Friday, January 13, 2023

An Ethos of Defrauding the Government?

Children getting off a school bus in Williamsburg (Jerusalem Post)
It takes a lot of dedication to build up so many charitable organizations. The kind of dedication found in leaders. The amount of people that benefit from those organizations is innumerable. Let us just say that a lot of people that really need the help will find it there.

This was what a Chasidic Rebbe of a renowned sect of Chasidim has done. He built an empire of charities and public service agencies for his community.  

Running those important organizations does not come cheap. Keeping them afloat is a near impossible task. But a true leader will find a way. 

That is exactly what that Chasidic Rebbe did a few years ago. He hatched an elaborate plan to defraud the government. and use those ill gotten gains to help support his institutions. It involved a money laundering and tax evasion scheme where he took in 10% of the proceeds donated by fraudulent businessmen men and then refunding the other 90% under the table so they could claim all of it as charitable contributions.  

That Rebbe was caught and sent to prison for a few years after having publicly and profusely apologized for the huge Chulul HaShem he caused. 

At the time I remember thinking that his apology was not for the crime itself, but for the Chilul HaShem it caused (by virtue of getting caught). Adding that one does not have to steal from the government and that instead there are legal ways to get government support. The subtle if perhaps not intended message was that stealing from the government is OK if you don’t get caught  - and that one should not attempt it since they very likely will get caught.

When a Chasidic leader who dedicates his life to helping others has this kind of attitude, it should not surprise anyone that it filters down to the entire Chasidic community.

Yesterday we were ‘treated’ to yet another Chilul HaShem by 5 Chasidic businessmen. The kind of Chasidim that are often pointed to as proof that the community can do quite well financially without a secular education. From the Jerusalem Post: 

New York education program executive Martin Handler has been federally charged for his role in an embezzlement scheme in which Handler, through his four education companies located in Brooklyn, stole roughly $2.8 million worth of government funding for services provided to New York City-area yeshiva's and Orthodox schools, an indictment unsealed on Wednesday revealed...  

Among Handler’s misconduct was what prosecutors called a “fake after-school program” that sought reimbursement for caring for children who were not actually enrolled in the schools that were meant to receive the care provided. Handler was also accused of commingling two companies he started and lying to the government about it, as well as funneling money to himself through the companies and using government funds to purchase real estate and antiques, among other luxuries. 

“The defendants brazenly participated in schemes that stole from programs meant to benefit society’s most vulnerable members – children – and spent the proceeds of their crimes on items like real estate, cars, and to buy items at auction,” Damian Williams, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in the indictment statement.  

If these charges prove to be true (which the evidence strongly suggests), then of course they will be subject to the penalties proscribed by law. Which I’m sure they will face if convicted. 

Faced with the fact that a well respected – even altruistic Chasidic leader participated in a fraud only to apologize publicly for getting caught, I have no choice but to conclude that defrauding the government if you can get away with it - is endemic to Chasidic communities like Satmar. 

It almost seems like the more religious a community appears to be, the more likely it will have this attitude. These businessmen learned well the lessons of that Rebbe (which is likely the same attitude of their own Chasidic Rebbe) that one is allowed to steal from the government if they don’t get caught So they forged ahead in the belief that, this time, they will outsmart the Feds and surely not get caught. 

At least one of these defendants was apparently a respected Satmar businessman who was once interviewed for his ‘sage advice’ in one of the Charedi weeklies. (To be clear, I am not accusing that weekly magazine of knowingly featuring a felon as worthy of giving advice to the public. I’m sure they had no clue about his shady business practices. My point was only to note the respect he gets.) 

This story will surely be ignored by the Charedi media. They will say ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ adding that they do not wish to smear the good name of 5 devout Chasidim whose families will be hurt by doing so. The problem with that is that the evidence against them is very strong,  And their families have already been hurt by these men having been caught committing fraud and the resultant Chilul HaShem!

If in all likelihood they are found guilty and imprisoned, I would not be surprised if there is a communal effort by their Chasidic community to get these 5 devout Jews – family men with many children that depend on their father’s support for sustenance; and have done so much for their community – out of prison. Seeing it as a Pidyon Shevuyim. 

That actually happened once when a prominent Chasidic Rebbe somehow arranged to meet with with then President Clinton and succeeded in convincing him to commute the sentence to time served for a similar fraud committed by several  of his Chasidim.

I understand their reluctance to do so. But silence by rabbinic leaders in the face of a Chilul HaShem is not an option. The Gemarah (Eruvin 63A) tells us BMakom Chilul HaShem, Ein Cholkin Kavod L'Rav. Where their is a desecration of God’s name - one does not extend honor to a Rav. Much less a few businessmen.

Refusing to comment on something like this - which has been made so  public by both Jewish and secular news media - is tantamount to condoning it. And that only adds to the Chilul HaShem. 

Furthermore - silence will surely encourage more of the same. 

I say all this knowing that I will probably be compared to the New York Times by unfairly smearing the entire Chasidic community. 

That is not what I am doing. Exposing a Chilul Hashem; strongly condemning it; and exploring the reasons it keeps happening in the hope that something is done about it - is the right thing to do. And I refuse to be intimidated.