Sunday, February 22nd, 2009
Some readers have asked for more info on Satmar’s real estate holdings in relation to Kiryas Joel being the poorest community in the country, according to the latest government figures.
On the one hand, one can’t expect any community to sell the real estate of a shul, yeshiva or summer camp. That real estate is not being questioned. But Satmar, according to some reports and court papers, owns $25 million in Ulster County real estate. Satmar’s holding aren’t that negotiable in Kings, Orange or Sullivan counties, but holdings in Ulster might be fair game.
Here’s where I applaud Satmar. They recognized that they had no expertise in either special-ed, or teaching and caring for the severely disabled. So they allowed a public school in Kiryas Joel. “Allowed” because it was a great sacrifice for them to have their kids in a school with any mezuzahs or Jewish classes. While “modern” Jews debate the fine points of why tax credits or vouchers for day schools are better left on the table — at a devestating cost to our community — Satmar worked the system and got a public school to shoulder the load. The same way they’ve worked the system to become the municipality in the United States with the highest percentage of population on food stamps.
Is it bad to work the system? Working the system is why ”modern” Jews hire accountants to unearth every possible tax deduction. Is that wrong? No liberal seems to mind illegal aliens working the system, criminal immigrants whose government benefits and entitlements are costing taxpayer billions a year. There’s a tinge of anti-Semitism, or anti-chasidism, when we’re so cavalier in busting Satmar for working the very same system. At least these chasidim became Americans the old fashioned way: through the front door, legally. If chasidim had crossed the Rio Grande instead of the Atlantic, most liberal Jews would be more forgiving.
Are Satmar leaders dishonest? That was said by some mainstream Jews whose own trustees and honorees — until ten minutes ago — were Ezra Merkin and Bernie Madoff.
My biggest problem with Satmar and the rest of the Jewish community is that they aren’t hustling enough. We’ve been slow in creating Hebrew-emphasis public schools (there are already Arabic and Spanish schools), and or whatever else it takes to help our community through the hard times.
One of the leading Jewish philanthropists told me that what bothered him the most about the Madoff situation was how much money Jewish organizations were keeping much under the mattress. Yes, billions in endowments and investments are wisely being kept for tomorrow’s emergency but how much is too much, and what if the emergency is now?
How much of our organizational endowments ought to be freed up? Is some of Satmar’s $25 million in Ulster totally justifiable when some Satmar yeshiva teachers are barely surviving on low wages, let alone not always being paid on time?
I’ll still take Satmar’s leaders over some mainstream synagogue boards who spent shul money like they were having sailor-on-fleet-week spending sprees, rebuilding perfectly functional shuls into McMansions instead of showing some modesty. Meanwhile these great Masters of The Building Fund were jacking up exorbitant membership fees and High Holiday tickets to pay for the party. Most chasidic shuls don’t charge membership fees.
Shuls that do charge for membership might start looking into the idea of a sliding fee scale, instead of the regressive tax that most memberships are, with widows and retired secretaries being assessed the same membership fee as Wall Street bankers with their bonuses.
With the community heading deeper into hard times, let’s remember that the money invested and endowed by Jewish organizations was raised as tzedakah money, and a lot more Jews will be needing that tzedakah before the economy turns around. Free it up. The better Jewish institutions are. And don’t be afraid of tax credits and vouchers for yeshivas, and Hebrew-emphasis charter schools. Don’t be afraid of taking out the money that we, ourselves, put into the American system, unlike the trillions of American dollars that have flown out the window and overseas (to illegals, to Palestinians, to Iraqis, to African warlords) and causes less worthy. I don’t mind if some of that money stay at home, for Jewish kids with disabilities in a school in Kiryas Joel.