Residents of Lakewood, New Jersey, knew the hammer was about to fall. According to news reports, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato informed the community two years ago that community residents were involved in abuse of welfare programs, and warned that authorities would be taking action. On Monday, that warning came to pass.
In what was apparently just the first wave of arrests, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who runs the Congregation Lutzk synagogue, and seven other individuals were arrested Monday on charges of public assistance fraud. Six more were arrested Tuesday. These charges are on a scale rarely seen in New Jersey, an already exceptionally corrupt state.
In photos accompanying stories related to the arrests, Sorotzkin is pictured wearing a white business shirt, visible tzitzit and a black yarmulke. Those arrested are, by all outward appearances, religiously observant Jews. But if they are guilty of these crimes, however, there’s one crucial missing component to their religiosity.
In his book “Jewish Wisdom,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin places an outsized emphasis on the importance of ethics in Judaism. He writes:
“Unfortunately, despite many texts that insist on the primacy of ethics, most Jews associate being religious solely with observing rituals. Throughout the Jewish community, when one asks, ‘Is so-and-so a religious Jew?’ the response invariably is based on the person’s observance of ritual laws: ‘He (or she) keeps kosher, and observes the Sabbath; he is religious’ or ‘She does not keep kosher or observe the Sabbath; she is not religious.’
“From such responses, one could easily conclude that Judaism regards ethical behavior as an ‘extracurricular activity,’ something desirable but not essential.”
Telushkin begins his book by introducing God’s first questions, as described in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a). What is God’s first question? Telushkin explains, “The first question asked in heaven is not, ‘Did you believe in God?’ or ‘Did you observe all the rituals?’ but ‘Were you honest in business?’”
Reports of welfare fraud in Orthodox enclaves like Lakewood are, unfortunately, widespread. As the Asbury Park Press reported on the most recent raids:
“The investigation to date has found that government benefits fraud and income tax evasion in the Lakewood community is widespread,’ said a source involved in the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. The investigation found an alleged scheme that “rivals the most sophisticated of financial frauds,’ the source said.
In the immediate aftermath of the arrests, the paper reported, “hundreds of residents called township leaders asking how they can avoid arrest or get amnesty related to an alleged public-assistance fraud scheme that could stretch into the millions of dollars, according to one law enforcement with knowledge of the ongoing probes.” It shouldn’t have taken these raids for some residents to take seriously dina d’malkhuta dina, the rule that “the law of the land is the law.” Though perhaps it’s better late than never. Indeed, the Lakewood Vaad community organization issued a statement calling the arrests “a valuable teaching moment that cannot be wasted…. We would all do well to redouble and triple our efforts in our communities, reminding each and every one of us that there is never any excuse for dishonesty in any form.”
When I got married in Lakewood, the rabbi who married us (a distant member of my husband’s family) demanded to either see our civil marriage license or sign it (we decided to have our civil marriage in New York before our religious wedding the next month). He warned that he would under no circumstances perform a ceremony for a couple who would not also be married in the eyes of the law, because of reports of couples declining to be legally married in order to claim benefits intended for single mothers, like WIC (Women, Infants and Children).
These sorts of decisions belong to individual rabbis and are not communally mandated. It’s time for that to change. Would Lakewood accept the religious legitimacy of rabbis who flagrantly violated the Sabbath or ate at McDonald’s? Why, then, are those engaged in defrauding our government still allowed into synagogues and, in some cases, even lead them?
When a husband refuses to grant his wife a religious divorce, a get, despite a Jewish court’s mandate to do so, a seruv order is issued against him, stating he is in contempt of a religious court. ORA, an organization that assists women chained in marriages, explains the repercussions of such an action:
“Jewish communities traditionally ban recalcitrant husbands who refuse to comply with a reputable Jewish court from entering the synagogue for public prayer and receiving Torah and other community honors. Members of the Jewish community are encouraged to forgo social and business contacts with such recalcitrant individuals in an effort to persuade them to comply with the Jewish courts.”
If communities that are grappling with fraud on a scale of what seems to be taking place in Lakewood are serious about creating a truly God-fearing community, they may want to take a page out of the book on how we handle recalcitrant husbands. The message must be clear: This behavior is a chillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name, and is not acceptable here. Being observant should, first and foremost, involve living and working ethically.
In “Jewish Wisdom,” R Telushkin asserts, “Ethics is at Judaism’s core. God’s first concern is with a person’s decency.” That should be our first communal concern as well.
Bethany Mandel is a Forward columnist. Follow her on Twitter, @bethanyshondark