia’s story also is sure to raise questions about her credibility, especially because she has been described as a troubled youngster by some who knew her, and she has been involved in substance abuse and criminal behavior in recent years.
During her two-hour interview at The Jewish Week, accompanied by her parents, the contrast between Marcia’s appearance and the story she told of the last several years of her life was difficult to reconcile.
Fresh-faced with an open manner, the events she described, and her role in them, sound hellish.
In the essay and interview, Marcia recounted how by the end of her freshman year at Hillel, she had stopped attending the daily minyan at school and instead joined other students in the gym each morning for what they called “the atheists’ minyan,” doing drugs. Her grades suffered. She lost interest in Judaism and God. Finally, after being caught smoking a cigarette in class, she and a friend snuck away to a mall, where they were caught shoplifting. Marcia was expelled.
She says she hated her parents during this period, blaming them for not rescuing her from her situation, though she had never told them of Rabbi Lanner’s behavior. She says she also may have come to believe Rabbi Lanner’s implicit criticism of her parents, who are not Orthodox.
“He used to say, if you want to lead a religious life, you have to leave everything else behind,” Marcia recalled. “He didn’t want my parents to have anything to do with me.”
Marcia’s mother says she once overheard Rabbi Lanner telling her daughter he loved her. She said the year Marcia was at Hillel, he often would call in the evening to speak to the girl.
“At first I was impressed that this principal took the time to check up on students,” she said.
One night, though, she happened to pick up the phone at the moment Marcia did, and listened in as Rabbi Lanner told her daughter he loved her and repeatedly asked if she loved him, too. “He kept saying, ‘tell me you love me,’ and Marcia finally mumbled, ‘uh-huh.’ He said, ‘I want you to be my wife.’ ”
After the call, the mother confronted her daughter but got little response. The next day Marcia’s mother went to school and demanded to see Rabbi Lanner. When he finally agreed to meet with her, he denied all of her allegations, she said, though she told him she had heard him on the phone the previous night. When she grew agitated, she said the rabbi threatened to call the police and have her removed from the school.
She and her husband say they feel badly now they did not go to members of the school board but said they believed Rabbi Lanner “ran the whole show.”
In the spring, soon after Marcia said she put an end to Rabbi Lanner’s alleged groping, she told her parents she wanted to go to public school, but did not tell them why. “I never even hinted at what was really wrong,” she said.
They reluctantly agreed, but said that after only a few weeks of 10th grade, she became a different person. She joined a “freak group” of students, dressed in black and painted her face with crosses. “We didn’t even know her anymore,” said Marcia’s mother.
She and her husband say they tried desperately to transfer her to one of several yeshivas in the area but were rebuffed by the principals, who said they heard Marcia was a “troublemaker.”
Meanwhile, her slide continued. Marcia became a heavy drug user and an alcoholic, and had numerous run-ins with the law. She said she began to mutilate her body and attempted suicide, and she underwent therapy and was institutionalized for several months. She graduated from high school but does not live at home, has no phone and only limited contact with her parents.
“Things seemed very hopeless to me,” Marcia said. “I felt there was no way out. I felt trapped.”
She now traces much of her troubles to her alleged encounters with Rabbi Lanner. “I felt like I’d done something terrible, but I didn’t know what,” she said, adding she came to believe she’d brought her troubles on herself and deserved rejection.
Some former teachers and NCSY advisers, though, say Marcia was a troubled girl well before high school, manipulative in her behavior, demanding a great deal of attention of others and saddled by a number of family issues. Based on her extensive and serious problems over the last few years, they say she cannot be believed.
But psychiatrist Samuel Klagsbrun finds her story, based on her personal memoir, which he read, “heart-rending and completely believable.”
He said victims “frequently turn to outrageous behavior to distance themselves from their upbringing, which they identify as completely linked” to the person who victimized them.
Klagsbrun, executive medical director of Four Winds, a hospital in Katonah, N.Y., that treats adolescents, said it is also common for “predators” to turn their victims’ problems on them. They may point to subsequent substance abuse by their victims and say, in effect, ‘look how he or she lives; how can you trust them?’ when they are the root cause of the other person’s problem,” he said.
He added that people who have heavily used drugs and/or alcohol have great difficulty making up a false story that is credible and logical. “Marcia’s story indicates that she is trying to recapture her life, and it is very persuasive,” Klagsbrun said.
Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital who also was shown Marcia’s essay, said it is always difficult to find one specific cause to a person’s problems in life. She noted, though, that Marcia experienced “a profound betrayal” and that it is common for “predators to seek out young people who are vulnerable, looking for affection and attention, and willing to absorb unwanted caresses, or more, for the ability to feel special.”
She believes Marcia’s story deserves to be taken seriously.
It would seem the Monmouth County authorities do as well, as they continued their investigation this week, seeking the names of area youngsters who attended Hillel or participated in NCSY when Marcia did, in the mid-’90s.
For now, there is no happy ending to Marcia’s story, though her parents cite some small gains. They say she has increased her contact with them over the last several weeks, and her mother attributes this to “the breakthrough” that took place after Marcia heard of the expose on Rabbi Lanner. Marcia’s father is grateful she is talking with him after shutting him out of her life for several years. And Marcia says she knows her parents love her.
“I put them through hell,” she said. “I carried that anger with me and lashed out at them. But I love them. I’m not angry anymore. There’s some awkwardness, though.”
Marcia volunteers that she is wasting her life, sleeping until 1 or 2 p.m. most days, then lying in bed for another hour or two. “I’m a non-functional person,” she said softly. “I’m stuck, and afraid to live.”
Once she had dreamed of becoming a child psychologist. “I love kids,” she said. “I love their innocence. But my attention span is completely gone.” One of her few pleasures, she said, is writing poetry, which she describes with a laugh as dark and depressing.
She says she feels coming forward with her story, as painful as it is, can help her regain some control over her life. And she has come to realize that keeping her secret was a mistake.
“It was my skeleton in my closet, but I was wrong,” she wrote in her recent essay. “My own silence was my destroyer, and this story is my salvation.”