Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, said the following: “Every Jew—wherever he or she may find themselves, even a solitary Jew in the most remote corner of the earth—must remember that they are part of the whole Jewish people and representatives of the entire Jewish people—the one people ever since the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, until the end of time.”

As we begin the lead up to Tisha B’Av, we have taken this opportunity to discuss the Lakewood arrests together, as editors. We must lead with the fact that Lakewood is part of our community here in New Jersey, and though there may be slight differences in our hashkafa or dress, the overlap of “Lakewood” residents in our own community, whether it is with family members, friends or a place you’ve been to a wedding, is real. We are not a community apart.

Lakewood’s Vaad called the initial arrests of seven Orthodox couples (multiple other names were released in the ensuing days), including a rabbi and his wife, a “valuable teaching moment that cannot be wasted.” We concur, and like many in our community, felt that this incident has created a chillul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name), in that those arrested wore recognizably Jewish garb and were members of the Lakewood Jewish community.

The arrests, which made national headlines, brought unwanted negative attention to our community. In fact, a letter was recently received by the Township of Teaneck, asking what would be done to prevent the same kind of fraud from being perpetrated here.

It matters not that most of New Jersey’s Jewish community is comprised of upstanding citizens who pay taxes and work hard and honestly to support their families. However, an insidious problem that plagues many immigrant communities, that of operating cash businesses, failing to report income and then cashing in on welfare and Medicaid subsidies, gives us all a bad name.

Rabbi Zev Weisberg, writing on behalf of the Lakewood Vaad, responded powerfully to the charges of alleged welfare fraud by his own community members.“There is no such thing as ‘justified’ theft. Federal and state social safety-net programs are meant for those in need, even those in need have rules and criteria that must be strictly followed. To deliberately bend a safety-net eligibility rule is stealing, no different than stealing from your friend or neighbor.

Rabbi Weisberg added: “We are saddened beyond words by the arrests of seven couples in our town. As firm believers in the principle of `innocent until proven guilty,’ we suspend judgement until the disposition of these charges, and are comforted knowing that our judicial system is an able arbiter of justice.

“We would all do well to redouble and triple our efforts in our communities, reminding each and every one of us that there is never any excuse for dishonesty in any form. Let us take this moment to speak openly of these matters, from the pulpit, in the classroom and by parents at the dinner table, so that this tragic but necessary learning moment is not lost.”

Rabbi Weisberg added that the Vaad will work to launch a set of intensive educational programs that can ensure that such fraud does not happen again, though it is noted that two years ago, over 1,000 community members attended a meeting in Lakewood where local prosecutors warned against welfare fraud. “My office gave clear guidance and notice to the Lakewood community in 2015 of what is considered financial abuse of these programs,” Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato stated. “Those who choose to ignore those warnings by seeking to illegally profit on the backs of taxpayers will pay the punitive price of their actions.”

Social media has been filled with conversations and comments over the issue. While some question why Jews make the headlines when welfare fraud is widespread across the state and nation, an overwhelming number of comments supported the Lakewood Vaad statement and condemned any dishonesty while supporting the premise that all the couples are innocent until proven otherwise.

We note that when anyone asks us to pay cash only, or to make out a check to “cash,” it’s possible that they might not be fully reporting their income. In the spirit of achdut (unity), it would do us all good to examine our own financial activities, to check and recheck whether we are part of the problem, lest we too inadvertently cause a chillul Hashem, God forbid. We need to encourage each other to act properly as well, and understand that looking the other way does not excuse impropriety. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh.

 By Elizabeth Kratz, Phil Jacobs and Nina Glick