Silver Lining of the LA Scandal Cloud


It is still very much the elephant in the room. We can pretend that it didn’t happen, but it won’t go away that quickly. News sources are still writing new pieces, and the prosecutor has pledged new indictments. If you think it is one of the worst cases of chilul Hashem in memory, you are in good company. If you think that the story is all about sordid sleaze, you might have overlooked some points that were not picked up by conventional outlets. Not all the news was bad.

No one but the accused know whether the allegations are true, but no one can be sure that they are not. A few generations ago, an important Rosh Yeshiva visiting from Europe needed to borrow a small amount of cash for a short time. His would-be creditor embarrassedly asked him to sign an IOU. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but I’ve been burnt before by others dressed like you who borrowed and disappeared.” The Rosh Yeshiva broke down and cried, that a talmid chacham should even be suspected of such a thing. Whether the current allegations hold up in court or not, I haven’t met anyone who finds them surprising. This itself is tragic.

The good news starts with some people who instantly got it right, who knew how to make a contribution to the effort to decrease the likelihood of waking up to a different scandal in the future. The rov of my shul – home to none of the accused – spoke about the need to reexamine issues of personal honesty and integrity. He did this not once, but three times. A prominent mechanech in town did not wait for students to ask questions. He dedicated his shmuess to issues of chilul Hashem and how to avoid it. As far away as Riverdale, where talmidim are kept so busy learning B”H that they have very little awareness of the scuttlebutt of the Orthodox world, R. Avrohom Ausband shlit”a seized the opportunity to give talmidim a litmus test in addressing subtle and not-so-subtle moral challenges. “Would you act the same way if you knew that your actions will be splashed across headlines the next day?” This was superb pedagogy, making the best educational use of a bad moment.

Not all rabbonim and mechanchim were so enterprising, but we can hope that they too will realize that they can contribute to a solution.

Of course, there are those who do not recognize that there is a problem. In some places, too much of the conversation turned to CW, the “cooperating witness,” the FBI’s substitution for what everyone else calls the moser. Too little attention was focused on the alleged fraud. While RK’s conduct was contemptible, it reflects nothing more than human weakness, of a willingness to turn on others to save his own neck. The rest of us are not responsible for that, particularly since RK has hardly been a poster boy for Orthodox living.

The accused are a different story. Guilty or innocent, there are too many other Orthodox perps who have been convicted for similar misdeeds. The roots of a lackadaisical attitude towards defrauding faceless entities – particularly governmental ones – should be apparent. Guilty or innocent, those who go about business as usual and do not distance themselves from the root causes are virtually insuring that some of their children will one day fall prey to the same thinking and the same behavior. (Sensing that the shul was going to be mechabed the Rebbe with davening for the amud shortly after he posted bail, a few people quietly absented themselves, without fanfare and without raising the roof. They understood that – guilty or innocent – according such an honor did not stem from the treasured American belief in assuming innocence until guilt is proven. Given the proclivities of some people towards this kind of behavior, treating the new “guests” with undiminished honor was tantamount to announcing to their children that they took certain crimes and misdemeanors lightly. I am proud to say that all those who left and did not want to be part of such a statement are my friends.)

Additional positive news came from some of the blogs that are friendly to the chassidishe world. From the time the scandal broke, I endeavored to learn how Chassidim in particular would react to the arrests. I was pleasantly surprised. To be sure, there were lots of rants about anti-Semitism behind the charges, and nonsensical statements about victimless crimes, and charges that the government had no right to steal taxes from its citizens. On the other hand, many commenters completely rejected the specious arguments, and owned up to the seriousness of the chilul Hashem, to their abhorrence of programmatic dishonesty, and to the general fairness of American society. Some of these comments came from people outside of the Chassidic community; many clearly did not.

Some people – more than I would have expected – clearly understood the difference between living under the Czar or the porutz, and living in a constitutional democracy.

You might object that my sample is skewed. Chassidim who frequent blogs cannot be typical of their communities. Perhaps. Even if this were true, however, it would suggest where to begin on a solution. Greater exposure to the “outside” world had many attendant risks, but it also provides some needed enlightenment about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. Jews with more exposure to the non-Jewish world are in a better position to discard stereotypes that were accurate in pre-War Eastern Europe, and have little application in America. Whatever they have absorbed from history has been countered by the living example of so many good, decent, unbiased non-Jews.

Perhaps some reader will prove me wrong, but why is it that neither I nor the friends I asked can remember similar scandals affecting Orthodox Jews of German extraction? Is it only that “yekkes” are straighter? Is it not also that their attitudes towards the rest of the world are not as contemptuous and not as benighted as in other quarters? Why does it take so long for some people to take note of the differences between corrupt, anti-Semitic governments of older vintage, and the arguably better record of the medinah she chesed we inhabit? Is it not related in part to having no frequent and sustained interaction with our neighbors, so that only fictionalized versions of them are encountered?

