Despite objections by U.S. law enforcement officials, an Israeli court this week approved an unusual $3 million bail agreement for the founder of the chasidic New Square community, who is fighting extradition on charges he stole tens of millions of dollars in federal education and housing aid.
The deal would remand Chaim Berger, 73, to house arrest. It was approved after Jerusalem District Court Judge Zvi Segal and Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein agreed to release him on the personal bond of two noted chasidic rabbis (the Vizhnitzer rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Hagar, and the Erlau rebbe, Rabbi Yohanan Sofer) as well as Israel’s deputy housing minister, Meir Porush.
Before a courtroom packed with bearded, black-hatted haredim, Rubinstein requested that the three ultra-Orthodox leaders post $3.5 million bail.
A spokesman for New Square said the Rockland community is trying to raise the money. Berger remained in custody this week.
"We hope to have it pretty soon," said the spokesman, Rabbi Mayer Schiller. "We are trying to raise it from various private donors both here and in Israel."
The bail agreement would allow Berger to leave home for an hour and a half each in the mornings and evenings to attend synagogue services.
Israeli law calls for those facing possible extradition to be kept in custody until a decision on their case has been made: a process that can take months. But Rubinstein called Berger’s case unusual because of his age, the fact that he is a Holocaust survivor and "the judge’s willingness to put trust in the spiritual leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community prepared to stake their good names and vouch for Berger," according to an Israeli press report.
U.S. officials warned Israel against freeing Berger, contending that he fled New York 18 months ago knowing he would be indicted for his part in stealing $20 million in federal and state education and housing grants and subsidies.
"Berger presents a grave risk of flight," according to an affidavit from Deborah Landis, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, presented to the Israeli judge. She added that "after [Berger] fled, members of his family concealed his whereabouts: even from his own attorney."
Charges in the New Square case include conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and embezzlement, which carry maximum prison terms ranging from five to 20 years.
Four defendants indicted with Berger were convicted last month in White Plains federal court. Two remain at large. All but one are from New Square.
The indictment charged that in one scheme, a Brooklyn yeshiva was financed almost entirely by federal Pell grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to ineligible or nonexistent students.
Berger was arrested Feb. 18 in Israel after the United States asked for his extradition. The judge was given a report detailing the steps Israeli police took to find Berger.
Berger’s lawyer, Yehuda Tunik, said his client is ineligible for extradition because he is an Israeli citizen. Under Israeli law, citizens cannot be extradited.
Tunik denied that his client fled U.S. law, saying that he came to Israel to retire and that the 64-count federal indictment was issued only months later.
Berger became an Israeli citizen legally when he immigrated, like any other American Jew, Tunik said. "He didn’t come here to hide," the attorney said.
But a U.S. Justice Department official told The Jewish Week that Israel’s extradition law does not protect those who committed crimes prior to becoming a citizen.
According to the indictment, the alleged crimes were committed from the 1970s through the 1990s.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Larry Schwartz said Berger was a fugitive who fled to Israel to avoid justice. "The United States expects that he’ll be returned expeditiously to stand trial," Schwartz said.
No court date has been set for the extradition hearing.
The Berger case comes at the same time as a controversial decision by the Israel Supreme Court not to extradite Samuel Sheinbein, a Maryland teenager wanted for murder, because he successfully claimed Israeli citizenship through his father.
Tunik told the court last week that Berger, who helped found the 6,000 member New Square village 40 years ago, was a rabbi and teacher, "and a commitment by a man of this sort to the great Torah sages would never be broken."
Rabbi Schiller said the New Square community is happy about the bail deal and hopes it will lead to his exoneration. "The community’s sense is the government’s pound of flesh has been exacted and there’s no need to drag a 73-year-old Holocaust survivor into this," he said.
"Even if the misappropriation of fund allegations are true, none of this money wound up in his pocket."