Thursday, December 16, 2010


What a sad story.

There is a lengthy article by Allison Hoffman in Tablet Magazine about my childhood friend Milton Balkany. It depicts the rise - but mostly the fall of a very talented man whom I once admired. My admiration for him began when he decided to become a Baal Teshuva and in 7th grade and enrolled in my day school Yeshivath Beth Yehudah in Detroit.

Those who read this blog regularly will know that my esteem for the Baal Teshuva knows no bounds. It is the difference between finding truth and choosing to live one’s life according to that truth - and being raised as a religious Jew knowing no other way to live. Milton knew another way to live and yet chose the difficult life of Torah observance. He continued to pursued a life of Torah and Mitzvos - choosing Chinuch as a career and ultimately becoming the principal of a Beis Yaakov in Boro Park. I stand in awe of people like this.

Milton was not your typical Baal Teshuva. He was a ‘personality’ and aspired to the greater things. But he also liked the ‘good life’. He was always impeccably dressed and had a certain air about himself that stood out. Not that he was in any way conceited. Not at all.

He was a kind and caring individual. That’s what made him unique. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the finer things in life if one can afford them. Milton always found ways to afford at least some of them - especially when it came to clothes.

But the way he carried himself was not the only thing that was unusual about him. He was a man of contradiction. While he chose the Charedi Hashkafa and lifestyle, he did not meet his wife via the traditional Charedi method of Shadchanim. He met his wife in a most atypical way for a Charedi couple. It was right out of Hollywood. They met on an airplane. But that isn’t all. What made this even more unusual was that the woman he met and eventually married was the daughter of a prominent Lubavitcher Chasid, Aaron Rubashkin.

The Rubashkin family had no interest in their children marrying out of Lubavitch. But I guess the young couple ‘fell in love’ and those differences fell by the wayside. But in a strange agreement with his wife, Milton promised to allow her to raise their children as Lubavitchers. And as adults that’s what most of them are. Milton, is not a Lubavitcher at all. He retained the Charedi Hashkafos he first adopted and nourished throughout his Yeshiva experience in Torah Vodaath. Ultimately he became principal of the very non-Lubavtich Beis Yaakov.

What a strange relationship he must have had with his children and even with his wife. They were Lubavitchers while he was part of a community that was almost anti Lubavitch! Did they never discuss Hashkafa? But I digress.

Milton always sought efficient ways to fund his school. I guess he thought that making some powerful and influential friends would provide opportunities for him. That led him to become involved in political fundraising. Indeed he made some pretty powerful friends in the Republican Party.

A few years ago in his desperation for funding a school that his son was involved with - and funding his family - he did something illegal. He misused money from a government grant. When he was caught he claimed ignorance, paid back the money, and was given a slap on the wrist by the government. No jail time.

That was then. Fast forward to today. Once again desperate for funds he tried something new. Milton sought out hedge fund operator, Steven A. Cohen (pictured above with Milton), who was under investigation by the government for insider trading, He asked for a $4 million dollar ‘donation’ in exchange for his guarantee of silence about insider trading by a government informant that he was counseling.

That was a lie. There was no such evidence. Milton never spoke to anyone. Unbeknownst to Milton conversations between him and the hedge fund’s lawyer were recorded by the government after they were informed about the extortion attempt. Money changed hands and Milton was arrested.

Why did he do it? He certainly did it to save his struggling Beis Yaakov. They were barely functioning having declared bankruptcy in 2005. They had recently downsized to a smaller facility. Back in December of 2009 teachers had not been paid since the beginning of that school year. But that wasn’t the only reason. Milton Balkany was broke. He owes over $200,000 in tax liens against his house. That's hard to take for someone who enjoys the finer things in life.

Aside from relying on famed attorney Benjamim Braffman to help him out of this jam Milton apparently relied on Segulos too. He was seen holding some sort of ceramic Mezuzah during the trial. A Lubavicther Meshichist by the name of Chesed Halberstam who was once a personal aide to the Lubavitcher Rebbe was in court everyday of the trial. Everyday he handed Milton a Chumash once belonging to the Rebbe.

But none of this helped him. Not the Segulos. And not his famed attorney . The verdict came quickly. Guilty on all four counts: Extortion. Blackmail. Fraud. And making false statements to a government agent.

There is an interesting footnote here. His children were all at the trial. The Tablet article describes them a bit. Most of his adult children are indeed Lubavitchers - as raised.

But not all of them. By the way they were dressed in court some of his younger daughters seem to have strayed from both their Lubavitch upbringing as well as their father’s Charedi path. One married son even seemed to be OTD. But as the article shows they all seemed to inherit their father’s penchant for expensive clothing. It would be an interesting case study to see how all that happened. But again, I digress.

I know many people will be happy to see Milton go to jail. He is a crook who has made a tremendous Chilul HaShem. But I can’t help feeling bad for my childhood friend – someone I looked up to from practically the moment I met him. And as we parted ways after 8th grade, I followed his successes from afar with admiration.

I no longer admire him. But I still feel bad for him. It’s hard not to feel bad for someone you know and who you have experienced as a decent human being. I just hope the judge won’t throw the book at him. At age 64, a possible maximum sentence of 20 years in prison is a life sentence. Will that serve justice?