Orthodox Scandals Could Harm Power Base, Experts Warn
Adam Dickter • New York Jewish Week
In the wake of recent scandals involving local Orthodox Jews, some sociologists think there could soon be a backlash against the political power of what has long been one of the most sought-after voting blocs.
“Situations like this have a cumulative effect,” said William Helmreich, a professor of sociology at City College and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College.
“No one knows when the tipping point will come — if it hasn’t already been reached — that people will simply conclude that Orthodox Jews are just generally more likely to have a general disrespect for government and to engage in shady practices,” Helmreich said.
The past year has seen the arrests of five Orthodox rabbis, including the chief rabbi of the Syrian community, on various corruption charges by the United States attorney in New Jersey; fraud charges against money manager Ezra Merkin as an accomplice to Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff; the sentencing of West Side gabbai Chaim Regensberg to eight years in jail for his own $11 million Ponzi scheme and the conviction of kosher meatpacking king Sholom Rubashkin in Iowa on 86 fraud charges.
These prosecutions come as Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes has launched a program to encourage victims to report pedophilia cases to law enforcement. Hynes has long been considered by advocates for victims of sexual abuse to be protective of the Orthodox community and reluctant to press cases against rabbis and teachers there.
And last week came the arrest of a politically prominent Borough Park rabbi, Milton Balkany, on charges of wire fraud and extortion.
Rabbi Balkany is accused by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of soliciting a $4 million payoff from a Connecticut hedge fund by warning the fund’s directors that a federal inmate he counsels claims he has evidence of illegal trading at the fund.
Although he has retained a prominent defense lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, Rabbi Balkany has been outspoken in his own defense since the arrest, appearing on an Orthodox radio program, “Talkline,” Saturday night and giving interviews to the blog Vas Is Naiz and The Jewish Week.
“My intent was 100 percent pure,” he said on Tuesday. “I was trying to get someone out of jail. These people were in a lot of trouble and tried to sacrifice me on the altar.”
Rabbi Balkany said prosecutors took “very ugly excerpts, picked and chose and twisted” words to incriminate him. He insisted that one of the two checks totaling $3.25 million he collected was for naming a building after the man in charge of the hedge fund. “There was no personal benefit,” he insisted.
Noting that a previous federal case against him in 2003, alleging misappropriation of a government grant, ended without an indictment, Rabbi Balkany said, “This situation is not any less outrageous than that.”
Mitchell Moss, director of the Center for Urban Policy at New York University, said the perception of corruption in the Orthodox establishment could make politicians “more alert as to whom they are dealing with. The problem is that what we are seeing may not be new, but it means they are being caught. We are discovering that spiritual values can mask criminal behavior.”
Moss said that despite what should be the public presumption that the misdeeds of a few are not representative of an entire community, the Orthodox community has to demonstrate that it is policing itself.
“The Orthodox community has to be alert to the behavior of its rabbis, because the rabbis are now really undermining the community. A handful of crooked rabbis can undermine the legitimacy of the vast majority of observant and law-abiding, ethical rabbis.”
Likening the situation to Catholic priests who brought scandal to the Church because of a significant pedophilia problem, Moss said, “Everyone knows that [the rash of recent prosecutions] are not reflective of the vast majority, but these are the ones who get the attention. So it’s essential for the Orthodox rabbinical organizations to monitor their own members, but the problem is they don’t. It’s a highly decentralized, autonomous system.”
Marvin Schick, a consultant on Jewish education and commentator on Jewish life, said that Orthodox rabbinic organizations regularly speak out on ethics issues. But he said unlike rabbinic boards in other countries, those here have limited power.
“In America they don’t have the leverage,” said Schick. “The [Rabbinical Council of America] speaks out forcefully against wrongdoing, but more than that they can’t do.”
When asked if he thought the level of illegal behavior among Orthodox Jews was of a proportion similar to other groups. Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, said it was hard to say without sociological data.
“What I do know is that meticulous honesty is a fundamental ideal of Judaism,” he said. “Any falling short of that ideal in the Jewish community, statistically significant or not, is lamentable. And it’s particularly lamentable when it occurs in the part of the community that strives to meticulously observe Jewish law.”
