Monday, January 17, 2011

Enabling Marvin

It is with great sadness and simultaneous great anger that I write these words. Marvin (Mordechai) Berkowitz was a friend of mine. We are both the same age. He lived here in Chicago for many years and raised his family here. He is actually quite brilliant… very knowledgeable Jewishly. He could easily be a Magid Shiur in any Yeshiva.

Marvin was also a nice guy with a great sense of humor. He was – in short – well liked and well respected. But he had one tragic flaw. He was a crook. The flaw was that he did not think of himself that way. That is because of a Hashkafa that has been the downfall of far too many Orthodox Jews of late. It is a Hashkafa that erroneously believes that it is Halachicly permissible to cheat the government as long as you don’t get caught.

That Hashkafa combined with his disdain for non Jews is what did him in. His disdain for ‘the dumb Goy’ was forever on his lips. Especially if they were government employees. He could not think of anyone who was dumber than a low level government employee – so many of whom he believed manned government programs like the IRS. He saw all that money to be his for the taking – and no dumb government employee would ever catch on. Well they did catch on. From the Chicago Tribune:

A Chicago man who portrayed himself as a rabbi pleaded guilty Friday to organizing a tax fraud ring that used the stolen identities of dead people and federal inmates to file for millions of dollars in phony refunds.

Marvin Berkowitz, 64, stood before U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall on Friday and listened as federal prosecutors outlined the scam to steal $54 million by using 3,000 stolen identities and filing bogus returns in 28 states.

Berkowitz, who was living in Israel at the time, led a group of about 10 people, including close family members, who ran the scam for six years, according to his plea agreement.

This was not the first time he was caught in a government scam. He has already served time in prison for another one. That one involved Frum investors who were misled into thinking his tax scheme was legal. Not only wasn’t it legal it was a complete lie. Those investors lost a great deal of money. Many of them were Frum people with modest incomes.

He actually asked me if I would be interested investing with him on that deal. He claimed it would have returned a tax benefit far in excess of my investment. Although unaware of the fraudulent part of that deal, I turned it down anyway thinking it just sounded too shady – even if it was legal. Thank God.

When Marvin was released from prison, his family and friends forgave him. He served his time and we all thought he learned his lesson. But he never got over his absolute disdain for the gentile mind. He devised a new scam only this time he convinced or duped his own children involving them in the scam.

How sad that such a brilliant man; a religious man; a man from an illustrious family; a man charming and delightful who could make anyone laugh with his great sense of humor - be so stupid and clueless about what he did. Stupid for thinking he wouldn’t get caught. And clueless about Halacha and the Chilul HaShem.

He must have thought that getting caught the first time was a fluke. But more importantly Marvin is of the same mentality that has resulted in far too many prominent religious Jews going to jail. To Marvin, the only crime he is guilty of is getting caught. He probably still sees cheating the government as perfectly fine.

I wish I could believe that this will be the tripwire for the vast majority of rabbinic leaders of all stripes who clearly know that stealing from the government violates Halacha to finally take action. I wish I could say that they will now finally speak out as loudly and forcefully on this issue as they have on other religious issues such a Tznius or the internet.

But I just don’t see that happening. Bigger people than Marvin are now in jail. And the silence is deafening.

Oh… there has been lip service paid in various venues about to the need to be honest in all our dealings. There has even been much discussion about the cause of some of these problems: Greed and ‘keeping up with the Cohens and Katzes’ are constantly being mentioned as something we have to guard against. But that is obviously not enough. That deals only with the motivation. It does not deal with the enabler –the Hashkafa that permits cheating the government.

For once, I would like to see a Kol Korei – a pronouncement stating that those Poskim who permit stealing from the government are Rodfim – Jews who pursue you with the intent to harm you. That the Issur of Chilul HaShem this causes is as great as or greater than any other issue on their agenda.

For once I would like to see a sense of anger and righteous indignation along the same lines as has been expressed on so many other issues. Much like the anger and indignation I recall being expressed against displaying a ‘headshot’ of a woman wearing an attractive wig in the front window of a wig shop. If only the same sense of anger and indignation could be shown for those who have committed financial crimes… maybe just maybe things might change.