In Light of N.J. Scandal, a Focus on Troubling Communal Norms

By Robert Wiener (New Jersey Jewish News via JTA)

Published July 28, 2009.
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An unwritten commandment permeates many parts of American-Jewish society: “It shouldn’t be a shande for the goyim.”

That fear — that the bad acts of a few Jews may bring great shame to their people’s reputation in the eyes of the broader gentile world — is embedded in fears and realities of persecution that have lingered for centuries.

Since the July 23 arrests of 14 Orthodox Jews on money-laundering charges, and a 15th accused of illegally buying and selling kidneys, the word shande — Yiddish for “shame” — has echoed in countless Jewish conversations.

So, too, have fears of anti-Semitism, calls for serious introspection, concerns about media coverage and even some suggestions that the insularity of the Syrian Jewish community may have contributed to the alleged lawbreaking.

“It looks terrible to the outside world, but I am more concerned with the Jewish world,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network. “My late father used to say, ‘The anti-Semites don’t need our help to be anti-Semitic.’ ”

Shortly after news of the arrests broke, Charendoff wrote an op-ed for The New York Jewish Week urging community leaders to examine whether “something” in the Orthodox world creates “fertile ground” for corruption.

“For me, as an Orthodox Jew, Orthodoxy is supposed to stand for something — a system that creates higher levels of moral conduct and better communities,” Charendoff said. “Here we are not just seeing Orthodox Jews, but some Orthodox Jewish leaders. That is extraordinarily disturbing.

“Whenever someone dons the mantle of leadership, it comes with enormous responsibility and influence. One can use that influence for good or for ill.”

In the wake of the arrests, some commentators are suggesting the tight bonds of religious observance can sometimes lead to an us-and-them view of the outside world.

In an interview with Time magazine, the American-born Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi spoke this week of a “kind of borderless community that in its best expressions maintains international charity efforts that are second to none. But the dark side of this is a mentality that often too easily slides into rationalizations for acts that cannot be rationalized, with the idea that the end justifies the means.”

Azriel Fellner, a Conservative rabbi who was raised in a Modern Orthodox home and educated at an Orthodox yeshiva, blames the “insularity” of groups like the 75,000-strong Syrian-Jewish community.

Such insularity “is part of the fundamental reason they think they can do things like that,” said Fellner, the former religious leader at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J.

“They don’t think they can be judged by anybody else,” he said. “They also feel self-righteous about everything they do — that somehow they’ve got the key to true Jewish belief and true Jewish law and anyone who deviates from that — even other Orthodox groups — do not match up to who they are. They feel not only insular but also protected against other people’s judgments, and that is dangerous stuff.”

A spokesman for the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America says such analyses ignore the positive sides of tightly knit Orthodox communities.

“One of the premises of the haredi community is that it can be stronger and more effective by being insular and protecting our families and children from the influences of the outside world,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudah’s director of public affairs, said in an e-mail interview. “There is something to be said for that, but on the other hand, the result of that is you are not challenged by outside thinking and the norms of the broader community.”

In recent weeks, Shafran says he has been pained by reports of haredim rioting in Jerusalem in protest of various rulings by Israel’s secular authorities, and now by accusations of wrongdoing by American rabbis.

“There is no question that the recent reports create a sense of shame in us all. But at the same time, we are enjoined by Jewish tradition to not assume guilt on the basis of accusations,” said Shafran, referring to the corruption probe.

The accusations against fellow religious Jews “reflect negatively on us as divine signals that something is in fact amiss in our lives,” he said. “When we all are living as we should be, we believe, such things cannot happen.”

Adrienne Asch, director of the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University, said Jewish communities must confront an ethos that seeks to protect wrongdoers from outside scrutiny.

“It is time for Jews to face the fact that there are criminals among them, just as there are criminals everywhere else,” she said. “We should not be protecting criminals for fear of persecution. We should be speaking out for what is fair and just.”

At the same time, Jews must be confident enough to treat wrongdoing as the issue, as opposed to what the “outside world” thinks.

“Jews are powerful people,” Asch said. “We have got to stop acting as if every terrible thing someone does is a public relations nightmare for Jews, as if we are all about to be persecuted if one person does a bad thing.”

But the potential for persecution is on the mind of Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey region.

“It is predictable that anti-Semites will come out on the Internet. This case was no exception,” he said. “Unfortunately, issues such as this are fodder for professional anti-Semites.”

While the Jewish community is “not immune” from criminal behavior, Neuer said, he found especially troubling “the visual of a haredi man with long beard and a black yarmulke in handcuffs under arrest. It will be salacious for many anti-Semites, and we have to be vigilant about the way the media convey this message.”

Shafran viewed the media coverage through a different lens.

“The fact that among the arrested in such a major operation were not only visibly Jewish Jews but rabbis was not one any of us could reasonably expect the media to ignore,” he wrote in the e-mail. “It does us no benefit to blame the media here.”

Of special concern to Asch, a bioethicist, were the charges against Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, who is accused of buying kidneys from poor people for $10,000 apiece, then reselling them to the desperately ill for as much as $160,000.

“What he is charged with is trying to buy and sell organs with desperate people,” Asch said. “The important word is ‘desperate.’ Why should people make money by losing parts of their bodies? They compromise their health.

“Why are people buying organs? Because there is not an adequate supply,” she said. “It is very disturbing.”

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