Thursday, February 21, 2013

The ‘Ethics’ of Deception

Classroom in Satmar's Beis Rochel - Photo credit Ha'aretz
I am not sure what to make of this. But it appears from two separate articles in the Jewish Week that there is something very rotten going on in Williamsburg and other Chasidic enclaves.

I am at this point loath to criticize Satmar. Not because they don’t deserve it. Maybe they do.  Maybe they don’t. But because it’s getting old and I am tired of being called a Satmar or Charedi basher. But how can I not publicly protest a Chilul HaShem like this?

According to the Jewish Week (and earlier, the Forward) Satmar and similar Chasidic institutions are taking in millions of dollars in revenue from E-Rate. E-rate is a federal program designed to subsidize internet access for the poor. I have no way of knowing whether they are perpetrating a fraud or not – although that is the implication of the 2 articles.

I would love to give them the benefit of the doubt. But it seems to me that when the Rabbinic leaders are so opposed to the internet that they forbid their members from having it in their homes and will expel their children from school if they do, there is something very wrong with taking millions in government funding for doing just that – providing internet access for their children (as students). I tend to doubt that their students actually are given any access to the internet.

The Jewish Week is unclear about whether there is anything illegal going on. Descriptions of how to apply for that money seem to make it very easy to get it. It also seems that there may be broad guidelines about how that money may be used. It could very well be that Satmar (et al) is following the letter of the law in applying and being granted this money. But at the very least – it is unethical to take money for something that you oppose under the guise that you support it.

Satmar and many other Chasidic enclaves are poor communities. With the exception of some extraordinarily wealthy business people (…like the owners of B&H Electronics) most Chasidim need financial help just to make ends meet. Most people in these communities have very large families where 13 children are not that uncommon. It isn’t too difficult to imagine that there is an overriding and constant crisis of cash. There just isn’t enough money to live even a modest middle class lifestyle in many instances. And their schools, Shuls, and Chesed organization operate on shoestring budgets… and probably run big deficits all the time.

The pressure to raise money is acute. This community needs to be able to function somehow… and not starve.  To their credit, most Chasidim in communities like this live spartan lives and don’t really complain about it. But even so, getting food on the table for a family of 10 or more is not cheap. Not to mention educational costs. Although tuitions in these school are probably among the lowest of all segments of Jewry, it isn’t free. Teachers still have to get paid – the very little they are paid! My guess is that if one were to visit the typical Chasidic school one would see poverty like conditions.

So it is no small wonder that lay leaders will try to find any resource they can - for help. There is of course nothing wrong with that. Every school will apply for funding wherever they can. But when a community becomes so desperate for funds that it starts to do unethical things to get it, there is something wrong with the system. Unethical acts may be legal. But it isn’t too much of a leap from the unethical to the illegal.

What kind of Judaism is it that thinks it’s OK to fool a generous government in order to get money out of  them? Where do these lay leaders get the idea that deceiving the government is OK? And even if in some twisted understanding of Halacha you feel it is allowed, doesn’t it bother them that honorable people with the best of intentions are being duped by them?

I know the need is great. I know that there are many people hungry in that community. I know the money is not going for luxuries but for basic needs – either for the family or the schools. They are not buying Michael Jackson mementos,  fur jackets, or big screen TVs at Best Buy. But that does not justify fraud or even unethical behavior. And when done at an institutional level like this, the Chilul HaShem cannot be greater!

Lest anyone think that I am exaggerating about their needs justifying unethical and illegal behavior, I would remind you of the Spinka Rebbe. He was involved in a money laundering charity scam for a percentage fee. The money obtained from that was used for his religious institutions that truly needed it.

I recall his tearful ‘apology’ at an Agudah dinner. But what struck me then (and still stays with me) was that he never admitted wrongdoing. He just basically said that crime doesn’t pay… and that people should instead do things legally.

Therein lies the problem. It seems to be that in certain circles – if you can get away with it - it’s OK. It is therefore no small wonder that these communities that are so poor and desperate for money will try to get some any which way they can. When something like E-rate comes their way, they will see it as a goldmine.  They will say whatever is necessary to get that money and distribute it to their poor. To them, it is a high value to support their own even if it means misleading a ‘giver’.

When Chasidism was founded, their name was chosen because the word Chasid (singular for Chasidim) meant they were going to act in ways which are more religiously observant than Halacha requires.  The definition of Chasid literally means ‘pious one’. Their founder urged them to live more ascetic lives so as to achieve greater spirituality and a closer connection to God. How ironic it is that so much of their interactions with the outside world is done with deceit. And this is the fastest growing segment of Jewry.

I was recently sent an e-mail by a Jew who identified himself as a Baal Teshuva. He was raised by secular parents who used to tell him that Orthodox Jews are all scoundrels and cheats. He eventually found his way to observance and is today fully observant. But he complained to me that my constant writing about the misdeeds of Charedim makes him wonder if his parents weren’t right after all.  …the implication being was that my blog was feeding that mindset.

The problem is not with me. I am just lamenting reported facts and publicly protesting them as a religious Jew.

The problem is with Jews who do this kind of thing and pervert the Torah for their own – even legitimate needs. It is their misdeeds, and not my commenting on them that is the problem. The best way for the Jewish people to stop giving others the impression that we are a bunch of no-good-nicks, is to stop acting like it. Ignoring it will only serve to perpetuate it.

If the poverty of a community is so great that the only way to survive is to mislead or cheat the government, then there is something terribly wrong with their system. There has to be a reassessment of their entire value system… and everything in it that contributes to their poverty and lack of ethics when it comes to the outside world. Meanwhile the kind of Chilul HaShem that is taking place right now makes them anything but Chasidim in the true sense of the word.