Abanner with an anti-Semitic slur hung over a synagogue’s Holocaust memorial and fliers left on cars in Lakewood are related to the arrests of several local ultra-Orthodox couples for welfare fraud, police said.
The anti-Semitic incidents occurred over the weekend where at least seven charedi couples were arrested last week — including a rabbi and his wife as well as his brother and his wife — for underreporting their incomes to receive government benefits.
The banner hung at Congregation Sons of Israel reads “(((Heebs))) will not divide us,” using the anti-Semitic echo symbol popularized by the alt-right to highlight Jewish names. The alt-right is a loose movement comprised of different strands of people connected to white supremacy, according to the ADL. Heebs stands for Hebrews and is used as an ethnic slur against Jews. The banner also lists a website for a white supremacist group.
Anti-Semitic fliers referencing the arrests were placed on cars throughout the township as well, the Asbury Park Press reported.
New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino called the incidents “sickening,” in a tweet posted Sunday. He also reminded the public of the $10,000 reward from the state for information that leads to a bias-crime conviction.
The incidents are being investigated as hate crimes.
“We do believe that this recent rash of anti-Semitic incidents is directly related to the recent arrests in our town. We have not had any other incidents before,” Lakewood Police Chief Gregory Meyer told the Asbury Park Press. “We will not tolerate this kind of behavior and we are working with (the) state and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office in an attempt to make arrests. We will look to prosecute all incidents of bias crimes that take place against our citizens.”
The original story came to light on June 26 when a Lakewood rabbi and his wife were arrested, along with three other Jewish couples, for underreporting their incomes to receive government benefits. The couples were arrested in raids, the result of an investigation launched by the FBI and the New Jersey State Comptroller’s Office, into the large charedi Orthodox community in Lakewood.
The Associated Press reported that, according to criminal complaints, Rabbi Zalmen Sorotzkin and his wife, Tzipporah, and the other couples defrauded state and federal assistance programs of over $1 million by underreporting their incomes. The Sorotzkins were charged in state court with illegally collecting more than $338,000 in benefits. Their attorney told the AP that they plan to plead not guilty.
Zalmen Sorotzkin’s brother and sister-in-law, Mordechai and Rachel, were charged in federal court, along with, Yocheved and Shimon Nussbaum, with illegally collecting benefits, including Medicaid.
Another couple, Mordechai and Jocheved Breskin, was charged with illegally collecting $585,000.
The following day, June 27, three more couples were arrested as part of a crackdown on illegally obtaining government benefits. Those Lakewood couples allegedly obtained more than $670,000 in total in government benefits fraudulently, according to NJ.com. They are Yitzchok and Sora Karanek, Chaim and Liatt Ehrman, and William and Faigy Friedman.
“My office gave clear guidance and notice to the Lakewood community in 2015 of what is considered financial abuse of these programs,” said Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato, referring to a meeting, attended by nearly 1,000 members of the community, where local prosecutors warned them about welfare fraud. “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.”
The Orthodox rabbinical council in Lakewood responded to the arrests by declaring “[t]here is no such thing as ‘justified’ theft.” In the statement, issued June 29, Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg in the name of the Lakewood Vaad said the accused are “innocent until proven guilty,” and that it would “suspend judgment until the disposition of these charges.” Nevertheless, they said they regard the probe and arrests as “a valuable teaching moment.”
“Federal and State social safety-net programs are meant for those in need, [and] even those in need have rules and criteria that must be strictly followed,” according to the statement. “To deliberately bend a safety-net eligibility rule is stealing, no different than stealing from your friend or neighbor.”
The statement called on community rabbis, teachers, and parents 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.” The Vaad pledged to launch a series of “intensive educational programs” to address the issue.
Haredi Orthodox Jews are thought to make up 60 percent of Lakewood’s population of 100,000. Since 1943, the suburb has been the home of the Beth Medrash Govoha, one of the world’s largest yeshivas, with a student body of about 6,500 students.