In her Opinion piece, “Season Of Scandals” (Sept. 10), Erica Brown bemoaned what she referred to as a “rash” of scandals in the Jewish community, a condition that prompted her to write her new book, “Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things.”
While I respect and admire Brown’s determination to help address an important issue, I feel obligated to point out that her basic premise is deeply flawed. I believe her two years of research would have much better served the our community if she thought about why a really small number of Jewish scandals manage to poison the world’s view of an entire people, despite the fact that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews live honest, productive and extraordinarily generous lives.
While I did not devote two years researching Jewish scandals, I have spent the past 35 years living with Jewish scandal.
As one of the few well-known criminal defense lawyers, who also happens to be an Orthodox Jew, I have been and continue to be professionally involved, one way or the other, in most of the Jewish scandals covered by the media in recent years.
They include some of the cases cited by Brown in what appears to be a random grouping of cases in which one or more of the defendants or subjects happens to be an Orthodox Jew and/or a rabbi.
Unfortunately in compiling her list, Brown makes no effort to explain any of the cases she cites, nor does she even mention the fact that with respect to several of the cases she references, the defendant(s) have not yet been convicted of any criminal conduct and by law are “presumed” to be innocent. It is Brown’s “presumption” of guilt that I find offensive.
Even more inappropriate is her “presumption” of widespread corruption within the Orthodox community, a suggestion that is simply not supported by the facts despite the headlines that apparently prompted Brown’s despair.
Brown correctly observes that “scandals in the Jewish community do more than crush individuals. They diminish the respect we have for rabbis, politicians and other authority figures.” What she ignores, however, is the hard reality that the prosecution of only a handful of Orthodox Jews, nevertheless suggests to the world (including Brown), that corruption is endemic to the Jewish community and widespread within the Orthodox community, when that is simply not true.
The number of Orthodox Jews actually prosecuted is comparatively small and the number of Jews actually imprisoned is the smallest percentage by far of any recognized religious group in the world.
Trust me. I agree with Brown that Jewish scandals must be addressed by our leadership in schools and synagogues, because even one scandal is too many.
In my experience, many criminal cases involving Orthodox Jews arise not out of intentional criminal conduct, but rather a lack of sophistication to properly deal with a highly regulated economic environment. In the majority of these cases, the answer is more formal secular education before the transition from yeshiva-kollel to the secular world.
While Orthodox Jews certainly have room for improvement, we do not deserve condemnation on this issue, certainly not from within our people and not on the basis of a flawed premise. Constructive criticism and helpful suggestions, yes. Panic and hysteria about a serious issue that gets magnified beyond reason and fact is neither the right answer nor is it helpful.
The overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews who become embroiled in criminal conduct are first-time offenders who have committed non-violent offenses and who have otherwise led very decent, productive lives. In many cases, the financial pressures of raising a large family and the added pressure of meeting huge educational expenses unique to the Orthodox Jewish community often contribute to the blurring of ethical lines. In other cases, we are often dealing with isolated instances of bad judgment in a lifetime of goodness.
While not excuses or legitimate legal defenses, these facts are nevertheless part of the complicated equation we must consider before offering an attack on a community.
What’s more, there is virtually no evidence of recidivism within the Orthodox Jewish community, a fact that is often ignored by those seeking to condemn rather than understand the issue. Jews who get prosecuted accept their responsibility, serve their time or pay their penalty and they do not ever again cross any legal or ethical boundary. We must offer these people and their children hope, not eternal condemnation.
In this season of forgiveness, we acknowledge we are far from perfect. But despite the occasional scandal that shames us all, we have the right and need to hold our heads high, not hang them in shame.
Ben Brafman is a criminal defense attorney in New York City.