Airing the Syrian Laundry
by Ronald C. Kiener
On the morning of July 22, New Jersey’s
acting U.S. attorney, Ralph J. Marra Jr., initiated a series of arrests
throughout the state, and later in the day announced federal charges against
44 people, including three New Jersey mayors, two state assemblymen, and
There were two separate sets of alleged
crimes: all-too-common charges of bribery and political corruption centering
on Hoboken and Jersey City politicians; and rarer allegations of money
laundering, primarily against the rabbis.
The human link between these two
related schemes was Solomon Dwek, a failed real estate developer and
philanthropist who had been arrested in 2006 for passing a bad $25 million
check at a bank in Monmouth County, N.J. Turned by federal prosecutors into
a “cooperating witness” for the two-year political corruption investigation,
Dwek simultaneously revealed the alleged laundering of over $3 million
through charities the rabbis oversaw.
On the corruption side, the most
notable politician to be arrested was Hoboken’s new 32-year-old mayor, Peter
Cammarano—elected in June and gone by the end of July. Although a couple of
Republicans were picked up, the arrests reverberated most strongly through
New Jersey Democratic politics, casting a shadow over Governor John
Corzine’s November reelection bid.
But what set the story apart was the
money-laundering scheme, detailed in 11 separate criminal complaints, that
shook the rabbinic foundations of the insular community of Syrian-American
Jews centered in Brooklyn and the ocean-side towns of Deal and Long Branch,
New Jersey. Altogether, 19 Jews, all aligned with the ultra-Orthodox stream
known in Hebrew as Haredi (“God fearing”; literally “trembling”), were
charged in the complaints, including:
Rabbi Saul Kassin, 87, chief rabbi
of Congregation Sharee Zion in
Brooklyn. The federal complaint alleged he laundered more than
$200,000 with Dwek between June 2007 and December 2008.
Rabbi Eliahu Ben Haim, 58, the
principal rabbi of Congregation Ohel Yaacob in Deal.
The federal complaint alleged he laundered $1.5 million between
June 2007 and February 2009.
Rabbi Edmund Nahum, principal rabbi
at the Deal Synagogue in Deal. The federal complaint alleged he
laundered $185,000 between June 2007 and December 2008.
Levy Izhak Rosenbaum (not a rabbi,
nor a Syrian, but an observant Ashkenazi Haredi), who was charged with
conspiring to broker the $160,000 sale of a human kidney for a
Another 15 men (two of them rabbis)
linked to the Syrian community were charged with laundering, or with
operating “cash houses” that made the laundering scheme work, or with
participating in the bribery scheme involving New Jersey public officials.
For the New York Times, the
story primarily concerned official corruption in New Jersey, with a bizarre
and underplayed subtext of ultra-Orthodox malfeasance. Less sober organs
indulged a measure of schadenfreude—cable news anchors arching their
eyebrows as they described bearded rabbis doing perp walks. Nothing caught
the mood better than the New York Daily News’ July 24 headline:
“RABBIS & MAYORS, KIDNEYS & BRIBES. FEDS CHARGE 44 IN PAYOFFS, EVEN ORGAN
A few mainstream outlets—notably the
New Jersey papers, the American Jewish press, and Israeli newspapers—tried
to provide context by delving into the community the rabbis served. The
Star-Ledger and its website NJ.com stayed with the story from the
start with more than a few articles on the Syrian community. The Jewish
Telegraphic Agency (JTA) and the Forward were among the national
American Jewish news organs that followed the story closely with original
reporting. In Israel, Haaretz and the English-language Jerusalem
Post took the lead in providing extensive coverage.
But it was a complicated story, and
difficult to penetrate. First, there were the Syrian Jews—one of the most
closed communities in the American Jewish world. Then, there was the Haredi
cipher: The ultra-Orthodox of the United States are similarly
inward-oriented, numerically small within the larger North American Jewish
community, unfathomable to (and typically hostile toward) outsiders.
