Does a rabbi who pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations meant to serve people with special needs deserve to walk free? How about a rabbi caught running a decades-long scheme whereby he accepted large tax-deductible “donations” to his shul, kicked back 90% to the donors and kept 10% for himself? Or a rabbi who used federal and state grant money intended to enhance synagogue security to line his pockets and improve his own suburban mansion? What if the same rabbi committed all three of the above offenses – defrauding his congregants and the federal government while enriching himself by millions of dollars?
The rabbi in question, Chabad of Poway’s recently retired Yisroel Goldstein, pleaded guilty to all of the above in September 2019.
And now he’s facing…probation.
At a July press conference announcing the federal government’s plea deal with Goldstein, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of California Robert Brewer, Jr. recommended probation for the rabbi on charges of tax and wire fraud resulting in a loss of revenue to the U.S. government exceeding $1.5 million. The charges carry a maximum five-year federal prison sentence.
Despite the mind-blowing extent of Rabbi Goldstein’s corruption, the prosecution team decided to go easy on him, stating three reasons: 1) His past and ongoing cooperation with a wide-ranging criminal investigation that has resulted in guilty pleas from six co-conspirators (including the rabbi’s brother Mendel Goldstein) with an estimated 15 more under active scrutiny; 2) A unique record of lifetime service; and 3) His exemplary leadership in the aftermath of the April 2019 terrorist attack by John Earnest, a 19-year-old anti-Semitic white supremacist, on the rabbi’s Chabad of Poway congregation. Earnest, a lone-wolf, murdered 60-year-old congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye; injured three others, including Goldstein who lost his right index finger, and terrorized the many families present observing Shabbat and the last day of Passover.
Rabbi Goldstein’s misappropriation of over $100,000 in government grants in 2012, 2017 and 2018 intended to upgrade his synagogue’s security qualifies as his most egregious offense. Post-attack, Goldstein told a Time reporter his synagogue was too broke to pay for security. His grifting made Chabad of Poway the softest of targets for an inexperienced young terrorist. Earnest faced no obstacles to entry. There was no guard on duty to stop him. He burst through unlocked doors spraying his AR-15 assault rifle, gunning Gilbert-Kaye down almost immediately.
Rabbi Goldstein’s failure to protect his congregants just six months after an anti-Semitic gunman murdered 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018 had fatal consequences. Per the legal doctrine of proximate cause, a fair argument can be made the rabbi has Gilbert-Kaye’s blood on his damaged hands. He lost a finger. She – a beloved congregant – lost her life.
I remember thinking Rabbi Goldstein’s behavior after the attack seemed maniacally over the top. He and his bandaged hands dominated the news cycle for hours on end. Five days after the traumatic event, he appeared in the White House Rose Garden for the National Day of Prayer with President Trump beside him. He praised Trump as a “mensch par excellence”— music to the President’s ears after progressive Tree of Life synagogue leaders shunned him —and advocated for silent prayer in public schools.
Six weeks later in late June, Rabbi Goldstein addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly in New York emphasizing the importance of religious tolerance and peace. He then traveled (first class) abroad to Europe and South America spreading his divine message.
Call me cynical, but considering the timeline of events, I believe Rabbi Goldstein seized every possible opportunity after the attack to craft his image as an exemplary force for good. The facts don’t square with his beacon-of-goodness self-portrait.
Federal agents busted Goldstein in an undercover sting in October 2018 – six months before Earnest attacked Chabad of Poway. They executed search warrants at the rabbi’s home, synagogue office and bank safe deposit box discovering evidence that revealed a massive web of complex financial fraud. The agents used their damning findings to enlist his cooperation in nailing other co-conspirators. In a tragically odd twist of fate, the attack gave Goldstein an opportunity to redeem himself in the public eye and possibly avoid jail time as he hammered out a plea deal with prosecutors behind the scenes.
In addition to jail time, Rabbi Goldstein deserves a special award for Chutzpah in Hypocritical Use of Tzedakah Boxes. During his June 2019 United Nations address, he whipped out a tzedakah box, demonstrated how to put money in it and encouraged the audience to practice giving charity at home.
A month later, when Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen made an unannounced visit to Chabad of Poway to pay their respects, Rabbi Goldstein put on a similar dog-and-pony show. He gave each of them a tzedakah box with a dollar to insert. Without a trace of irony regarding his years of embezzling donations from his own congregants and a Friendship Circle nonprofit serving disabled people, he audaciously demonstrated the virtue of tzedakah to others.
Rabbi Goldstein wrote a New York Times op-ed two days after the attack encouraging Jews the world over to demonstrate solidarity and resilience by proudly “doing Jewish” the following Shabbat. Okay, pious Rabbi, why didn’t you “do Jewish” throughout your career by actually giving tzedakah instead of gaming charitable contributions or outright stealing them? Your shameful, pathological behavior makes it harder for San Diego’s Jewish community to “do Jewish” — you brought shame on us all.
I’ve heard from members of your congregation that Goldstein could be compassionate and offer words of wisdom during times of trouble. But is this enough to get him out of jail free in light of his decades of running a criminal enterprise under the guise of religion?
Goldstein needs to spend some time in Federal prison and hopefully get some counseling himself –The $2.5 million in financial restitution he agreed to is not enough. The crimes he committed cut deeper than money, they crushed the spirits of members of his congregation and may have cost one woman of valor – a beloved mother, wife, sister – her life.
If I were sitting on the bench at his sentencing hearing this coming spring, I’d reject the US Attorney’s recommendation for probation and send him to jail for at least a year – enough time to think long and hard about how to make amends.
Sharon Rosen Leib is a San Diego-based freelance journalist and former California Deputy Attorney General.
Sharon Rosen Leib is an award-winning freelance journalist and longtime contributing writer for the San Diego Jewish Journal.