Rabbi Mahir Reiss, a respected Brooklyn businessman and Orthodox Jewish philanthropist credited with resolving international Jewish religious disputes, was sentenced to 27 months and fined $6.3 million for his role in an international money-laundering scheme involving a Colombian drug ring. In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein on Wednesday based his decision on whether the 48-year-old Reiss knew that the illegal money he was laundering involved drugs. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Dunst contended Reiss knew. Defense attorney Nathan Lewin contended his client did not. An acknowledgment of drug involvement would have meant a stiffer sentence. Reiss had faced a maximum of 57 months in prison.
Mahir Reiss was one of 10 defendants — American Jews and South American nationals — expected to be sentenced this week in an international drug money laundering scheme. All the defendants pleaded guilty several months ago, including Reiss’ brother Abraham, and Rabbi Bernard Grunfeld, former president of the Bobover Yeshiva. Both Mahir Reiss and Grunfeld pleaded guilty to laundering drug money through the bank accounts of the Bobover Yeshiva and charitable institutions located at the Bobover World Headquarters in Borough Park, Brooklyn. In return, they charged a high service fee.
Weinstein’s sentencing of Mahir Reiss at the Brooklyn federal courthouse Tuesday followed hours of testimony from character witnesses, including prominent Jewish community figures such as leading Orthodox rabbis, a lawyer for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a member of Israel’s Neeman Commission.
Weinstein had previously sentenced five South American defendants to prison terms ranging from 27 to 30 months. One conspirator, Jack Pinski, a Colombian Jew who acted as a go-between, remains a fugitive. The length of Mahir Reiss’ sentence was partly contingent upon whether Weinstein believed the defendant knew that a $1 million airplane he purchased for the money-laundering scheme was going to be used for drug dealing. Also a factor was whether Mahir Reiss knew whether the bundles of cash dropped off at a Manhattan safe house were drug money.
Weinstein believed Mahir Reiss had to have known.Earlier, Mahir Reiss’ attorney, Nathan Lewin, paraded witnesses onto the stand to testify about his client’s charitable and financial support of the Orthodox community in New York and Israel.
The sixth-floor courtroom was packed with about 80 bearded men wearing traditional chasidic or ultra-Orthodox black-and -white garb. Outside the room were dozens more chasidic or Orthodox supporters, both men and women. In short order, witnesses credited Mahir Reiss with negotiating peace between: chasidic and yeshiva forces in Israel; between the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and his opponent Rabbi Eliyahu Shach in Israel; between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities in Israel; and between Orthodox and non-Orthodox forces. They lauded his charity and anonymity, repeating that he was instrumental in getting a new mikveh – ritual bath facility — built in Flatbush Brooklyn, but shunned taking any credit for it. They told Weinstein that if Mahir Reiss was imprisoned, it would be a devastating blow to world Jewry, citing his counsel to people on all subjects, from what doctor to choose, to marital and career advice. “Mahir Reiss is essential to the Orthodox community and general Israeli society,” declared Dov Frimer, an Israeli attorney and member of the Neeman Commission charged with finding a solution to the conversion dispute in Israel.
Israeli attorney Jacob Weinroth, who has represented Netanyahu, called Mahir Reiss a skilled mediator between conflicting cultures in world Jewry. He also said, however, that his longtime friend suffered from delusions following a critical car accident 12 years ago, which left him emotionally unstable.
Perhaps the most stunning testimony came from Rabbi Perlow, also known as the Novominsker rebbe, who is a member of the influential seven-member Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox advocacy group. Rabbi Perlow revealed that he was sitting shiva or in mourning — his wife had died several days ago — but he left his house because of the importance of pleading for leniency in Mahir Reiss’s case. Wearing a torn black coat, symbolizing his grief, Rabbi Perlow noted this was his first appearance in a courtroom in his life. Rabbi Perlow said he was “stunned and absolutely flabbergasted” when he learned of the charges against Reiss last year. Nevertheless, Rabbi Perlow argued that Weinstein should not use Reiss to send a message to the Orthodox community that criminal acts will not be tolerated. He said Reiss could do more good works out of prison. He also assured the judge that the Council of Torah Sages are taking steps to educate their community about lawlessness. “In light of instances in the media, the rabbis have discussed this,” he said, referring to a spate of embarrassing criminal cases over the last two years involving Jews from the chasidic or yeshiva world.
“This is a concept of chillul hashem [desecration of God] we are very much concerned about,” he said.