Insularity upon insularity. The media
briefly descended upon the Syrian-Jewish community, but with very few
Sherpas to guide them. While the rough outlines were eventually unpacked for
curious outsiders, a great deal of the story remained off the record. When
it came to the Haredi dimension of the story, there was even less clarity.
For an introduction to the
Syrian-Jewish part of the story, there was “The SY Empire,” a profile of the
community that journalist and author Zev Chafetz wrote for the New York
Times Magazine in 2007. Chafetz told of people who lived “in a
self-created entrepreneurial and mercantile empire whose current sources of
wealth are found everywhere from Coney Island to Shanghai. They are rich
beyond the dreams of their immigrant forebears. Many live in
multimillion-dollar mansions in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn,
summer in fabulous seafront homes on the Jersey shore and repair to winter
enclaves in Florida.”
Immigrants to America in the first
decades of the 20th century, the SY (“Ess-Why,” as they call
themselves), maintained a cohesiveness and a commitment to old-world
traditions ultimately discarded by Jewish immigrants from Europe
(Ashkenazim, called “J-Dubs” by the SY).
Between the two were correct
interactions, but also a wall of social separation. Syrians tended to marry
from within—a tendency reinforced by a 1935 rabbinic Edict barring members
of the community from marrying most converts.
And the SY were famously generous to
their own. “An SY in good standing,” wrote Chafetz, “can expect free K-12
parochial education and summer camps for the kids, access to a palatial
communal ritual bath, use of grand recreational facilities in a community
center now being doubled in size, high-level care for the aged and attention
to whatever material problems life may present.”
So here was one part of the money
laundering puzzle that journalists could successfully unpack. It is a
recurrent theme in immigrant life in America: Members of an immigrant
community might trifle with the rules and norms of the larger and somewhat
distant host society, particularly when it comes to providing for one’s
family. The community’s needs and expectations often outweigh the seemingly
arbitrary expectations of its host society. As a result, trouble with the
authorities arises from time to time.
insularity of the Syrian Jews might explain the individual problems with the
law experienced by Dwek or, years earlier, by SY businessman Eddie Antar,
who in 1996 pleaded guilty and received an eight-year prison sentence for
stock fraud after the mysterious crash-and-burn of his consumer electronics
franchise, “Crazy Eddie’s.”
But the rabbis?
Here is where the story becomes much
more…shall we say “delicate”? There is a clear principal of Talmudic
jurisprudence, reaffirmed by centuries of repetition, that dina’ de-malkhuta’
dina’: The law of the land is the law. In other words, when there is
conflict between Jewish law (halakhah) and the secular law of the
host country, the laws of the magnanimous host country are binding, and in
certain circumstances, are to be preferred. Especially when it comes to
financial affairs, the law of the land is supposed to prevail.
In the alleged money laundering scheme,
several SY rabbis were apparently induced by Dwek to accept contributions
for charities they oversaw, take a cut (for themselves? their charities?),
and then issue checks for the balance back to the “donors.” Employing legal
precision, the accused seemed to show not the slightest hesitation—though
there was the requisite stealth—to launder the funds. Was it simply the
ethos of immigrant insularism that caused the rabbis to bracket off the
Talmudic exhortation to abide by the law of the land?
The mainstream secular media simply did
not pursue this question. The American Jewish media, particularly the JTA,
did so only a bit more. What was missing in the “context stories” was the
ethos of Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
Ultra-Orthodoxy began as a right-wing
reaction against the belief of the Ashkenazi Orthodox that it was possible
to observe the halakhah fully while participating in the modern
world. These traditionalists viewed the “ways of the gentile” with alarm
and, in what scholars call “contra-acculturation,” fortified individual and
communal practices (in language, education, and dress) in order to separate
their world from both the gentiles and their own backsliders. The most
identifiable marker for identifying a Haredi Jew (as opposed to an ordinarya
“mainline” Orthodox Jew) is his dress. Even in the oppressive heat of the
Tel Aviv suburb Bnai Brak, the Ultra-Orthodox wear some variation of the
severe clothing worn by 18th-century nobility in Poland.
