Friday, November 12, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Milton Balkany

I Remember Milton. He and I were classmates and friends in Yeshivath Beth Yehuda in Detroit.

Beth Yehuda was the prototype for all ‘out-of-town’ day schools. It was founded by Reb Sharga Feival Mendlowitz who sent his prize pupils to staff it. Rabbis with names like Joseph Elias (the principal in my day), Avraham Abba Friedman, and Sholom Goldstein (the two vice principals) created one of the finest institutions of its type. They catered to all students - from right to left. From those who were born into Frum families to those who came from the most secular of backgrounds.

Rabbis Goldstein and Friedman made it their life’s work to bring Yiddshkeit to the city. They virtually dragged Jewish kids from irreligious homes off the streets. Beth Yehuda turned almost all of them in to fine Bnei Torah. I doubt whether any school has been more successful than Beth Yehuda. I am convinced that those pioneers all merit a very bright Gan Eden.

One such Bachur ‘dragged off the streets’ was Milton Balkany. If I recall correctly he came to the school in 7th grade. We are the same age and were in the same class. He was an instant charmer. He had a knack for making people feel good. He saw the underdog in a class and lifted him up.

Our Rebbe was Rabbi Yaakov Levi. He too was a product of Reb Shraga Feival’s. But he was more unique than anyone in the school. A virtual pied piper. I don’t think anyone else even comes close to him in influencing young people to be Frum. He was and still is an icon to virtually all men and women who ever had him as a teacher – including Milton.

Rabbi Levi was the most scrupulously honest man I ever knew. I recall him admonishing his class once about taking dimes (the cost of a local call back in the late fifties) out of public phones that had been left by callers who did not connect. Rabbi Levi told us that when he found a dime he redeposited it. He felt that it belonged to the phone company and taking it was tantamount to stealing.

This must be a very painful day for Rabbi Levi – who now lives in Israel. I guess Milton is apparently not one of those people who would re-deposit the dime. He did not learn that lesson from Rabbi Levi. Nor did he learn it from two other greats from his alma mater Mesivta Torah VoDa’ath – Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky and Rav Avrohom Pam. Similar stories about their scrupulous honesty abound. How disappointing it is that a man who in his youth was surrounded by role models like these and yet did not learn that very important lesson from them.

Milton meant well, I’m sure. He thought that his scam would be undetected - that nobody would miss the money and that the cash strapped Beis Yaakov of which he is the principal would be able to pay their teachers. But his intentions like those of many before him – have paved the way to hell. He is responsible for a massive Chilul HaShem.

He was found guilty of extortion blackmail, making false statements and wire fraud. The media is all over this story – both secular and Jewish. From Bloomberg:

Balkany, who was dean of the Bais Yaakov day school in the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, told the Connecticut- based hedge fund that he was the spiritual adviser to a federal prisoner in Otisville, New York, according to prosecutors.

He told a lawyer for the hedge fund that the inmate would keep quiet about alleged illegal trading by the fund in 2004 and 2005 if they paid his school and another school $2 million each, prosecutors said.

The lawyer instead recorded his phone calls and meetings with Balkany.

Balkany was arrested in February after taking two checks from SAC totaling $3.25 million. Balkany told an SAC official at the time that the inmate wouldn’t talk to federal authorities at a meeting scheduled the following day. No such meeting was actually planned, according to the government.

Aside from the fact that he is a crook I nonetheless thought Milton was a pretty smart guy. But apparently he is not. He was caught in another fraud several years ago when he misused $700,000 in government grants. He was never prosecuted. Prosecutors believed his claimed ignorance and he agreed to pay back the grant money… which he did. That was the end of it.

But he did not learn his lesson. Not from his past experience and not from all those who preceded him in various frauds and scams and were also caught and convicted. This time he was tried and very quickly convicted – despite having one of the brightest attorneys with a long track record of victories representing him. He awaits sentencing which may entail a 20 year prison term!

I am both angry and sad for my former friend. I truly liked him. I would have never suspected he would take the trek that he did. He was one of Beth Yehuda’s brightest success stories. A real star. He became principal of a prestigious Beis Yaakov at an early age – a position he still holds - and cultivated friendships with people in the highest echelons of government.

He married into a family renowned for Chesed, the Rubashkin family. And now he faces prison and becomes the latest in a long list of religious Jews – some of them prominent - who have committed fraud and have been caught!

These Jews are all criminals who have violated the religious obligation to observe the law of the land - Dina D’Machusa Dina! And in the process, like those before him – he did not even think about the massive Chilul HaShem that might result.

This event also points out the impossible financial state of Jewish education. There are simply not enough funds available in Orthodoxy to fund it. Not from parents who are pressed to the max in tuition - and not in philanthropic donations from the wealthy among us. Budgets are increasing while tuition and donation dollars are decreasing. I can’t imagine what the pressure is like to raise money to be able to pay teachers their well earned wages. And I have no clue where that situation is headed.

So the temptation to resort to an easy fraud like the one Milton attempted must be enormous. I can certainly understand his motivation. He did not intend to profit personally from it. But it doesn’t matter. It was illegal, unethical, a violation of Halacha, and a huge Chilul HaShem. Just like it was for others who preceded him – some of whom had similar intentions.

I can’t imagine what 20 years in prison looks like to a man who is my age, 64. Not to him and not to his wife and eleven children.

I feel sorry for my former friend. But it is his own fault. He brought this upon himself. He did not learn from his teachers - or even his past mistakes. He has instead embarrassed them and the entire Jewish people. Another sad day in Klal Yisroel.