In case you have not yet heard, there have been several arrests made in Lakewood, New Jersey this week. The FBI and local authorities arrested seven married couples thus far and accused them of defrauding the welfare system of over a million dollars.
These arrests should not come as a surprise as some time ago the authorities in Lakewood have signaled their intent to crack down on fraud. The investigation and charges indicate that there are many families who have found ways to hide income and assets in order to gain unwarranted, unnecessary and illegal monies from the government. According to local reports, following the arrests, the local welfare offices were overwhelmed with calls from individuals seeking to get off the welfare rolls so as not to risk being investigated and found guilty of fraud as well.
According to Census data Lakewood is the fastest-growing town in New Jersey. Well over 100,000 people now live there. The area is burgeoning with new housing popping up everywhere. Lakewood’s expansion is driven by a blossoming Orthodox community linked in a variety of ways to the large, prominent yeshiva community there. Most interesting is that recent data also indicates that almost 39% percent of people in Lakewood claim to live in poverty.
These arrests highlight an all too common problem in certain communities. According to Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, writing in the Forward, the community suffers from “systemic corruption.” Rabbi Moskowitz blames this on the well-worn but highly outdated notion that government is the enemy. The religious system was meant to create an environment of normative halachic purity but that has not happened in our times.
Rabbi Moskowitz goes on to say:
“The goal was to minimize, and ideally eliminate, the space between the ideal Torah centric life and actual way we live our lives. Unfortunately, the void between the two is vast, painfully disappointing and continues to widen. The world and our communities are changing, perhaps faster than ever, but spiritual practice is often frozen in time. There is complex tension between innovation and tradition that requires collective rabbinic skill to address. But instead of being present for the holy labor of asking what God expects from us now, the pause button was pressed and the need for updated answers avoided.”
I tend to agree with him. Too many spiritual leaders reside in a time frame that is hundreds of years removed from the present. Seeing the government as the enemy and using that as an excuse to disobey laws is predicated on living in evil lands. The problem that this world view creates in some neighborhoods is ubiquitous.
As a matter of comparison and an attempt to look at just how pervasive this problem may be I looked at the poverty levels of other Jewish neighborhoods. The latest available data indicated that the poverty rates for Williamsburg hover around 30%, for Boro Park at about 32%, in Kew Gardens Hills it is about 16%, in the country of Israel as a whole it floats around 22% while in Jerusalem it is about 50%. It looks like the communities with the highest poverty rates are the ones that are the most Hareidi. Reasons abound including the high rate of men not working but learning in Yeshivot. Still many in these high poverty communities do not appear to be living in poverty. A fact confirmed in Lakewood.
Among the most interesting but not surprising findings that I stumbled on was that in some of these high poverty communities the rate of single parent households was almost double the norm. I say not surprising because this is just another way that has become common for gaming the welfare system. Single parent households get better government welfare benefits. Many of these families are married by a rabbi but never report the marriage to the government for just this reason. It is not just tax avoidance that is used to undermine governmental welfare regulations.
A community with leaders that condone defrauding a benevolent government will ultimately be found out and prosecuted as corrupt. To pretend otherwise is to put lipstick on a sow and call it beautiful.
Fraud perpetuated against a government is bad enough but it does not stop there. When laws designed to protect a community are deliberately downplayed or even rejected, the harm that can come to people goes well beyond financial and can impact the emotional and physical well-being of members within the community.
Just one example is how the laws of reporting abuse are practiced in certain neighborhoods in Israel and the US. The law indicates that any reasonable cause of abuse should be reported to the authorities. Some community leaders disagree. And like the fraud in Lakewood, in some of these very same communities, the rabbis insist, even condone that reports should first be made to them. They believe that they have the ability to determine if a report should be made. In these communities, abusers are carelessly protected, victims shunned and the harm continues. At some point those who disobey the laws of reporting will likely face a judge just like the welfare financial law breakers.
In the benevolent countries in which most of us live, laws are designed to protect us and care for the general welfare and security. As Rabbi Moskowitz indicated, the Torah leaders need to “respond in (the) present” acknowledging the reality of today and working along with those who have the better needs of the greater community at heart.