Insularity has its merits, but it seems to come at a price as well. Part of that price is living in a time warp, where little has changed from hundreds of years ago, and all non-Jews are assumed to be cut of the same cloth. Those who promote insularity as a hedge against dilution of spiritual energy had better come up with a way of injecting a bit of an update in attitudes towards non-Jews and non-Jewish governments, or scandals such as the present one will continue to plague the community. If anything, we can expect to see an increase in them, as the secular authorities have trained their sights on what they see as pockets of corruption. The fact that the FBI was able to so efficiently translate idiomatic and coded Yiddish and Hungarian conversation gleaned from their surveillance is chilling. We understand that they didn’t advertise for part-time help on Craig’s List. They have committed resources to the hunt.

Models for misconduct are hardly restricted to any one part of the world, non-Jewish, Jewish, or Orthodox. People interested in learning the wrong lessons will not suffer from lack of others to imitate and blame. The bottom line is that if your children are absorbing inappropriate conceptions about the worthlessness of everything in the non-Jewish world, you had better modify their instruction. If not, you may be visiting them in prison some day.

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7 years 8 months ago

To strengthen Dr. E’s point, in Parashat Pikudei (Shmot 38:24-27) there is a full accounting of the precious metals used to the make the Mishkan. I assume that nobody running a Jewish Tzdaka organization thinks s/he is more trustworthy than Moshe.

Dr. E
7 years 8 months ago

Aaron makes some interesting observations of the cost of frum Jewish life and some systemic factors which make things more challenging. The premise is that the greater the financial pressures, the greater the Yetzer Harah. Well put. Unfortunately, in a culture where college is treif, where “Zevuluns” are viewed not much better than those “at risk”, and where headhunters are expected to magically “give a parnassa” to experience and education-challenged resumes, the situation will not get better soon.

I really hate to see when serious issues like this degenerate into making the perpetrators into victims. The whole mesira thing has really worn out its welcome in my book. No only in this case, but to the sexual abuse phenomenon and subsequent scandals which have been on the agenda of late. If people would behave themselves and if not our community would take appropriate action, we would not even be talking about mesira.

Spinka-gate should be taken as a wake-up call to our community to demand a greater financial openness for its schools, yeshivos, and tzedaka organizations (which have recently become “big business” if you peruse the mailboxes and social calendars). Often, finances are managed by a chosen few who know what comes in, what goes out, and to whom. And we are not only talking about scamming the government as was the case here. It’s much more than that. After all, these monies being managed are a public trust. Things are run way too “heimish” for my tastes with little accountability. Many “boards” of directors, trustees that appear on organizational letterheads are merely a facade for who really runs the institutions. Waste in operating costs, tuition breaks that are given which no one else seems to know about, and people being paid for cushy, fluff jobs are all violations this public trust. Chazal are replete with the lofty standards for Gabbai Tzedaka. They are probably worth some amount of review before giving over the car keys to some administrative leaders.

7 years 8 months ago

Gary Shulman asks: “How does this mythical family make ends meet in light of the financial demands of our society?”

This family cannot make ends meet unless the father, who is paid double the minimum wage, works 180 hrs. a week (There are only 168 hrs. in a week.) I arrived at the 180 hrs/wk. based on an annual $150,000 salary which a yeshiva administrator stated that is the annual income which enables a Jewish family to meet tuition fee requirements, in addition to its other bills.

My son will be going ii’h to mesifta next year. I requested application forms from a number of top-of-the-line mesiftos in the NY Metropolitan area. One of them stated upfront on the application form that the annual tuition fee is $12,600. It may include dorm, but I am not sure. It didn’t say. With tuition fees of such magnitude, I am not sure that $150,000 will be enough.

michoel halberstam
7 years 8 months ago

I thought I was finished with responding to this blog. However, I urge you to read the secular press about this incident. What has happened is that the Jewish community is now under attack for its “policy” of killing mosrim, as if we are all in some grand conspuracy to overthrow the government. There is no shortage of anti-clerical Jews who love to expose us.The next time we try to focus on being fair to the defendant, and being fair to this or that group, we should also focus on requiring all our coreligionists to be fair to us. What do you think ” Oi Lohem Labrios Me’elbona shel Torah” means?

The problem is not what an individual did. The problem is how we are perceived to react to it as a community

7 years 8 months ago

Mrs. Katz writes: “Polish, Russian and Hungarian Jews tend to maintain the habits that historically enabled them to survive under severely anti-Semitic regimes.”

I will start off with an incident that took place in Monsey about 3 yrs. ago. Most readers will be able to relate similar incidents in their communities. A handicapped Jewish girl disappeared on a Friday afternoon from a home that took care a several other girls with various physical and/or mental handicaps. Police was notified and a search party was organized. It consisted of police helicopters, police personnel, and Jewish and gentile volunteers. Baruch HaShem, the girl was found unharmed. Never in the history of our Galus did the authorities of the state that we lived in extend themselves to save Jews in distress. The great majority of the Jews in your list, Mrs. Katz, were born in the USA, or arrived here at a young age. As such, they did not experience organized, systematic anti-semitism. Hence, any Jew, even Russian, Polish, or Hungarian ones that cheat the gov’t, are nothing but frauds. One should not attempt to stir sympathy in their favor or justify their deeds on account of the horrors their parents lived through.

Hungarian Jew