After the fall

After the fall

Rabbis' arrests shake Jewish world

When Rabbi Robert Scheinberg gave the invocation at Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano’s July 1 inauguration, he remarked that Hoboken had elected “leaders of tremendous intelligence and wisdom and political skill and articulateness and passion and zeal to serve.”

Two of the Hoboken councilmen running against Cammarano belonged to the United Synagogue of Hoboken, where Scheinberg is the religious leader, which prompted him to accept the invitation to deliver the invocation. He dismissed suggestions of a “Jewish vote” in Hoboken but said that the election had still been divisive.

“When (Cammarano) asked me to do the benediction at the inauguration, that was understood as a bridge-building gesture,” Scheinberg, who is Conservative, told The Jewish Standard late last week after news broke of Cammarano’s arrest. “It is terribly depressing that a person with such great leadership potential would degrade himself like this.”

Cammarano and 43 other New Jersey public officials, including Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell – who resigned on Tuesday – and Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez, were arrested last week on corruption charges. Also arrested in a separate but related operation were four rabbis from Brooklyn and Deal on charges of money laundering, and another Jewish Brooklyn man charged with conspiring to sell human organs.

“It’s a chillul HaShem,” a desecration of God’s name, Scheinberg said. “It’s like Madoff Part 2 – in some ways even worse. Madoff was a Jewish philanthropic leader but he wasn’t a rabbi. When you have a rabbi engaging in criminal activity it’s just devastating and makes people cynical about their leaders.”

Scheinberg wrote in his blog last week that he felt the position of rabbi was diminished in the public view after news of the scandal broke.

“Later in the day, as I walked around Hoboken and children waved to me and said, ‘Hi, Rabbi,’ or when I visited someone in the hospital and introduced myself as the patient’s rabbi, I got a sense that, to those who overheard the conversations, the title commanded less respect than yesterday, and that the word ‘rabbi’ had been dragged through the mud today,” he wrote.

The scandal drew harsh criticism but also a caveat from the area’s two main rabbinical organizations.

“This is still a developing story with many important facts yet to be clarified,” said Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, in a statement e-mailed to the Standard. “And it is wrong in any case to condemn an entire group for the misdeeds of a few. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly deeply disturbing to see pictures and images of people who obviously identify as observant Jews being arrested and associated in whatever way with a scandal of this magnitude. We should all feel a sense of pain and shame over that kind of portrayal of people who ostensibly share many of our core values and beliefs.

“Unfortunately,” Rothwachs continued, “we know from before this event that the Jewish community, too, experiences episodes in which major lapses in the realm of ethical conduct are evident. What the rest of us should do is remind ourselves, and those in our sphere of influence, that the Torah in fact demands the highest standards of moral behavior. As people committed to Torah, we must try to live up to those standards with the same concern, diligence, and meticulousness with which we attempt to live up to the Torah’s standards in other areas.”

Rabbi Randall Mark, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, said in a telephone interview earlier this week that any case of corruption is unfortunate, “and when religious figures do it, it makes it all the worse. They’re supposed to be aware of the moral and ethical teachings….

“It’s unfortunate that these rabbis acted in such a way to engage in a chillul HaShem. They’re a disgrace to the Jewish people and unfortunately bringing down the kavod of the title rabbi.”

A higher standard

“Jewish leaders and Jewish institutions have to be moral and ethical exemplars,” Scheinberg said. “That’s obviously no less important than encouraging Jewish education and Jewish continuity.”

The Torah and Talmud lay out rules for proper behavior in business dealings and the treatment of non-Jews. Members of the clergy, however, are generally held to a higher standard because they instruct others in virtue.

That’s why, said Randy Cohen, who writes New York Times Magazine’s “The Ethicist” column, people are shocked by wrongdoing by the clergy. “It’s the publicly virtuous person revealed to be privately corrupt,” he told the Standard earlier this week.

Some argue, however, that the current events are indicative of a larger problem within Jewish life, particularly within the Orthodox community.

