Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It’s Time for Rabbinic Leaders to Get Angry

I can’t stop thinking about it. The Chilul HaShem is enormous! I actually regret my earlier tepid reaction to it.

This was brought home to me after reading a more expanded article on Rabbi Saul Kassin’s guilty plea for laundering money through his charities. Only this time it was in ‘The Republic’ - a Columbus, Indiana news website.

Columbus, Indiana… My, my, my! How far flung our reputation extends... I’m sure the good people of Columbus now better understand what we Jews are all about: Using charities to commit financial crimes against our country. From the article:

"Few financial crimes offend our sensibilities like those that hide illegal activities behind the curtain of charity," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a statement. "Rabbi Kassin admitted that he misused his charity to operate an illegal money remitting business, allowing himself and others to criminally profit through the society's supposed legitimacy."

I can’t imagine too many things that are a bigger Chilul HaShem than what this story says about us. Here we have a picture of an elderly Rabbi who is revered by his community admitting that he took a fee for laundering a charitable contribution. And doing so through an elaborate scheme that involved kicking back most of it to the ‘donor’- for his own personal tax free use . The fee for this service: ten percent of the ‘donated’ funds.

Kassin, as part of his plea deal, admitted Monday that he accepted thousands of dollars in checks from Dwek made out to the Magen Israel Society, a charitable organization Kassin controlled. Kassin then issued checks from the account to other organizations, taking 10 percent commissions from the transactions. Kassin admitted he knew the checks made out to the fund were not used for charitable purposes.

Don Corleone would be proud.

This wasn’t just some renegade rabbi who tried to get away with something under the table. This is the leader of his community. Just like the Spinka Rebbe was the leader of his. He apparently knew exactly what he was doing. He may not have devised this scam but he had no problem utilizing it.

One cannot blame informant Solomon Dwek for Rabbi Kassin’s behavior. Yes, Dwek agreed to entrap him in his own plea agreement with federal authorities in order to lighten his sentence for a $50 million bank fraud. But Dwek is not the issue here. The issue is that an elderly rabbi who is supposed to be a model of honesty and integrity thinks there is nothing wrong with G’neiva!

This is the kind of thing that really enrages me! It is a Chilul HaShem and it fuels anti-Semitism. But there is another aspect to this which is more subtle and yet just as damaging to us as a people.

When religious Jews see an elderly respected Rabbi admitting that he cheated the government willingly they assume that he must not have been doing anything Halachicly wrong - except for the Chilul HaShem. Why else did he do it?

So instead of being motivated to never try anything like this because of the Issur involved the focus is on preventing a Chilul HaShem. By devising a fool proof plan the next time its tried one will eliminate that. In other words the real problem was that he got caught. Not that he did anything wrong.

Will there be an outcry and strong condemnation by religious leaders - like the members of the Moetzes - specifically against what he did? I hope so but I doubt it. They will follow the same pattern and for the same reasons that they followed with the Spinka Rebbe.

Yes... I know that they speak out now about being honest in our dealings and not allowing greed to lead us down a criminal path. But there is no outrage about things like this. True - for the past few years there have been various seminars and lectures by Agudah using religious accountants and legal experts - all in an attempt to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. I have no problem with adult education on how to be honest in our dealings. But that isn’t enough.

Generic discussion about how it is wrong to steal from the government will only take you so far. Without outrage nothing will change. Those who want to continue stealing from their government – whether it is by hiding income on a tax return or laundering money via elaborate tax evasion schemes - will continue to do so as long as they think they will get away with it!

What do we get instead of outrage? A Rebbe that was convicted of a another tax evasion scheme being honored by sitting on a Dais at an Agudah Assifa (gathering). Yes the purpose was for the Spinka Rebbe to apologize and say how wrong his actions were. Which he tearfully did.

He was sorry for the Chilul HaShem he caused through his non compliance with the law. And he urged that we always be in compliance the law and that we use our best legal minds to help us accomplish it. That is not an apology. It is regret over the Chilul HaShem that came out of it. He otherwise made it sound like he didn’t realize that his elaborate international money laundering scheme was anything more than an honest legal mistake that his expert lawyers could have prevented had they been involved.

Agudah let it happen without comment. Not a word of condemnation. Not a peep about the length and breadth of a scheme devised to encourage wealthy Jews to launder their ill gotten gains through his charities for a 10% fee!

Many have tried to answer for rabbinic leaders by rhetorically asking: What good would it do to blast the Rebbe at this point? He went to jail. His family is suffering. He was already shamed in public by all this… It would just be pouring salt on an open wound and serve no purpose.

Well pouring salt on his open wound is a by product but there is a purpose. Maybe if they had ‘poured a little salt on his wound’ it will register on those who might consider doing anything like this again. And to have second thoughts about it. Not because it may result in a Chilul HaShem but because it violates Torah law no less than does Chilul Shabbos and eating Treif.

We now have the specter of another religious leader who is perhaps even more honored than is the Spinka Rebbe… the frail 89 year old leader of Syrian Jewry in America.

Will this too be glossed over? Is the elderly rabbi going to be spared getting ‘salt in his wounds’ too?

It’s not that I don’t have any compassion for Rabbi Kassin. I do. I think this event will impact negatively on him and his family for the rest of his life. I have no desire to hurt him any more than he has already been hurt. But I don’t think we have any choice. All rabbinic leaders in every segment of Orthodoxy needs to spell out the crime in specific terms and sharply condemn it.

There can be no softening the blows here - as painful as that may be to Rabbi Kassin, his family, his supporters, and indeed to all of us.