The latest arrests in the city’s widening fundraising and police corruption scandal, with three Jewish businessmen alleged to be key figures in the case, are cause for communal reflection about the prospects and pitfalls in courting influence from politicians and police officers, those who enact the laws and those who uphold them.
The arrest this week of Jeremiah Reichberg of Borough Park, and the recent guilty plea of his former colleague, Jona Rechnitz of Manhattan, were based on charges of giving gifts to high-ranking police officers in exchange for illicit favors. They wanted “a private police force for themselves and their friends,” according to Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney general in Manhattan. Just last week, Murray Huberfeld, a businessman from the Five Towns area of Long Island, was charged with fraud for an alleged bribe paid to Norman Seabrook, who heads the union representing correctional offers in New York City. Both men were arrested.
Mainstream media attention has also focused on Shomrim, the much-praised volunteer patrol group that seeks to protect Jews in several Brooklyn neighborhoods and has close relations with the NYPD. A former Shomrim member was arrested on charges of allegedly bribing police officers to secure handgun permits, which led to the Seabrook-Huberfeld revelation. In addition, two men affiliated with the Shomrim assaulted a black man in Williamsburg last month, leading to allegations that the group sometimes takes the law into its own hands.
These revelations have a strong impact on a community still reeling from the downfall of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his friend and ally William Rapfogel, former head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, both of whom were found guilty of taking money illegally.
To note that all of the above are Orthodox Jews who were involved with their religious community and admired for acts of charity may elicit criticism from those who allege that denominational affiliations are irrelevant here. But there is a sociological factor at play, with the local Orthodox community becoming increasingly active on the political scene in recent decades and new pockets of wealth supporting Jewish education and a wide variety of charitable causes. The combination sometimes culminates in overreaching in seeking influence and clout.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, observed that “the Orthodox community has looked to government for aid more aggressively in recent times.” In seeking to maintain “a sense of righteousness,” he said, those dealing with politicians have “a tremendous responsibility to stay within the law.”
The temptation for those with wealth to feel less bound by the limits of the law is nothing new and applies to all groups. And the responsibility of charitable organizations to scrutinize the source of funding that comes their way is also a longstanding issue throughout our community. One former head of a Jewish nonprofit told us this week, “When you hear the whispers [about the shady dealings of a benefactor] and you decide you’d rather not look into it, that creates a real moral problem.”
Huberfeld in particular has had a history of legal problems in his business dealings. But he was a prominent contributor to Jewish causes. Some organizations justify receiving funds that may be tainted by rationalizing that the money is going to a good cause and that the donation may be a form of teshuvah, or repentance, for the donor. Others opt to turn down such gifts in order to head off an embarrassing situation down the road.
To be very clear, no community is responsible for the misdeeds of a few individuals, and the Orthodox community is known, deservedly, for its wide and deep range of charitable work. But whether fair or not, identifiably Orthodox Jews are held to a higher standard, known for their commitment to following God’s commands. Two essential ones are to follow the laws of the land and to avoid a chilul Hashem, a public desecration of God’s name.