Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

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Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Family Ties

Sanford and Wife

Who Killed George Tiller?

Obama in Cairo

When Push Comes to Twitter

Airing the Syrian Laundry

Our Crowd

The Irish Map of Hell

The Baptists Shrink

The Episcopalian Split

Claiming The King's Soul


New books

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 five rabbis.

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 transplant.

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 SELLING!” 

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 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.

So the 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.


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