Thursday, July 02, 2015

Why Do They Do it?

R' Aharon Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel
Jews are a bunch of greedy criminals. That’s one of the canards leveled at us by the antisemites of the world.  What basis do they have for saying this? Unfortunately a very real one. Once again we see the most religious looking Jews among us committing financial fraud against the government. The kind of Jews who see themselves as exemplars of Judaism – serving God beyond the letter of the law.  Only this time they have more in common with Reyna Martinez and Angel Campos.  2 non Jews who cheated Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Payments, a government welfare program designed for the poor.

Mordechai Friedman and Chayim Deutsch, both of Kiryas Joel have stolen tens of thousands of dollars in Medicaid benefits (also designed for the poor) by underreporting their income and creating false documents.

These people are crooks, there are no two ways about it. The question is, how can people  in Kiryas Joel – Satmar Chasdidm - that are so careful about observing Halachos like Shabbos and Kashrus, be so careless about Geneiva – stealing? Which is forbidden by the Torah.

I see several possible reasons for this. But first let me say that they are Frum in many areas because that is how they are brought up. They are taught from the earliest age that the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom (religious rituals) are – not only to be observed but to be enhanced.  So that in matters of Kashrus for example, they only trust their own Hechsherim. They believe that their Kashrus standards are much higher than any other Kashrus agency. They do not rely on any Kulos or leniencies. Their Kashrus agency – the Central Rabbinical Congress - prides itself on that. No Kiryas Joel Chasid would be caught dead with a product bearing only an OU or OK Hechsher.

They are also taught to be meticulous in Bein Adam L’Chavero matters (interpersonal relationships). Which is why they have a Bikur Cholim society of world renown.  They visit hospitalized Jews of all denominations and Hashkafos. They bring home made food for patients and even family members so that they can spend more time with their sick loved ones. They do not discriminate. They treat all Jews the same as they do their own. They are the nicest people!

So how one may ask can deeply religious Jews who have such a fine reputation in helping fellow Jews be such crooks?

Well, for one thing, every sect has their criminal element. A lot of people are ‘surface Jews’. By that I mean that their exterior appearance is that of a pious Jew. But underneath the beard and Kapote lives a crook who will do anything they can get away with for personal gain. But I think there is more to it than that.

There is clearly a disdain for ‘Goyim’ whom they generally see as anti-Semites to be taken advantage of. In the minds of many, cheating the government is therefore justified. They are stealing money from antisemites who deserve no better. Esav Sonei L’Yaakov. ‘The Goyim HATE us!’  Some Satmar Chasidim - like the ones caught in a major fraud - take this to the next level.

Of course they won’t do it openly. But they will do it in ways where they think they won’t get caught. They figure no one gets hurt when stealing from the government and everyone does it anyway. Doesn’t everyone under-report income when filing tax returns?

That attitude is buttressed by a long history of European antisemitism that they believe continues here. The Goyim hate us here just like they did in Europe. Even though there aren’t the pogroms here - the hatred remains.

Unfortunately there are many Jews that learned this attitude from parents, grandparents, and great grandparents who actually lived through vicious antisemitic pogroms in Europe. By living in closed isolated communities like Kiryas Joel they are denied any real contact with the outside world. They have no way of judging their fellow non Jewish man. To the extent that some of them do come in contact with non Jews in commerce or the business world, it is all business. Social interaction is avoided or minimized. It is no small wonder that old prejudices carried over from Europe transmitted to them by their parents remains unchallenged by reality.

Of course most Satmar Chasidim don’t rip-off Medicaid or other government programs. But for those that do, there are enough of them that it seems like a never ending parade of religious looking Jews  getting caught with their hands in the till. There are so many ‘religious’ Jews in prisons, that a Sefer of practical Halacha was written for them entitled Assurei HaMelech (Prisoners of the King).

There is another factor that plays into this. Satmar Chasidim are deliberately denied an education that would enable them to get good jobs. Even though they are encouraged to work rather than to stay in Kollel, they are not given the tools needed to sustain their very large families. 

How to survive? Among other things (like free loan societies) they are taught to ‘game the system’. They take advantage of every government welfare program available. So in essence while they are encouraged to work, they are encouraged to supplement their meager incomes with government charity. Most of them are poor enough to do it legally.

This practice, however, lends itself to tremendous abuse. Once you get used to income from a government welfare program, you come to rely on it. So if you increase your income beyond the threshold of eligibility it is all to easy to simply not report it. 

Now I’m sure none of them are getting rich over this. They need the money to survive. With their large families and meager jobs, they rationalize that they have no choice but to rely on government funds even if they have to cheat ‘a little bit’ to get them. A slight increase putting them beyond eligibility will not sustain their families without the help of the government subsidy they are used to getting. But the slippery slope of going from the legal to the illegal is an all too easy one to slide down - and has all too often led to major crimes of fraud. As is once again the case with the above mentioned Satmar crooks. 

I actually feel bad for the Chasidim of Kiryas Joel. They have been sold a ‘bill of goods’ by their leadership. I find the idea of using government welfare as a means of income to be reprehensible even if they are technically eligible for it - if they can make a living more honorably. Which in many cases could be achieved through a better education.  

But their leadership remains firm. They believe that avoiding a secular education enhances their Yiddishkeit. Secular studies typically found in most elementary schools are seen as unimportant compared to their religious studies. Leaving them unable to pursue any knid of higher education. Which is OK with them since the influences in college (even one like YU or Touro) are so terrible that they are better off being poor. Taking money from the government will not hurt their Yiddishkeit as much as going to college would.

The problem with that is that by keeping their people poor they are hurting them in ways that undermine the very thing want to achieve: perpetuating their holy way of life. Poverty is a major cause of family dysfunction. Which in turn is a major cause of children abandoning observance. 

I do not see things changing. Which means we are likely to see more things like this in the future. There will always be unscrupulous Jews that think of themselves as holy and see cheating the government as a Mitzvah. And believe they can figure out ways to outsmart the government so they won’t get caught. But they will. They always do. Which means perpetuating a major Chilul HaShem.