Schick said that although Orthodox criminals may be “more visible, I wouldn’t say the Orthodox percentage is any higher than the percentage of other Jews and other people.”
But Helmreich said that given the emphasis on morality in Orthodox life, the standard should be higher. “If you claim the moral high ground, you must be better, not just not be worse.”
As to the potential fallout on political influence — politicians being reluctant, for instance, to court the Orthodox vote — Rabbi Shafran said “any corruption, and even the appearance of corruption, has the potential of having negative impact on the community’s public image. I can only hope that the community’s many shining examples of honesty, integrity and charity, although they don’t generally make the front pages, will be recognized by others.”
Helmreich, who is author of a book about racial and ethnic stereotypes, “The Things People Say Behind Your Back,” said one reason why scandals involving Jews, particularly the Orthodox, gain prominence in the media is because they are so prominent in American life, and typically play roles of agents of change.
“They are overrepresented among activists for social justice and charity,” he said. “They are supposed to be leading pious lives. When they do something wrong there is a sense of ‘these annoying do-gooders are far from perfect.’”
Queens College sociologist Samuel Heilman, who has written studies of Orthodox life, said the perception that scandal stories arise often enough that “you can leave out the details with names of the particular yeshiva and the amount, and later fill in the blanks” was likely related to economic stress.
“You’re talking about a community that has a growing population, a large part of which isn’t gainfully employed, in an economy that’s downturning,” said Heilman. “This is not going to change unless the structure of the community changes. I suspect that more politicians are going to be more careful than they have in the past.
“The economic downturn sort of brings these people out of the woodwork,” Heilman continued. “When there isn’t a lot of money people tend to find new ways of prying it loose.”
Rabbi Shafran conceded that financial stress could be a corrupting influence.
“As to factors contributing to whatever criminal activity there may be in the community,” he said, “one can certainly point to things like the economy, the societal emphasis on material goods and the great financial pressures, in even the best of times, of living an observant Jewish life. But challenges, in the end, are meant to be overcome, and so factors are not excuses.”
It becomes easier to commit a crime, Heilman added, if the proceeds are ostensibly for a good cause, such as supporting a yeshiva or poor people. “Ill-gotten gains for something that has a higher purpose can be used to justify the behavior,” he said. “‘I’ll take dirty money and make it clean.’”
Heilman said recent prosecutions likely stem from a greater ability to make inroads and gain information from within the community. In the New Jersey arrests, one man who turned on his community is reportedly the informant who provided information leading to the arrests of the five rabbis and dozens of other people, who became an informant to keep himself out of jail. Such information in the past would have been extremely difficult to come by given the traditional halachic scorn against one who informs to secular authorities.
Likewise, an increasing number of sex abuse prosecutions in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community are attributed to a growing sense that such informing is essential, in light of the generally poor record of community leaders and institutions policing the problem of pedophilia from the inside.
“The Orthodox community is better understood now than it once was,” Heilman said. “In the past it was only researchers and writers who talked about the Orthodox,” he said, pointing out the closed nature of the community.
Today, bloggers inside the Orthodox community along with sexual abuse victims and their advocates continue to reveal new potential cases of abuse. The revelations, in turn, are seen as exerting pressure on the Brooklyn DA’s office to prosecute such cases more aggressively.
But Heilman said any bad publicity may not soon translate to politicians giving up their forays into Orthodox communities for photo ops with grand rabbis, a route that has been taken by candidates from the local, district level to statewide and even national candidates.
“I suspect there is still a need for iconic figures,” he said. “They may be more circumspect and check a particular rabbi more than they have before. But there is still no alternative to having pictures taken with an Israeli official or a rabbi with a long beard to say I support Jews.”
David Luchins, a board member of the Orthodox Union and professor of political science at Touro College, said he found it hard to believe Rabbi Balkany could be guilty of prosecutors’ allegations.
“While I’ve had my own run-ins with him in the past, and I’m certainly not a fan of his politics, it’s hard to believe someone so intelligent and capable would so something so incredibly stupid. I hope and pray the charges are proven wrong.”
He added that the Orthodox role in the city’s power structure was not likely to be threatened.
“As long as people need access and as long as candidates need campaign contributions and as long as segments of the city need access, there will always be people providing these services, hopefully in a legal fashion.”