Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Fraud Epidemic

They sure look Frum! 
It’s worse than I could have ever imagined. I honestly don’t know how to react. I am dumbfounded. It appears that religious Jews that defraud government assistance programs designed for the needy is at an epidemic level. If there is any saving grace about this, it is the following. There are over a hundred thousand residents in Lakewood. Hundreds out of over a hundred thousand is a very small percentage of the whole. Which means that the vast majority there either do not take welfare payments of any kind – or take them legitimately.

But still, according to Asbury Park Press
In the last two days, hundreds of residents called township leaders asking how they can avoid arrest or get amnesty related to an alleged public-assistance fraud scheme that could stretch into the millions of dollars, according to one law enforcement with knowledge of the ongoing probes. 
Hundreds! Is this what the ‘Lakewood - Ir HaTorah’ stands for? Ripping off the government?  To say that I am embarrassed that so many openly religious Jews have been doing this would be an understatement. To say that the Chilul HaShem is massive is an understatement as well. One thing is certain. Defrauding the government has nothing to do with the Torah. Neither, it seems do these hundreds of supposedly religious residents of Lakewood, despite their being residents of a town whose nickname is ‘the city of Torah’!

This raises the question again… the same question it always does when Jews get caught violating the Torah’s clear prohibition from stealing: Why? What is it about these supposedly religious Jews that makes them think it’s OK to do that as long as you don’t get caught? And what makes them think they won’t be caught – in light of all those that were caught in the past? Do they think they were smarter than their predecessors? Did they think they would not repeat the same mistakes and therefore get away with it? (Fact is I don’t even care about that. I care more about the first question. The second question only speaks to their arrogance and stupidity!)

One might be able to get some insight into what motivates these criminals by what one of their lay leaders was quoted saying: 
Duvi Honig, the CEO of the Lakewood-based Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce, said that thousands of Jewish families in the town need the public assistance to get by and that some people are tempted to take more than they need.
"The pressure of the community overhead – especially the (cost of) private schooling – is unsustainable," he said about the Jewish community. "People are forced to find ways to bend the system." 
How sad it is that a community leader would make such a statement as an excuse. But that is apparently how it is.

And yet, I do not think this point can be emphasized enough. The Charedi world (of which Lakewood is clearly a part) is encouraged to have large families. The cost of educating each child is exorbitant. Most families – even those with decent incomes simply don’t have the money to pay for their children’s education. Even in the Charedi world where tuition costs are generally lower than average.

Furthermore lower tuition costs are often achieved the expense of sacrificing the quality of their secular studies programs - or eliminating them altogether! (Which exacerbates the problem by producing a new generation of religious Jews that will be even less capable of earning a decent income. All while being encouraged to have large families too. (A catch-22 if I ever heard one.) That culture needs to be changed if this problem has any chance of being solved.

But need is never a motivation for ethical people to do unethical  things. And certainly not to violate Halacha. Ethical people don’t steal from the government even if they are desperate.  Religious Jews pride themselves on being the most ethical people among us. People that sacrifice their own physical well being rather than compromise their values. The only possible explanation of this is they do not consider stealing from the government unethical or against Halacha. They must consider funding their children’s education that way quite ethical. 

How do Jews that have had an intensive Jewish education arrive at such an obvious flaw in their thinking? I have some theories about that which I have shared in the past that might explain it - but do not justify it. They are, however, beyond the scope of this post.

Why have all of these hundreds Lakewood of residents come forward now? Because of yet another major Chilul HaShem. Among those arrested are members of a family with a very high profile name. They have been caught with their greedy hands in the public till.  When I read the name Sorotzkin, my heart sank.

That name is legendary in the Torah world. Rav Laizer and Rav Baruch Sorotzkin  were two of the Roshei Yeshiva in Telshe when I was a student there in the early 60s. These were huge Talmidei Chachamim  of impeccable character.  

R’ Baruch’s son, R’ Yitzchok was my ‘Eltera (older) Chavrusa’.  He is the brilliant son of R’ Baruch that the Yeshiva assigned to me when he was in their Beis HaMedrash and I was in high school. (Telshe had a program where every high school student was assigned a Beis HaMedrash student to study with them at night. R’ Yitzchok was my Chavrusa during my second year there.) The one thing I remember most about him besides his brilliance and Hasmada (diligence in Torah study) was his sense of ethics. 

And now relatives of this illustrious family have been caught defrauding the government. From Brick Patch
Federal and local authorities (released) details on the arrests of four couples, including a prominent rabbi, in Lakewood Monday morning on charges of failing to report "sizable incomes" so they could allegedly fraudulently collect more than $1.3 million in public assistance benefits…
The arrests are the first in what are expected to be multiple ongoing arrests in Lakewood, the Ocean County prosecutor's office said. Additional charges, including tax charges, are possible as well, the prosecutor's office said. 
It’s one thing to catch a Jewish thief who happens to be religious. Every society since the beginning of time has people like that. Still a Chilul HaShem, though. It is, however, a lot worse when prominent names in the Torah world are caught doing it. And worse yet is the discovery of hundreds of Jews now coming out of the woodwork basically admitting to the same thing and asking ‘how they can avoid arrest or get amnesty related to an alleged public-assistance fraud scheme’.

At this point I want to be absolutely clear. Unethical behavior is not the sole domain of the Charedi world. This has been made painfully clear in a recent voter fraud plea deal agreed to by Shalom Lamm, the son of a prominent modern Orthodox leader (who is unfortunately not well). I can’t believe I’m saying this. But it appears therefore that unethical behavior is endemic to the entire Torah world!

When will we see an end to this kind of thing? This has to stop! The Torah world needs to turn its full attention to this problem.  Roshei Yeshiva (from Lakewood to YU), Chasidic leaders, (from Satmar to Lubavitch) Agudah, Young Israel, the OU, the RCA… all of  them need to speak out publicly about this and condemn it in the strongest possible terms. Without any qualifiers! It wouldn’t even be a bad idea to call an Asifa - a public gathering consisting of the entire range of Orthodox Jews - with all of these institutions participating - to hammer honesty and ethical conduct into the Orthodox public mindset.

More importantly our educational systems – all of them – must be required to teach ethical behavior to all of our students and consistently impress upon them forbidden nature of stealing from the government. Students must learn that not only is violating Shabbos against the Torah - so too is stealing from the government. That needs to be imprinted onto the brain of every single student.  

Let the idea of being Chareid L’Dvar HaShem include not only being strict about Chalav Yisroel and Yashan. But being equally strict about ethical behavior. Laxity about that can only result in a Chilul HaShem. Until that is done. We will no doubt go down this road again – who knows how many more times!