At times quietistic, at times activist,
the Haredim are a fractious lot who lack an overarching organizational
structure. Called Haredim by outsiders, they prefer to refer to
themselves by the simple Yiddish term yidn—“Jews.”
Until fairly recent times, theirs was
an exclusively Ashkenazi phenomenon, based on an idealized image of Jewish
life in Eastern Europe. The emergence of a Sefardi version of
ultra-Orthodoxy came as something of a surprise.
At the dawn of the 20th
century, Jews from the Muslim countries (also known as
Mizrahi—“Eastern”—Jews) were completely untouched by the Enlightenment and
Emancipation, by Reform and Conservative Judaism, by Hasidism and its
challengers. Mizrahi Jews practiced a moderate and malleable traditionalism,
and were hardly practiced in the art of contra-acculturation.
Both in the United States (especially
among Syrian Jews in the 1920s and ’30s) and in Israel (particularly among
Moroccan Jews in the ’50s and ’60s), there emerged an Haredi-Mizrahi
fusion—children born of Damascene or Casablancan parents speaking Yiddish
with a Lithuanian accent. In Israel, this fusion could not hold, and as a
result of surging ethnic Sefardi pride, most ultra-Orthodox Sefardim turned
away from their Ashkenazi teachers and set out to create their own
institutions, including a political party named Shas.
By no means does the Syrian Jewish
community march in lockstep with Haredi Judaism. As with many forms of
Middle Eastern religious practice, there is a strong disconnect between
private home-based behavior and communal performances. But at the same time,
when one examines the pedigrees of the rabbinic leadership of the Syrian
community, there can be no doubt that they are deeply enmeshed with the
Ashkenazi Haredi universe of Brooklyn. The Ashkenazi-Sefardi connection is
apparent in the indictment of alleged kidney-dealer Rosenbaum (Ashkenazi).
In trying to comprehend the
contra-acculturative posture of the Haredim, one cannot underestimate their
hostility toward the outer world. While liberal Jews might agonize over
using the word “goy” because it can be considered disparaging of Gentiles,
the Yiddish-speaking Haredim have no compunction about doing so, and mean it
precisely that way.
The norms of the host country
(including the Zionist state of Israel) might need to followed for the sake
of peaceful relations between yidn and goyyim (to Haredim in
Israel the secular Jews are nothing but “swine-eating Hebrew
speakers”—certainly not yidn). Yet there is no point in making a
special effort to follow the chukkos ha-goyyim (“the rules of the
gentiles”). The 1935 Syrian rabbinic Edict on marriage can be seen as the
perfect fusion of immigrant xenophobia and Haredi contra-acculturalism.
Any member who defies the many Haredi
rules designed to isolate and protect the virtuous community are traitors,
and any outside investigation into the inner workings of the community
constitutes Jew-hatred. Not surprisingly, within the Syrian community
Solomon Dwek was denounced as “the informer,” while some spoke of the entire
federal prosecution as an “anti-Semitic witch hunt.”
It was in Israel that these charges
were first voiced publicly, by a Shas legislator and the editor of the Shas
newsweekly, Yom le-Yom. Similar sentiments were posted on the
blogosphere from inside the Deal community.
Of course, just because you’re paranoid
doesn’t mean someone’s not out to get you. In late August, in a bizarre coda
to the entire episode, the largest daily newspaper in Sweden, Aftonbladet,
ran two articles linking the bizarre Rosenbaum/kidney-sale story to an old
and groundless accusation (based on a 1992 photograph of a Palestinian
terrorist who had clearly been subjected to an autopsy) that the Israeli
Army harvests organs out of the corpses of dead Palestinians.
The Israeli government of Binyamin
Netanyahu elevated the articles into a national cause célèbre by
issuing a formal protest, and the Swedish government responded by defending
the principle of freedom of the press. In Israel, a nationwide boycott was
organized against Volvo and IKEA.
Let’s just say it wasn’t your usual New
Jersey corruption story.