The Syrian Jewish community, based in Brooklyn and the seaside town of Deal, N.J., acted swiftly this week to control the fallout from money-laundering allegations against four prominent rabbis — charges that could put some of its major institutions under scrutiny.
Community sources told The Jewish Week that some of the accused were under pressure from lay leaders to immediately resign from their pulpits. In an internal statement obtained by The Jewish Week on Tuesday, a group of religious and lay leaders urged members to unambiguously denounce the alleged conduct as a betrayal of their values.
“These allegations are profoundly troubling, even though they are still allegations,” wrote Morris Bailey, chairman of the Sephardic Community Alliance, an umbrella group of some two dozen organizations including schools and synagogues. “If over time, however, these charges prove to be true, we must be clear that we find this conduct reprehensible and that the alleged actions go against the very values and teachings that our community holds dear.”
Bailey added, “Any individual action, especially when so isolated from the majority norm, does not in any way reflect on our traditional values; those being a lifelong commitment to Torah, family and society at large.”
The arrests reportedly are the result of cooperation by a confidential witness, believed to be Solomon Dwek, of Monmouth County, N.J., who had been charged in a $50 million fraud scheme against PNC Bank in 2006, but whose case has never been brought before a grand jury. Media reports, citing law enforcement sources, say Dwek, the son of a rabbi, helped authorities tape the rabbis and 39 other people as they carried out their allegedly illicit schemes, including the laundering of $3 million in cash from unknown sources through legitimate charities, under the eyes of investigators. In all, 15 people were charged in the money-laundering scheme, all but two of them from Jewish communities in Brooklyn.
On a Jewish radio program Saturday night a former assemblyman from Borough Park, Sam Hirsch, said Dwek should face stiff retribution because of his role as an informant, the halachic concept of a moser.
“This person should have been killed,” said Hirsch, when asked by “Talkline” host Zev Brenner whether Dwek’s acts were comparable to those of Bar Kamsa, the man related in the Talmud as having incited tensions between the Romans and Jews leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Hirsch then said that Dwek and other informants should be ostracized from the community.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Hirsch, an attorney, said his earlier comment was a “misstep” and that he was referring to “a Talmudical concept that halachically [informers] would be killed. There is such a statement, but that doesn’t mean people should actually act on it. [The concept] doesn’t apply today.”
An Orthodox blog, Voz Is Nais, reported last week that Dwek’s father, Rabbi Israel Dwek, the spiritual leader in the Syrian Jewish community in Deal, N.J., denounced his son from the pulpit on Shabbat and said he would sit shiva, but the blog later retracted the story and said instead that the rabbi denounced in general the concept of Jews informing on each other and asked for the community’s prayers.
The charged rabbis are Rabbi Saul Kassin, 87, of the Shaare Zion synagogue on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn; Eliahu Ben Haim, 58, the principal rabbi of Congregation Ohel Yaacob in Deal; Edmond Nahum, 56, of the Deal Synagogue; Mordechai Fish, 56, of Congregation Sheves Achim in Brooklyn; and Lavel Schwartz, 57, a relative of Rabbi Fish. Also arrested was Levy Yitzchok Rosenbaum of Brooklyn, who is charged with organ trafficking (see accompanying story).
Rabbi Kassin, an author of several books on Jewish law and considered to be the most prominent rabbi in the Syrian community, is accused of laundering more than $200,000 through charities for the informant from June 2007 through December 2008, according to prosecutors. Fish, Schwartz and two other defendants used a charitable, tax-exempt organization called BCG, which was associated with Fish’s synagogue, to launder money, according to the FBI. Rabbi Kassin is accused of taking a fee in a scheme to launder money that Dwek said came from the sale of counterfeit designer handbags.* The rabbi is out on $200,000 bail.
The Star-Ledger last week reported that authorities removed several boxes of records from Ohel Yaacob and the Deal Yeshiva on Thursday.
A Sephardic community source said it was likely the rabbis were using some of the proceeds from the illegal operation for what they deemed to be charitable purposes. But the source added, “There is absolutely no justification for being a Robin Hood, stealing from the government to help the poor.”
The 44 people arrested last week in a widespread corruption sweep dubbed Operation Bid Rig by the acting U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, Ralph Marra, Jr., included the mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield and a state assemblyman. Linking this diverse consortium was Dwek, who is said to have guided investigators through a web of shady business that eventually led to the government officials, through the connection between a Monsey man and a Jersey City building inspector.
But last week’s arrests may be the tip of the iceberg, says a former businessman in the community who has been on the wrong side of federal prosecutions.
“This was one guy who turned in 44 people,” said Sam Antar. “When you have 44 people worried about going to jail, some of them are going to turn in other people. That’s what the government does. It flips witnesses.”
Antar, who provided evidence against his cousin, Eddie Antar, in the Crazy Eddie investor fraud case of the late 1980s, says the desire to stay out of jail should not be underestimated as a motivating factor. His own testimony as chief financial officer of the electronics chain put Eddie Antar and another cousin in jail and resulted in Sam being fined and sentenced to community service.
“There are 300 agents on this case, and they are not going away after the 44 arrests,” says Antar, who now lectures to companies and law enforcement about white-collar crime.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Marra, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail: “For those who were charged last week, the next step in the process is to present their cases to the grand jury for potential indictment. … We do not say in advance that we anticipate charging other individuals.”
While insisting the vast majority of Syrian Jews are law-abiding, Antar said that the community’s tight-knit, insular nature, the amount of interconnected families and the deep level of trust provide a natural framework for keeping secrets.
“You have here an alleged crime that was committed by a group of people who shared several common characteristics,” said Antar. “Religion, race, ethnicity and social background. It’s no different than other organized conspirators, like the mob, the Eastern European gangsters, the South American cartels. When you build bonds between people, their crimes can go undetected for very long periods of time.”
Lawyers for the rabbis told the New Jersey Jewish News their clients were not guilty.
“Rabbi Nahum was not involved in any illicit activity as described,” his counsel, Justin Walder, told the paper, which is based in Whippany. “We intend to establish [that] the basic decency and goodness of Rabbi Nahum was utilized by a person seeking to be absolved for his substantial wrongful conduct by implicating others.”
Michael Bachner, a Manhattan attorney representing Rabbi Fish, said his client was “duped and manipulated by Mr. Dwek into business transactions which Rabbi Fish believed were wholly legitimate. Dwek used the sterling reputation of his own family to assure Rabbi Fish that the transactions were legitimate.”
JTA contributed to this report.
* CORRECTION: The print version of this story erroneously reported that Rabbi Saul Kassin is accused of trafficking in the sale of counterfeit designer handbags. According to the U.S. Attorney’s complaint, the confidential witness who gave funds to the rabbi for deposit in a charitable account stated that the funds came from an operation to sell such merchandise. Rabbi Kassin is not alleged to be involved in any such sales.