Agudah Is Recycling Old Rhetoric about Combating Fraud

Periodically, Agudath Israel of America (aka Agudah) makes a show of concern about scandals and chilul hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) but then nothing changes. When it comes to financial scandals, denial sets in for big givers. After all, how can a baal tzedakah (big charity giver) be a gonif (crook). Nobody even acknowledges they were probably donating stolen money.

Spinka Rebbe - Naftali Tzi Weisz

Spinka Rebbe – Naftali Tzi Weisz

Their last big show in 2009 coincided with the conviction of the Spinka Rebbe (Naftali Tzi Weisz) for money laundering. In a spectacular display for the outside world there was a Haredi-sponsored event complete with an American flag on the podium.

However, it is common knowledge that many Haredi institutions exploit their tax status as religious organizations to launder money. As religious organizations they are exempt from having to report their income and expenditures on IRS 990 forms. So the government has no easy way of discerning irregularities. Some not-for-profits (NFPs) voluntarily provide that information to the IRS (and thus to the public). It is the gold standard for transparency and accountability. But nobody in the Haredi world exerts any pressure to do that because money laundering is woven into the texture of Haredi life. Before anyone starts howling, let me be clear, I absolutely know that there some Haredim who will not do it either as a matter of conscience or good judgment. However, hardly anyone will publicly pressure other organizations to become more transparent.

Consider for example an old case of the Rabbi (sic) Mahir Reiss and others who were convicted of laundering millions of dollars for Colombian drug dealers. In return, they got to keep 15-18% as money laundering fees. The vehicles they used included the Bobov Yeshiva Eitz Chaim.

The five years following the Spinka scandal should have given the Agudah plenty of time to make serious progress in combating lawlessness. Yet the latest convention made it sound like they were just now discovering the problem and beginning to address it.

Novominsker Rebber Rosh Moetzes

Novominsker Rebbe – Yaakov Perlow

Fifteen years ago there were also promises to confront the problem while in fact, the Novominsker Rebbe (Yaakov Perlow), the Agudah’s Rosh Moetzes (Head of the Council of Torah Sages).

That scandal involved a group of Haredim using Haredi NFPs to launder millions of dollar for Colombian drug dealers. One of the convicted defendants was Mahir Reiss. According to Jewish Week’s reporting of the sentencing:

Mahir Reiss’ attorney, Nathan Lewin, paraded witnesses onto the stand to testify about his client’s charitable and financial support of the Orthodox community in New York and Israel……

Perhaps the most stunning testimony came from Rabbi Perlow, also known as the Novominsker rebbe, who is a member of the influential seven-member Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox advocacy group. Rabbi Perlow revealed that he was sitting shiva or in mourning — his wife had died several days ago — but he left his house because of the importance of pleading for leniency in Mahir Reiss’s case.

Wearing a torn black coat, symbolizing his grief, Rabbi Perlow noted this was his first appearance in a courtroom in his life. Rabbi Perlow said he was “stunned and absolutely flabbergasted” when he learned of the charges against Reiss last year. Nevertheless, Rabbi Perlow argued that Weinstein should not use Reiss to send a message to the Orthodox community that criminal acts will not be tolerated. He said Reiss could do more good works out of prison. He also assured the judge that the Council of Torah Sages are taking steps to educate their community about lawlessness. “In light of instances in the media, the rabbis have discussed this,” he said, referring to a spate of embarrassing criminal cases over the last two years involving Jews from the chasidic or yeshiva world.

“This is a concept of chillul hashem [desecration of God] we are very much concerned about,” he said.”

 Pardon my skepticism about promises by Agudah to promote more honest and ethical conduct. Fifteen years ago, the Novominsker Rebbe (Yaakov Perlow) “assured the judge that the Council of Torah Sages are taking steps to educate their community about lawlessness.” Now they are recycling the same rhetoric. I will believe them when I see new facts on the ground.

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9 thoughts on “Agudah Is Recycling Old Rhetoric about Combating Fraud

  1. You think the MO are any different?

    A MO Yeshiva in New Jersey is advertising a shiur by Rabbi Belsky on Thanksgiving.

