If it’s hot enough to barbecue, it must be hot enough to commit a crime. How else are we to explain the rash of scandals with Jews at their center that have hit us now for the third summer in a row? In the first weeks of August, Eliyahu Weinstein of Lakewood, N.J., was charged by federal agents for his involvement in a $200 million Ponzi scheme and could face more than 50 years in prison.
But that’s actually small change. Last summer, we read with disgust about the sting operation in New Jersey that broke up a nest of Jewish criminals, many of them rabbis, involved in money laundering and the illegal selling of organs. In addition to the New Jersey scandal, an upstate Monsey couple was found guilty of defrauding the government in Medicaid and other federal assistance programs, a Chicago businessman and ex-rabbi was indicted in a tax-fraud case and an Orthodox woman was arrested for a diversion scheme run out of the Upper West Side of New York.
An e-mail list made the rounds in the summer of 2009: “The Top Ten Signs Your Rabbi Was Indicted,” which included 1) your synagogue charity auction now includes “kidney” 2) your rebbetzin is suddenly on JDate, and 3) the rabbi’s sermon comes in form of an affadvait.
In the summer of 2008, we were shocked by the news of the Rubashkin scandal at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, that involved the alleged hiring and mistreatment of illegal workers and minors and the abuse of cattle. In mid-May of that year, FBI agents and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raided Rubashkin’s plant and arrested 389 workers who lacked proper documentation. [The company’s former CEO, Sholom Rubashkin, was eventually convicted on more than 80 counts of bank fraud and sentenced to 27 years in prison; the sentence is being appealed.
Rubashkin was acquitted in state court on charges that he violated child labor laws.] We spent the summer reading the news, hoping that this country’s newspapers would stop having pictures of Jews on their front pages.
I used to look forward to the summer. Now I hold my breath. And I search for explanations and patterns that explain our malfeasance and ask myself when we will finally confront the painful reality that we are losing our reputation for goodness. The behaviors of a few — but a growing number — are marring the reputation that we have built over centuries as a moral people, as a light unto others, as a beacon in times of moral confusion.
And when we look across the ocean, we find our Israeli brothers and sisters in no better position. For the first time in Jewish history, a former Israeli prime minister and president have been found guilty at the same time of crimes ranging from fraud to rape. We wait with anxiety for a leak about another Israeli politician under investigation.
Where is our outrage? Where are our modern-day prophets who rail against the slightest injustice? Sadly, we tolerate this kind of news, almost expecting it. It no longer has shock value. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Scandals used to lend charm, or at least interest, to a man — now they crush him.” Scandals in the Jewish community do more than crush individuals. They diminish the respect we have for rabbis, politicians and other authority figures. They take away our pride. We feel collective shame and hopelessness and wonder how we will break this cycle for good and restore our reputation.
I could stand it no longer and spent the better part of two years researching a book that has now hit the shelves. In “Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things,” you’ll meet a rabbi currently serving time in prison in Virginia for pedophilia. You’ll meet an editor of a major Jewish newspaper (this one) who faced threats for surfacing Jewish crime in his paper. You’ll meet a young woman who is forever scarred by revelations that her rabbi was having sex with a minor in the back of his wife’s car.
The book’s purpose is not to introduce criminals but to offer practical ethical guidance and precipitate much-needed discussion. What demands do we make of Jewish leaders in terms of their ethical responsibilities?
It is time we ask ourselves why so much crime is happening now and what we’re doing to confront scandal in the Jewish community. How do we intend to raise the ethical bar? We’re experiencing a moral crisis that has to be repaired, and you need to care about it. Why? Because when it comes to the reputation of the Jewish people, we are all stakeholders.
We may not want to have this conversation in our schools, synagogues and federations, but we can no longer avoid it. The prophet Isaiah said, “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” And so we must. We must teach ourselves goodness because our collective moral compass is failing.
As we pray this Yom Kippur in the plural for the sins we have collectively committed, let us each vow to strengthen our own ethical behaviors and hope for less bad news next summer.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who serves as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency. Her most recent book is “Confronting Scandal” (Jewish Lights). She can be reached at www.leadingwithmeaning.com.