Monday, June 15, 2009

Jailhouse Rock!

It always gives me great pleasure to see one of our own succeed. When one has financial success, I am pleased to see them enjoying their wealth. So when a wealthy Orthodox Jew throws a big party to celebrate a milestone in his family - like a wedding - I am happy to see them celebrate their Nachas in the best way that they can afford.

Tuvia Stern - a Satmar Chasid and wealthy businessman - just had two such events in his family recently: A Bar Mitzvah for his son and an engagement party for his daughter. The problem is that he was in prison at the time. Why was he in prison? According to a New York Times article:

Mr. Stern, 47, fled the country in 1989 after being released on $250,000 bail while facing charges, along with his older brother, of stealing $1.7 million in two financial scams. He went to Brazil with his wife and five children and was brought back to New York in February 2008 after losing an extradition fight that began when he was arrested while trying to enter England in December 2006.

Mr. Stern was convicted in February 2009 of first-degree grand larceny and sentenced to two and a half to seven years in prison.

When I first saw this story my reaction was to laugh! How stupid – I thought – of the corrections officers to have allowed this man to con them into this. But my laughter was quickly replaced by shame and anger because of the Chilul HaShem that this event has caused. Here yet again is a supposedly religious man involved in a swindle. And how does he pay for his crime? Why he throws a party in prison of course!

Mr. Stern’s scam and his behavior in prison should not surprise those people who think it is OK to cheat non Jews - if they can get away with it. Because that is exactly what he did. He probably thought he would never get caught. But he did get caught. And not only was his scam a crime and a violation of Halacha it was also a Chilul HaShem - which he has now compounded.

What we have here is an Orthodox Jewish criminal who was able to manipulate the system and have a relatively lavish Simcha as a convict while in prison serving his sentence.

Ah yes... 'the Jews control everything - even while in prison!' If this doesn’t increase anti-Semitism, I don’t know what will.

Events like this contribute mightily to the stereotype of the conniving and manipulating money hungry Jew. He was not only greedy at the expense of others - he now continues to scam the system - making the authorities look like a bunch of fools!

This is yet another reason why it is so upsetting when a Posek of stature says the kinds of things that Rabbi Dovid Cohen is accused of saying. It is bad enough when people like Mr. Stern assume they can do these kinds of things on their own. But when a Posek conveniently and publicly provides a misguided and foolish Psak in concert with that kind of behavior - that is unconscionable! He creates a climate of permissibility with respect to cheating others. That can easily motivate someone with a clever scam idea to go ahead and try it!

Such a Psak diminishes the character of those who embrace it. Instead of seeing all people created in the image of God they see some of them as potential targets for their own enrichment via fraud.

They might rationalize with half truths, distortions, and outright falsehoods into a kind of mindset that is completely warped: Jews have always historically been persecuted by ‘the Goyim’. So if they can scam some Goyim… why not? They're probably Mechuiv Misah anyway for violating one of the Shiva Mitzvos! Besides all that - it's Mutar to cheat them anyway. At least according to one Posek...

I’m sure that no Posek would approve of outright fraud like the one that Mr. Stern was convicted of . They will most certainly condemn it publicly. But that does not diminish the fact that those who preach that it is OK to cheat non Jews contributes to the kind of thinking described above.

What an embarrassment! What a Chilul Hashem!

I am also embarrassed that the Orthodox Jewish prison chaplain (pictured above) thought this was a good idea. What was he thinking? Did he think no one would notice? Or was it that he just didn't care? Doesn’t it bother him that a convicted criminal who is a recognizably Orthodox Jew will be once again put in the spotlight in a negative context? Was it not enough of a Chilul HaShem that he was convicted of a scam in the first place? He needed the world to be reminded of that and then have another one created by the same individual?

That rabbi was apparently disciplined along with other prison officials. Rightfully so. But in the eyes of God this rabbi has a lot to answer for in my view.

There is more. From a New York Post article:

The guest list at the jail included several prominent rabbis as well as Yaakov Shwekey, a popular Orthodox singer, and a band.

What were prominent rabbis doing there? This wasn’t just a visit by some caring rabbis to a religious inmate to inquire about his welfare. This was a party! …in a prison! They were invited and they came!

They thought that this was OK? They did not think that this spectacle will be seen as an abuse of the system by a religious Jew? They did not think their presence there would be perceived as contributing to the negative stereotype of the manipulating Jew?

And what about Yaakov Shwekey? What was he thinking?

Well -VIN reports that he did it for free as a Chesed. I have no quarrel with his intentions. But I just question his application of that Chesed. Had he given a concert for free to all Jewish inmates in that prison, I might have applauded that as a Kiddush HaShem.

But he did it for only this one Jewish criminal and his family. His heart was in the right place. But his Chesed was misplaced in my view and his presence there just added to the Chilul HaShem.

Updated: 6/15/09 9:57 AM CDT