    • Yes — and it’s the yeshiva in my own town (Passaic, NJ) where my kids went to school years ago.

      As it happens, my new book has plenty of well-documented information about the unspeakable conduct of this particular enabler-rabbi. I seriously doubt whether anyone familiar with that material would be comfortable inviting Belsky to speak at any yeshiva.

      Of course, it’s possible that many people here don’t know the facts — but I doubt that’s true of the rabbis in charge of the yeshiva’s kollel program, which I believe is responsible for the invitation. After all — as I point out in the book — Belsky’s very public attacks on the family of a sex abuse victim in Lakewood included an implicit swipe at Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the OU, where Belsky is also an official. It’s hard to believe prominent rabbis never noticed that, especially after the abuser’s conviction last year.

      What’s involved here is not so much ignorance as denial. And it’s always instructive to trace exactly where the boundaries of denial run. For instance, I rather doubt that the OU would have ignored insubordination similar to Belsky’s from a rabbi who challenged its kashruth or its Israel policy. For that matter, I have a hard time visualizing Passaic’s YBH (where Belsky will speak) inviting a rabbi affiliated with Neturei Karta. But when it comes to flacking for child molesters and slandering the innocent, the rabbis are all one big happy family.

      And that should tell us something about them. Again, it’s not ignorance. I don’t even think it’s hypocrisy, not in the usual sense. After all, a rabbi I know here has been genuinely outspoken in support of sex abuse victims; yet the same rabbi often speaks admiringly of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, notwithstanding the latter’s breathtaking record of support for child abusers (also discussed in my book). And I feel quite sure this rabbi is sincere on both counts.

      What’s at stake is much closer to a kind of Orwellian doublethink — that is, the ability to affirm contradictory propositions at one and the same time. As Orwell pointed out, this practice is actually quite common among public intellectuals. And it’s absolutely de rigueur for Orthodox rabbis. The successful rabbi, or for that matter the successful Orthodox Jew, knows very clearly what he or she is required to believe, and is sure learn pretty early that this belief must be held, as sincerely as possible, under all circumstances — even when the belief is quite obviously false.

      That’s the story at YBH. Its administrators’ actions confirm the bitter truth that it’s still a religious imperative among the rabbinate to protect the cover-up, molester-protecting rabbis. And as long as that’s true, even sincere Orthodox rabbis simply won’t be able to see the problem, even when it’s under their noses.

      And what someone can’t see he can’t be expected to change. A word to the wise…

      Sorry about so many long comments…

      • R Michael

        Since you have time for long posts, please tell us about your erstwhile partners, Susie Q Rosenbluth and Rebbetzin Amy, descendant of a prestigious rabbinical family.

        Please go far back into their histories, there’s a lot of material in the public record.

        I suspect you are sincere and well-meaning, but here is advice from Mishlei 3.

        . הֹלֵוךְ הוֹלֵךְ אֶת חֲכָמִים וֶחְכָּם יֶחְכָּם וְרֹעֶה כְסִילִים יֵרוֹעַ:

        He who goes with the wise will become wise, but he who befriends the fools will be broken.

      • BTW, I’m in full agreement with you; Belsky is not an appropriate speaker anywhere, on any topic

        I’m only concerned with your partners, ultimately, it diminishes your credibility, and along with it, the credibility of your worthwhile cause.

  2. Its everywhere. Rabbi Eliyahu Rabovsky of the Young Israel of Boca Raton won’t allow even board members to see the budget. And of course its loshon hora for any shul member to ask why the shul’s spending is a secret. I’ve been told by former board members of other shul’s about their shul Rabbi having the shul pay for business class for the Rabbi’s Israel vacation.

    It would be nice of the Young Israel movement and the OU to require their member synagogues to submit to outside audits and require them to publicly release them so members can ensure the shul funds are being used for the shul and not the Rabbi’s family or his yeshiva.

    The need for an outside audit is especially imperative to ensure the Rabbi’s discretionary fund doesn’t benefit his children staying in Kollel instead of the community poor.

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