Arrests put spotlight on Syrian Jewish community
WAYNE PARRY • The Associated Press
DEAL, N.J. - In the insular Syrian Jewish community at the New Jersey shore, this week marked the beginning of a solemn period recalling tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people.
In an ironic twist, the leaders of two influential synagogues here were among 44 people charged Thursday in a sweeping corruption and money laundering probe.
The rabbis are accused of money laundering using charitable nonprofit groups they or their synagogues controlled, and taking 5 to 10 percent for themselves.
The arrests are directing attention on a community that shuns scrutiny, even in the best of times.
Charged with money laundering were Eliahu Ben Haim, 58, of Long Branch, the principal rabbi of Congregation Ohel Yaacob, and Edmond Nahum of Deal, principal rabbi of Deal Synagogue.
"These are the biggest leaders of our community, our role models," said Steven Esses, a member of Nahum's congregation. "It's hard to believe they could do something like that when these people, all day long, teach the importance of being an ethical person. I still have faith in them."
Michael Winnick is another member of Nahum's congregation. He was praying in the synagogue at 6 a.m., when it was raided by federal agents.
"Certainly it is shocking," Winnick said. "I can only hope for everyone's sake that these charges are false. Some of these men have contributed greatly to their community."
Winnick said four FBI agents escorted Nahum into his office, locked the door and prevented others from approaching.
"He looked very apprehensive," Winnick said. "How would you look if four FBI officers took you into an office?"
Other congregants stared in disbelief.
"Everyone was looking at each other, like, `What's going on here?' " he said.
According to criminal complaints filed by federal prosecutors, rabbis in Deal and Brooklyn laundered tens of millions of dollars as part of an operation between the United States and Israel.
They used charitable entities that they or their synagogues controlled to deposit checks, working with an Israeli who would send huge amounts of money back to the U.S. through so-called "cash houses" in Brooklyn. The rabbis typically kept 5 to 10 percent for themselves, according to court documents.
Nahum is accused of working with Saul Kassin of Brooklyn, N.Y., the 87-year-old chief rabbi for the Syrian Jewish community in the United States.
In one secretly recorded conversation, Nahum tells a cooperating witness that he should launder his money through a number of rabbis.
"The more it's spread, the better," Nahum said on the recording, according to court documents.
Authorities did not identify the cooperating witness, described in court documents as a person "charged in a federal criminal complaint with bank fraud in or about May 2006." The date matches up with an investigation that led to bank fraud charges against Solomon Dwek, the son of a prominent Deal rabbi who was not charged in the case.
The younger Dwek was charged in May 2006 on federal bank fraud charges relating to a bounced $25 million check he deposited in a bank's drive-through window. He has denied the charges through his lawyer.
Dwek's lawyer, Michael Himmel, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday afternoon.
Residents say Deal, a wealthy Monmouth County beach community is home to about 10,000 Syrian Jews year-round, and the population nearly triples in the summer months, fueled by vacationers from Brooklyn.
They are known for sticking close together, and only marrying within their own community. Members, many of whom are successful retailers or importers, typically help newcomers by giving them loans or free inventory to get them started.
There are about a dozen synagogues catering to the Syrian community in New Jersey, ranging from Bradley Beach to Deal and the Elberon section of Long Branch.
On the streets of Deal on Thursday, most people approached declined to speak about the arrests. The rabbi of a congregation not implicated in the case also waved away questions, saying only, "This is too hot right now."