Friday, December 18, 2015

The Chilul HaShem that Keeps on Giving

Marcello Trebitsch giving a Daf Yomi Shiur (Screenshot)
I never cease to be both amazed, embarrassed, and disappointed at developments like this. It aggravates me beyond words. I hate commenting on stories like this. But it seems to never end. Once again we are faced with the specter of seeing an identifiably Orthodox Jew being convicted of fraud.

You would think that even if he had no sense of ethics at all;  having no problem stealing millions of dollars from others, that he would have at least learned his lesson from fellow Jewish criminals like Bernie Madoff, who was convicted of a similar crime, only on a much larger scale. Or other Orthodox Jewish criminals – many of them Orthodox - convicted of a variety of illegal activities.  Far too many of them.  From the Forward:
(Marcello Trebitsch) was sentenced to two years in prison on Wednesday for running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors out of nearly $6 million.
What makes this so sad for me is the fact that he is someone that many of us could identify with. He is a young family man and probably a nice guy. Well educated in Yeshivos; well liked by his peers and friends, a pillar of his community. He had Semicha and gave a Daf Yomi Shiur. He has the look of someone that would be warmly welcomed into any Orthodox Jewish community in America.

His Shiur is typical of the type given every day in Daf Yomi all over the world. A video of him giving one is available here. I guess for the next 2 years he will be giving that Shiur to his fellow Orthodox Jewish criminals! Unfortunately he will have a very large Shiur. Perhaps the largest Daf Yomi Shiur of all! I am appalled at how many Orthodox Jews are serving time in prison these days.

How could someone like this defraud people out of millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme? How can he possibly rationalize this? Which I’m sure he did? There is no excuse. None. Zero. He has brought shame on the Jewish people. It is a Chilul HaShem of major proportions and I’m sure he knows that. Orthodox Jews caught in financial crimes is becoming the Chilul HaShem that keeps on giving!

There are no excuses. But there are reasons. Which I’m sure he used as his rationalization. Among them the following.

It is expensive to be an Orthodox Jew in our day. Food costs more. Housing costs more since living in Jewish neighborhoods in big cities bumps up the price of a home well beyond what would by normal market value.

The big ‘killer expense’ is Jewish education. Providing for your children can be back breaking financially. Tuition is so high (legitimately so in most cases) that even families making six figure incomes often require financial assistance from scholarship and tuition committees in day schools, high schools, and beyond. There is summer camp pay for. Sending a son or daughter to Israel post high school has become prohibitive. And then there is the eventual wedding to pay for. If you are Charedi there is the added communal pressure to support your married children in Kollel for a while.

And then multiply those expenses by the number of children. Which among Orthodox Jews is usually a lot more in number that the average family. Typical Orthodox families will have 5 or more children to support. In short being a religious Jew in our world today requires a substantially larger income than secular families do - just to make ends meet. There are people I know making substantial incomes, but you would never know it by the lifestyles they lead. And not by choice.

There are however people that feel they have to keep up with the Katzes and Cohens, wealthy Jews, multi millionaires in many cases who spend conspicuously. In tying to keep up with them some people will beg, borrow, and steal in order to pay for that expensive wedding. Why - they will rationalize - should their children be short changed? If all their friends are throwing weddings like this, so will they! Begging is bad enough. Borrowing for this purpose is bad too. But it is the stealing I have a problem with.

The pressure to cheat is enormous for some people. Especially if they think they can get away with it.  Somehow ethics are placed at the back door, if they even have any.They rationalize away their bad behavior. They don’t think about who they will hurt with illegal schemes. Nor the Chilul HaShem they will create if they get caught.

I don’t know what Marcello Trebitsch’s motives were.  Perhaps he started out with every intent to be legal. But when things got tough - it would not surprise me that the social pressure got to him. He probably felt he had to succeed and live well among his peers. He forgot about his ethics and it didn’t occur to him that he would get caught. Well, he did.

The question is, now what? Is his community going to somehow treat him as a victim? Are they going to vilify the criminal justice system and cry ‘antisemitism’? Will he become an honoree at a banquet in the future upon his release?  Are they going to have pity on this poor Frum Jew, one of the Chevra that just got caught up in the race for success? Will they say that he is a good Jew that made a mistake?

Well, yes. He made a mistake. And I do feel compassion for his family that no doubt had no clue about what he was doing. They are going to suffer. But the most compassion should be reserved for his victims who were defrauded out of millions of dollars!

I don’t know that I would punish Marcello beyond his 2 year sentence in prison. Prison is not Disneyland. Not even a minimum security prison – if he is lucky enough to be placed in one. Perhaps when he is released he will do Teshuva and become a force for good. Perhaps he will speak out and lecture people about the evils of doing the kinds of things he did. But there should not be any hero worship or even public compassion for him just yet. The community should accept it as a just verdict for which he is now paying a price.