“This is a community still in denial about the sad ethical state of American Orthodoxy, which seems to be claiming that every accusation that comes against them is the result of anti-Semitism,” said Shmuly Yanklowitz, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York City and a fourth-year moral psychology doctoral student at Columbia University.

Yanklowitz founded Uri L’Tzedek, Awaken to Justice, in response to a 2008 immigration raid at the Agriprocessors meat plant that eventually lead to the arrest of the company’s CEO on charges of hiring and mistreating illegal immigrant workers and fraud.

The Orthodox community, Yanklowitz said, has the highest respect for “the stringency of ritual” but sometimes neglects secular laws and values.

“Our view is that when the community wears Judaism on its sleeve, then it has a special priority to be public and moral exemplars,” he said, echoing Scheinberg.

The public perception of religious Judaism, he added, is at an all-time low. He blamed what he called an indulgence in desire for material wealth in the Orthodox community as well as a religious experience that focuses primarily on ritual. He also cast blame on an attitude within the Orthodox community that dissociates the community from the larger American society.

“When you have an Orthodox community that disowns its American identity that it’s embedded in, it’s bound to lead to disobedience,” he said. “A lot of that comes from a fear and insecurity about living in America but also a lack of personal control and restraint on personal desires.”

“The law of the land is the law and those who break that law are held accountable,” said Rabbi Ronald D. Price, executive vice president of the Union for Traditional Judaism in Teaneck, in a statement, echoing a principle in the Babylonian Talmud, sent to the Standard. “If rabbis have been involved in such breaking of the law, we have the confidence in the legal system to deal with it properly. If they are innocent, likewise we trust the law to exonerate them.”

And what if the accused are innocent? Very often, said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, people will remember the accusations but not the results – particularly if the accused are eventually found to be innocent. Although he called the allegations and criminal complaints “very damning,” he cautioned against being too quick to point fingers.

“Right now these are allegations and we should let the justice system take its course,” he said.

Similarly, in a statement sent to the Standard on Wednesday, the Rabbinical Council of America voiced its support for following the law of the land.

“Jewish law has always emphasized the importance of observing and respecting the laws of the land. They are essential for our shared well-being. No individual stands above the law. If a citizen violates the law then he must be subject to the penalties imposed by the legal system of our great country. Nonetheless, we must all keep in mind that those accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence and due process,” the RCA said in its statement.

Of course, the Times’ Cohen said, “innocent until proven guilty” is an important concept when somebody steps into a courtroom, but he dismissed the need for the general public to make the same assumption.

“I’m allowed to form opinions,” he said. “I’m allowed to invoke my knowledge of the world and come to opinions of things. I have no personal obligation to assume innocence.”

The fallout

As in the aftermath of the Madoff scandal, several news Websites have recorded increases in the number of anti-Semitic comments posted on reports of the scandal. Scheinberg saw such comments on many of the sites he visits, but noted that anti-Semitism on the Internet should not be surprising.

“These issues bring out anti-Semites unfortunately,” Neuer said. “We can see anonymous comments virtually as soon as the articles got posted online that were replete with anti-Semitic responses.”

The ADL cannot control what people will say, Neuer said. Since the media inform many people’s opinions, the organization is monitoring media outlets to make certain that the story is being conveyed accurately.

“The facts are painful enough,” he said. “We’re being vigilant to make sure there are no distortions and that there is fairness to the stories.”

He suggested that some might draw parallels between this incident and charges of pedophilia that plagued the Catholic Church in recent years.

“We’re not immune [to corruption], but at the same time we have to be very careful about how this message is being conveyed,” he said. “We don’t know how much this is going to filter into the psyche of individuals and how much of the scandal is going to reinforce stereotypes.”

The most effective way to combat public animosity toward the Jewish community, according to Yanklowitz, is to promote higher ethical standards.

“The challenge of the 21st century now is to demonstrate that we live by moral example,” he said. “The more that we offer empty rhetoric without these public demonstrations, the more we fuel this animosity.”

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