Friday, June 30, 2017

Working the System - Reflections on Parshat Chukat 5777

Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you will not lead this assembly into the Land that I have promised them. - Bamidbar (Numbers) 20:12
As the revelations of a widening circle of public assistance fraud in Lakewood made national headlines this week, many people have written to me, confused, hurt and angry. 

People are trying to make sense of how ostensibly observant, charedi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews could bilk the Federal Government for millions of dollars in welfare fraud. Some of the sentiments I have seen include the following:
"What a desecration of Gcd's Holy Name (chilul Hashem)!"
"They don't represent us."
"I don't know how to respond." 
As a native son of Lakewood, and as the Rabbi of the last remaining non-Chasidic synagogue in Williamsburg, NY, I may have a unique perspective on the subject.

First of all, the Lakewood that I grew up in doesn't exist any more. When my grandparents moved to Lakewood in 1940, there was no Bais Medrash Gevoha (BMG), the principal yeshivah in Lakewood. Back then, Lakewood was just a quaint, small New Jersey town, a stone's throw from the Jersey Shore, with only one synagogue, Congregation Sons of Israel on East 4th Street. Rabbi Levovitz came to Lakewood in 1944, fresh out of the yeshivah (seminary), and would remain as the leader of that community for the next 54 years.

Lakewood was a winter resort destination, with dozens of large and small hotels. The great and mighty took the train from New York or Philadelphia to vacation in Lakewood. The John J. Gould estate became Georgian Court College. The Rockefeller estate became Ocean County Park. My grandparents bought the house in which the caretaker of the Rockefeller estate once resided.

I came of age at the tail end of that era. Laurel-in-the-Pines was long gone, but there were still a few small hotels - the Fox-Lieberman, the Irvington - hanging on for dear life. We would run up and down the empty halls of the Fairmont, play in the arcade and the empty fitness center. (They had these crazy machines with a wide belt that went around your backside, and when you turned it on, it jiggled your tush, I guess to reduce its size? But boy were they fun to play with.)

I still remember the horse-drawn carriages that would stand on the corner of Clifton and Main Streets, waiting to take people for rides around Lake Carasaljo. It had all the appeal and innocence of every small town everywhere - no one locked doors or cars; I'd disappear on a summer's day on my bike for hours, and as long as I was home for supper no one worried. It was the Mayberry of central New Jersey.

Baruch Dayan Emet, Rest in Peace, the Lakewood of my youth.

BMG swept all that away. When I was a kid, Lakewood was a town of perhaps 20,000 people. Today, it is a small city of 120,000, with the non-charedi having moved away years ago to Brick Township, Toms River or farther afield.

What was intended to be the Harvard of American Yeshivahs morphed into the community college of the charedi world. A public assistance mill sprouted up, allowing young single and married men to study Torah full time, supported completely by public assistance. The charedi world became adept at manipulating a social welfare system intended for the truly indigent to benefit the tens of thousands of yeshivah students that flooded into Lakewood. Politicians were paid to look the other way, and the Lakewood that we know today came into being. 

And if you applied and received public housing, food stamps, and other public benefits, while your in-laws were also sending you $3000 in cash a month to help support the grandkids, who was the wiser? The most important thing was the prestige of marrying a Torah scholar. 

As for the ethical imperative of self-reliance, of making a respectable living - that was for someone else. If the goyim are stupid enough to give us free money, why not take it?

From that mindset, it's not hard to extrapolate to public assistance fraud on a massive scale.

In Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood where real estate costs $700/square foot, public assistance is fact of life for most people. Manipulating the welfare system is taken for granted in the charedi world, because life in these dense Jewish ghettos would be financially impossible without it. Unfortunately, the competition for limited rent-controlled housing has pitched the charedi world against other needy ethnic groups, and the results are not pretty. 

And in a sea of Satmar Chasidim, I am the only openly and unapologetically Religious-Zionist, modern Orthodox Rabbi. I preach, among other things, the dignity of combining Torah study with a respectable occupation (Paint a target on my back...)

In my shul, about a third of the attendees are active shul members, supporting the shul with their time and money. Another third are spiritual seekers, hipsters and others looking for answers to the great questions of life. And the last third are chasidim, outsiders in their world, who (for a variety of reasons) feel more comfortable in my shul than in the 150 or so chasidic shuls or shtibalach in Williamsburg. 

We talk. I listen and I learn. 

In Williamsburg, people talk about being "in the System" or "out of the System." If you're in the System, the social contract demands rigid conformity in dress, thought, language, education, and social interactions. The reward for this abnegation of your personal autonomy is social acceptance and a presumption of a wholesome and unquestioned piety.

And while the System works for many, it is also undeniable that many scam artists, grifters and sex offenders use this presumption of holiness as a fig leaf to cover their misdeeds. 

If you're outside the System, you are, at best, irrelevant, or at worst, a threat to the System, because there is no Judaism outside the System.

One of the most important things I have learned in my short tenure as rabbi at Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom is that the Satmar world is by no means monolithic.

If you had asked me, a year ago, if I would have much in common with a Satmar Chasid, other than a vague common belief in the one true Gcd, I would have said 'no.' 

Yet I have met a select few chasidim that are genuinely pious; that learn Torah, that do great (and largely unpublicized) acts of kindness and charity, and are paragons of the spiritual life. Amazing, remarkable, inspirational people and true Tzaddikim.

I have also met many chasidim who wear the garb on the outside, but are thoroughly corrupt on the inside; chasing the almighty dollar by any means, legal or illegal, total phony baloney.

And I have met a small but growing third group: Satmar Chasidim who are true spiritual seekers; people who have one foot in the System and one foot out. Shtreimel wearing, payess wearing chassidim, secretly reading Ayn Rand and psychology texts and George Orwell and Rav Kook, all strictly forbidden inside the System. Secretly, privately, they question the Satmar Rebbe's position on the State of Israel (and other things), open to the idea that maybe, just maybe, they are on the wrong side of Jewish history. As one Satmar Chasid said to me: " I am a proud Satmar Chasid! but I also have a mind." 

The point here is that the external trappings of piety are no longer any indication of the heart and mind of the individual - if they ever were. 

So in a narrow sense, these individuals who have stolen millions in public funds do not represent mainstream Torah Judaism. No matter how long their beard is, rebbes who touch little boys do not represent mainstream Torah Judaism. No matter how learned they are, rabbis who secretly photograph women in the mikveh, and the scumbag rabbis who supply their mikvehs with unsuspecting young women, do not represent mainstream Torah Judaism.

But the landscape is, of course, more complicated than that. Because in the broader sense, we have a concept in Judaism of Arvut - that every Jew is responsible for one another. In the same way that Jews of great prestige and accomplishment bring great praise to the Jewish People and the Gcd of the Israel, whether we like it or not, Jews who act scandalously heap scorn on us all and on the Gcd we represent. Like Bernie Madoff or Jack Abromowitz or Barry Freundel or Daniel Greer. We are all tarred by their misdeeds.

At the end of this week's parsha, the Jewish People stand at Arvot Moav, the Plains of Moab, on the eastern shore of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho. But the word "Plains", Arvot, can also be read Arvut, mutual responsibility.

We are supposed to hold ourselves to a much higher standard of ethical behavior, to the 613 and not merely the 7. And we all must work constantly and consciously on improving ourselves, our service to Gcd above and our service to our fellow man. 

But rabbis and other communal leaders must also take a stand to change a social ethos which encourages heavy reliance on public support, and create a culture of self-reliance combined with a zero tolerance policy for this kind of malfeasance.

Shabbat Shalom from Williamsburg.