Brooklyn Blogs Buzzing With Talk About Rabbis
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: July 24, 2009
On a blog catering to young Syrian Jews in Brooklyn (where almost everyone has a blog), one comment seemed to crystallize the mix of puzzlement and dark humor emerging in some parts of their community on Friday, the day after the F.B.I. arrested five Sephardic rabbis on money-laundering charges.
The five were netted in an investigation that relied heavily on the work of a confidential informer, reputed to be a prominent Sephardic Jewish businessman who — as everyone in the tight-knit enclave knew since the F.B.I. arrested him in 2006 — faced a long prison term for financial fraud.
“Who deals with a guy that the feds are already watching?” the contributor wrote on an inconspicuous blog, whose name and Internet address the blog’s administrators asked a reporter not to identify, saying that the protection of contributors’ and readers’ identities was crucial in a religious community where violations of communal privacy codes were not tolerated.
It was a question repeated Friday in many forms: Some asked it to point out that the rabbis clearly considered their actions legal. Others raised it as evidence of the rabbis’ naďveté in the ways of the world: How else to explain the lack of suspicion with which they were said to have dealt with the reputed informer, Solomon Dwek?
For Sam E. Antar, a Brooklyn-born member of the Sephardic community who went to prison for business fraud and now advises law enforcement agencies and companies on how to detect white-collar crime, the blogger’s question pointed to the essence of organized fraud: the total trust among participants.
“I’m not saying these guys, I’m just saying in general — but in every organized white-collar crime, you have to have a group of people bound by relationships that everybody believes are indestructible,” said Mr. Antar, 62, who was the chief financial officer of the Crazy Eddie discount electronics chain and the cousin of its namesake, Eddie Antar, who was also convicted of fraud.
Being tight-knit — normally considered a plus for any group — “that can work both ways,” he said. Cautioning again that he was speaking hypothetically, he added: “When the F.B.I. gets a good grip on a guy who belongs to a network like that, it’s like, they can pull the string and the whole thing unravels.”
Among other charges, the F.B.I. said the rabbis laundered money by accepting checks from the informant — reputed to be Mr. Dwek — for the charitable organizations they controlled, then returned the donations in cash, less a 5 or 10 percent fee.
The rabbis were Saul J. Kassin, the 87-year-old scion of a Sephardic Jewish religious dynasty, and four other prominent clerics in Brooklyn and New Jersey,
Few members of the Brooklyn’s Sephardic Syrian Jewish community, which numbers about 75,000 people, were willing to discuss — at least with reporters — what they made of the charges against their spiritual leaders.
The community is among the most insular of all Jewish groups, since 1935 observing an edict against intermarriage, even with Jewish converts. The penalty is banishment from the community.
In a few sharp comments, however, passers-by on Kings Highway and on Ocean Parkway, where Rabbi Kassin’s Shaare Zion synagogue is located, expressed disdain for Mr. Dwek’s reputed role in the investigation.
“He has a past,” said Rabbi Romi Cohn, whose jaw could be seen clenching through his full beard as he hurried into a synagogue several blocks from Shaare Zion. It was not necessary to say aloud the name of Mr. Dwek, who faced a bevy of charges for real estate and financial fraud before he agreed to help the government.
(At Mr. Dwek’s home in Deal, N.J., the Brooklyn Sephardic community’s summer enclave, a knock at the door was answered by a domestic worker, revealing a woman inside carrying an empty suitcase.)
Some people in Brooklyn said the case was nothing but lies. In any case, there still was no evidence, they said, that the rabbis had benefited personally.
At sundown Friday, men and boys in crisp suits filed out of Shaare Zion. “It’s bad,” said one older man of the charges. “But we will wait to see.”
Anna Kassin, the 62-year-old daughter of Rabbi Kassin, was banished by her father almost 40 years ago when she married a non-Jew, and now teaches in a religious school and tutors children preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs. In a brief telephone interview from her California home, she said she was “distraught” by news of the arrests.
Though she has not seen him in many years, she said her father was a good man.
Ann Farmer and Karen Zraick contributed reporting.
The young receive free educations and the old get free geriatric care. Family businesses connect relatives in a web of interdependence to the furthest reaches of kinship. Wedding receptions with 1,000 guests are common. A Friday night Sabbath dinner with 40 people is the norm.
And that enveloping tradition among the Syrian Jewish communities of Brooklyn and New Jersey seemed to redouble the shock and outrage among their members Thursday after the arrests of five Sephardic rabbis in a New Jersey corruption investigation.
“Shock and disbelief — my cellphone, my office phone, they’re ringing off the hook,” said Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, who represents an Orthodox Jewish community adjacent to the southern Brooklyn neighborhoods where about 75,000 Sephardic Jews live. “People do not believe it.”
In a criminal complaint, the F.B.I. said the rabbis used their congregations’ charitable organizations to launder about $3 million — passing what they were told was a donor’s ill-gotten gains through their charities’ bank accounts, and then returning the money to the donor in exchange for a cut of 5 to 10 percent.
The donor turned out to be an apparent F.B.I. informer, Solomon Dwek, who, like the rabbis, is a Sephardic Jew of Syrian descent.
One of the five rabbis, Saul J. Kassin, 87, a slight, soft-spoken man who has written several books on Jewish law, leads the largest of about 50 Sephardic synagogues in the United States, Shaare Zion in Brooklyn. He is considered the leading cleric of the national community.
The congregation was founded by his father, Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, who was known from 1932 until his death in 1994 as the chief rabbi of Brooklyn’s Syrian Sephardic Jews.
David G. Greenfield, executive vice president of the Sephardic Community Federation, a group representing the approximately 100,000 Sephardim in Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey, said in a statement, “The community is shocked and saddened by these allegations, which go against every value and teaching the community holds dear.”
He added, “If over time these allegations are proven, we must remember that these are the isolated actions of a few individuals.”
Sephardic Jews trace their ancestry to Spain and various parts of North Africa and the Middle East, as distinct from the Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe. They include Moroccans, Turks, Iranians and Iraqis. But most belong to families that emigrated to the United States from the Middle East, especially Syria, because of anti-Jewish attacks there after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Unique among groups within Judaism, Sephardic leaders have tried mightily to strike a difficult balance between preservation of identity and participation in the American entrepreneurial dream, said Prof. Aviva Ben-Ur of the University of Massachusetts, author of “Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History.”
In 1935, Rabbi Kassin’s father issued an edict forbidding both marriage outside the faith and marriage to Jewish converts, she said. At the same time, Sephardim, unlike the ultra-Orthodox who live at a remove from American society, attend public schools in the lower grades and are encouraged to succeed in business.
Among the successful businesses founded by Sephardic Jews are Jordache and Bonjour, the jeans makers, and the Conway and Century 21 department stores.
Phone messages left at Rabbi Kassin’s home were not returned. At the home of his son, Jacob S. Kassin, a woman answered and said the son would not be available to comment.
David Ben-Hooren, a member of the congregation and publisher of The Jewish Voice and Opinion, a conservative monthly newspaper, spoke to reporters at the synagogue, on Ocean Parkway.
"When the facts come out, we’ll find out that those rabbis never broke the law,” he said. “I believe they’re going to be vindicated. Knowing those rabbis for many years, I know that they devoted their lives to charity, and there’s no way that they benefited from any of those activities."
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