Los Angeles - The scandal that has emerged since a Hasidic rebbe and others were charged late last month with defrauding the federal government of tax dollars has caused shock waves beyond Hasidic circles, with even Modern Orthodox rabbis addressing the issue in impassioned sermons.
The pressure was particularly great at the 900-family Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, in Beverly Hills, where the government’s chief informant in the case, Robert Kasirer, is a member. Rabbi Steven Weil delivered a sermon January 11, causing what must have been an awkward juxtaposition for many congregants: The prayer books they were using were donated by the Kasirers and emblazoned with their name.
Indeed, the question of Kasirer — the FBI witness who turned state’s evidence against the Hasidic rebbe in exchange for a lighter sentence on previous fraud charges stemming from his health care business — seems to be weighing most heavily on people’s minds, according to Los Angeles rabbis interviewed by the Forward. In traditional Jewish law, if a Jew reports another Jew to the government, he is deemed a moser, and in some interpretations, a moser’s actions are punishable by death.
The issue of mesira, or informing, has prompted a round of collective soul-searching in segments of Los Angeles’s Jewish community.
“People are very shell-shocked about the whole thing on many levels,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, a West Coast representative of the Orthodox Union. “Number one, that our neighbors and friends are implicated, and number two, that an act of mesira on this level was perpetrated by one of our own.”
According to Korobkin, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who is also the spiritual leader of Los Angeles’s Yavneh Hebrew Academy, “the majority” of Orthodox rabbis in Los Angeles have already spoken about the tax-fraud case in the weeks following the indictments, with some touching on the mesira issue and others simply decrying the criminality of what allegedly occurred.
Elazar Muskin, the rabbi at Young Israel of Century City — a Modern Orthodox congregation that is Los Angeles’s second-largest Orthodox synagogue — said that he addressed the case from the pulpit. He condemned in the strongest terms the act of cheating anyone, and particularly cheating the American government of taxes.
Weil declined to say exactly what he spoke of in his sermon on the case. But according to Marc Rohatiner, a past president of Beth Jacob Congregation who still serves on the synagogue’s executive board, and who attended the January 11 Sabbath service, Weil did not address the issue of mesira. Rohatiner, 54, said that Weil roundly condemned the alleged criminal behavior and said that it could not be rationalized in any way. Weil also reportedly emphasized that the Modern Orthodox community could not point fingers at the ultra-Orthodox: “The people involved in this were people just like us, clean-shaven, wearing the same type of kippot that we wear.”
On December 19, 2007, the U.S. Attorney General’s Office handed down a 37-count indictment to five ultra-Orthodox institutions and eight people, including a chief rabbi of the Spinka, an ultra-Orthodox sect that originated in Romania in the 19th century. The indictments allege that the chief rabbi, Naftali Tzvi Weisz, and others, including four men from Los Angeles, were engaged in a far-reaching money-laundering scheme. The scam, which started in New York and stretched to Los Angeles and then to Tel Aviv, allegedly began in 1996 and involved millions of dollars being funneled through a web of five Brooklyn-based charities. All defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
A prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi here, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case, said that Kasirer’s plea bargain has compounded his problems. “He’s certainly a persona non grata across the board,” he said, referring to Kasirer. “Everybody is just disgusted with the idea that a person tried to save himself by hurting others.”
Kasirer could not be reached for comment.
In 21st-century America, the laws of mesira are up for a wide variety of interpretations. While a moser in the Talmud could be killed for his actions, and some in more right-wing corners still hold this to be the case, many others contend that given the high comfort level of Jews in America today, the same standard created when Jews lived under hostile governments cannot be applied. “The reason that mesira was seen as the equivalent of a capital crime is that when you handed a Jew over to secular authorities, courts and prisons were run like independent fiefdoms, and prisoners often did not emerge alive,” said Yitzchok Adlerstein, adjunct chair of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School. “You were theoretically costing someone their life, and that is not true in America,” he explained.
Kasirer, a fixture in this city’s Modern Orthodox community who has ties across the denominational spectrum, was a regular attendee at Beth Jacob Congregation for more than 10 years. His father, Jacob Kasirer, was a prominent Jewish philanthropist who donated the funds to build the Bais Yaakov School for Girls, located on Los Angeles’s Beverly Boulevard.
Since word of the scandal broke, Kasirer has requested that his name be removed from the prayer books and from other dedications. The synagogue, however, has not yet determined how it will proceed. Kasirer and his wife, Debra, remain members of Beth Jacob, where her family has worshipped going back multiple generations. A room at the synagogue bearing the Kasirer name was dedicated six-and-a-half years ago by Kasirer’s grandchildren and by his wife.
Kasirer’s legal troubles stretch back more than 15 years. In 2004, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil fraud complaint against the health care entrepreneur, charging that from 1996 to 1999, he and his business associates at Heritage Healthcare of America defrauded hundreds of municipal bond investors who had invested $131 million to finance what they thought was the building of an facility to aid people afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. According to a 2003 report in the Los Angeles Business Journal, Kasirer’s wife also received more than $1 million in salary and consulting fees from Heritage Healthcare. Moreover, the article states, Kasirer cited a minimum of $122,208 in monthly living expenses.
Ultimately, in October 2004, Kasirer struck a deal with the federal government in which he would plead guilty in exchange for serving as an informant in another investigation. This led Kasirer to wear a wire for the government until 2007, in order to help it nail down the Spinka tax-fraud case.