In the past two weeks, 26 Jews living in Lakewood have been charged with committing welfare fraud, allegedly cheating the government out of millions of dollars in total, according to reports. As always, it is important to acknowledge that they are innocent until proven guilty. That said, such alleged crimes do not come as a shock to our community.
To their credit, the Orthodox rabbinical council in Lakewood responded to the arrests by declaring “[t]here is no such thing as ‘justified’ theft,” and that “to deliberately bend a safety-net eligibility rule is stealing, no different than stealing from your friend or neighbor.” But the important statement comes late in the game. After all, Ocean County authorities held a community meeting in Lakewood in 2015 to warn residents about committing welfare fraud. Apparently it was known then that there was a problem, perhaps part of a lingering belief from centuries past in Europe, where Jews were subject to anti-Semitism, that it was permissible for Jews to take advantage of the government. But surely America has been more open and accommodating to Jews and Jewish life than any country in our long history.
There have been too many Jewish scandals in recent years, including several close to home. But most of the conversations I’ve had with friends about these public embarrassments focus on how bad this looks for the Jewish community.
And of course it does. Not only have the most recent arrests spurred anti-Semitism — “Hate fliers spread around the township and a white sheet with an anti-Semitic slur hung over a Holocaust memorial at a Lakewood synagogue,” according to the Asbury Park Press — but this may further the widening rift among the different denominations within Judaism.
But it’s time we get past the optics. Too often we seem more concerned with how criminal misconduct reflects on us, rather than the simple fact that the acts themselves are wrong. And that is truly disturbing.
Despite an historically inaccurate and unfair characterization of the money-grubbing Jew, epitomized, according to most literary scholars, by Shakespeare’s Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” at least we could consider our people, by and large, God fearing and morally sound. How can we make this argument anymore, especially when some of those who, from the outside, appear to be most devout prove themselves to be morally bankrupt?
And what does it say about us that our first instinct upon hearing these devastating stories is not, “This is a problem,” but, “I hope this doesn’t get out”? That’s no more than a first cousin of “You’re only sorry you got caught.”
Let’s not try to justify it by arguing that halacha permits us to break secular laws; that the government cheats us with taxes, so we can cheat it; that these welfare checks aren’t even a drop in the bucket for the feds. As the Lakewood rabbis noted, stealing is stealing is stealing, whether it’s from a Jew or gentile.
For hundreds of years, Jews have endured false accusations by their host countries: We killed Jesus, we held blood libels and human sacrifices, we control a global conspiracy to take over the world. All lies. Finally, we come to the United States where, for the first time in our painful history, we’re treated well. We ought to be on our best behavior to express our thanks and gratitude. When we break secular laws, not only are we disregarding the Torah, we’re making the case for generations of anti-Semites.
A personal anecdote: When I was 4 or 5, while walking through a hardware store with my mother, I grabbed a small, inexpensive item from a shelf and stashed it in the pocket of my overalls. Shortly thereafter my mother became aware of my earliest act of depravity. Besides my not being able to sit for some time after, she brought me back to the store and made me apologize to the kindly manager. It was the first time I can remember being embarrassed. It was also the last time I shoplifted.
Here’s the thing: My mother must have been mortified. But instead of inconspicuously returning the item to its place and leaving without anyone ever knowing it had been missing, she made my indiscretion public. I learned that not only would there be consequences for my actions, but that a moral life is about more than just righting a wrong; it’s about taking responsibility for what you, or someone in your care, has done.
Many of us are familiar with the Talmudic statement, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh,” that all Jews are responsible for one another. Let’s take responsibility for our fellow Jews by making our discomfort known about these and other disturbing allegations. And let us demonstrate to the world that the vast majority of us seek justice, not just good press. Don’t let anyone tell you that airing our dirty laundry is a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. That sin is on the heads of those who break the law. We’re just the ones announcing to the world that we will not tolerate this behavior any longer.