Sunday, April 02, 2017

When Will They Ever Learn

Senator Cory Booker visiting SCHI (SCHI website)
He could have gone down as a great man. History has been very kind to individuals who have sacrificed for their people. 60 year old Rabbi Osher Eisenman is one of those people. His story is the stuff of ArtScroll biographies. His life is so dedicated to a cause that few people could do anything but admire him for it.

This is a man who built up an institution that was sorely needed and lacking in the community of Lakewood. Lakewood as most people know is the where Beis Medrash Govoha (BMG) is located. Founded by Rav Aharon Kotler, it has grown from a modest beginning of a just a few students (in the 1940s) into the largest Yeshiva in American serving (as of 2012) over 6500  young men whose only task is to study Torah full time.

The Orthodox mostly Charedi Jewish community around BMG has grown right along with it. It is truly a beautiful Makom (place of) Torah. Which some refer to as Lakewood Ir HaTorah (City of Torah.) I say this without reservation. Even though my Hashkafos differ with them in certain areas, there is no question about the depth and breadth of Talmud study taking at BMG. There is no place else like it anywhere in America.

Like any growing city - along with that growth comes communal needs that are not sufficiently met by the existing religious infrastructure. One of those needs is providing a  school for children with special needs. The larger the growth the greater the need becomes. The faster it grows the more acute the need becomes.

One man rose to the occasion. In the mid 1990s - sensing the need via his own special needs child, Rabbi Osher Eisenmann founded the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI) a facility that catered to these children.  From Asbury Press
The school provides educational services for the "medically fragile, and socially-emotionally challenged children," according to its website. 
Starting out in a storefront with 5 students, the school grew in reputation and size into a one that houses 250 students, 450 employees, and ultimately cares for over 600 students ages 3-21. In short, Rabbi Eisenman was a walking Kiddush Hashem. Which was enhanced by a variety of New Jersey state officials like Senator Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie that have taken tours of the facility.

In the meantime Rabbi Eisenman has led a simple and modest lifestyle. One which is typical of selfless, giving people like that.

Oh how I wish the story would end here. Unfortunately it doesn’t. What could have been a perpetual Kiddush HaShem has suddenly turned into a Chilul HaShem. One where the essential facts of the charges brought against him have been admitted by Rabbi Eisenmann through his attorney, Jeff Ifra.

This story is become an all too familiar one. Apparently sticking one’s hand into the public cookie jar is just too tempting –and too easy to pass up.

Because of it success and reputation SCHI receives an annual allocation of state funds to the tune of millions of dollars: 
David Shafter, a state-appointed monitor who oversees Lakewood's school district, said the district paid more than $22 million to SCHI this school year, up from $18 million in the 2014-2015 school year. Tuition at SCHI is much higher than other schools in the area that cater to special-needs students. 
Lakewood School District pays $60,485 per year in tuition at the Bancroft School in Voorhees Township, Shafter said, about 41 percent less than tuition at SCHI. 
"The tuition at SCHI is the highest Lakewood pay per student for any out-of-district school," Shafter said but added that the quality of the school was not in question. 
SCHI's most recent financial reports show the school earned $19.2 million in revenue in 2015, most of that coming from public funds. The school had $18.9 million in expenses, leaving $331,746 in surplus. The records show Eisemann was paid a salary of $119,273 in 2014. 
Rabbi Eisenman is chaged with stealing over $630,000 in public funds for personal gain.  He allegedly  tried to cover up this ‘loan’ by funneling some money from the schools operating account into the fundraising account as ‘repayment’ of  debts to the school. Thus laundering the money.

At this point I want to stress that every man deserves his day in court and is innocent until proven guilty. But it does not look good for Rabbi Eisenmann. That his lawyer said he actually did borrow the money but had every intention of paying it back is basically an admission of guilt.

The Torah tells us that G’Neiva (stealing) is a crime. It is strictly prohibited. It does not matter that the crime can be corrected by paying the stolen funds back. In Talmudic parlance this is called a Lav SheNitek B’Aseh. But stealing it in the first place remains a crime. 

He stole the money. I am not an attorney but it seems to me that intent to pay it back is not an excuse in this case anymore than it was in the Rubashkin case.

Nor does it matter that an individual is otherwise a great person who lives a modest lifestyle. Not even if the funds stolen are for an idealistic purpose. No one has even claimed that to be the case here. But even if it were, that too would not be an excuse. It is still a crime. One need not go too far back in time to remember a prominent Chasidic Rebbe who defrauded the government in an elaborate international money laundering scheme where he use the funds he gained to support his charitable institutions. It didn’t matter then and it won’t matter now.

Aside from the lapse in ethical judgment, why didn’t Rabbi Eisenmann learn from the past? Did he think no one would notice and that he could enrich himself via an investment with ‘borrowed’ money and pay it back before anyone noticed? I guess so.

It’s hard for me to imagine that an altruistic individual like Rabbi Eisenmann could be tempted to do what he did, even if he thought he could get away with it. But he did. And we - the Orthodox Jewish community - are all paying the price. Because when a Jew that is so clearly and obviously religious breaks the law for financial gain and gets caught, it generates unfavorable publicity in the media. Which lends aura of credibility to  the antisemitic canard that all Jews – especially the religious ones - are  greedy criminals that will cheat the government for financial gain at every opportunity.  And that is the furthest thing from the truth.