Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Syrian Jews of Brooklyn reel from scandal

Jews from Arab countries have a word for 'shameful' or 'dishonourable': eyb. They have denied all allegations, but if three rabbis from the reclusive Syrian community in the US turn out to be guilty of money laundering and an orthodox individual of trafficking in body parts, it would be eyb indeed. Lucette Lagnado, a reporter for the Wall St Journal and author of The Man in the White sharkskin suit casts an affectionate eye on the community where she grew up:

When Morris Setton was a young man here, he and his brother Joshua went door to door selling bags of pita bread to the crush of Jewish immigrants from Syria and Egypt.

It proved to be an excellent business venture. The brothers, Jews of Syrian descent who emigrated from Cairo in the late 1950s with $5 in their pockets, found a community along the elegant Brooklyn boulevard of Ocean Parkway that disdained American white bread and was homesick for the tastes and scents of the Middle East—the spices, flaky pastries, black olives, rose water, cheeses and nuts the immigrants were used to savoring, and which were missing from their new lives.

Morris Setton, Pistachio King (Robert Caplin).


Fifty years later, Mr. Setton, 68, is America's King of Pistachios. He is the co-owner of a vast enterprise, Setton Farms, that has a large warehouse in Long Island and farms and processing plants in California. He can live anywhere, but has remained planted in the corner of Brooklyn where he started, at the heart of what he calls "The Community"—a little-known enclave of more than 75,000 Jews from Syria and other Arab lands, many of whom have prospered in America while sustaining strong ties to the cultural traditions of homelands that today are inhospitable to Jews.

That community has been reeling since the July arrests of three of its major rabbis on charges of money-laundering, following a sting using a federal government informant. Among those caught in the dragnet was Saul Kassin, the 88-year-old Chief Rabbi, a revered figure to Sephardic Jews for decades. Rabbi Kassin and two other rabbis—Eliahu Ben Haim and Edmund Nahum—are alleged to have laundered a total of more than $1.7 million, according to the U.S. Attorney's office for the district of New Jersey. The funds allegedly were laundered through charities and religious institutions they controlled in Brooklyn and Deal, N.J., the seaside resort where many Syrian Jews summer. Rabbi Kassin, through his lawyer, emphatically denied the allegations, as did Rabbi Nahum and his lawyer. Rabbi Ben Haim's lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, said he was reviewing the evidence in the case and declined to comment further for this story.

The corruption case involved a government informant who purported, among other cover stories, to be dealing in fake Prada and Gucci handbags and wore a wire for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He allegedly recorded the three rabbis agreeing to help him launder funds through their charities and take a percentage, according to a federal complaint. To the dismay and shock of the community, the informant was widely reported to be Solomon Dwek, one of their own, the son of another major local rabbi. Mr. Dwek's lawyer did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra Jr. compared the rabbis to "crime bosses" and accused them of using "entities set up to do good works" to launder millions. To defend the frail Chief Rabbi, his family reached out to Gerald Shargel, the prominent Manhattan criminal lawyer who represented the late Mafia don John Gotti and Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, as well as white-collar criminals such as Marc Dreier.

The arrests have shone a harsh light on a group that has resisted assimilation even as its members achieved wealth and success in America. A community that was always intensely private and closed now views outsiders with suspicion that borders on paranoia.

I grew up in The Community, albeit on the poor side—in Bensonhurst, the rather modest area where Sephardic Jews lived before they left for much swankier digs on Ocean Parkway and in Deal. My father was born in Aleppo, Syria; I was born in Cairo. Two years ago, I published a memoir about my father and the community. When I was a little girl new to America, my world revolved around my family and my small Sephardic temple. Rabbi Kassin was one of my Hebrew school teachers; another was Rabbi Baruch Ben Haim, the father of Rabbi Eliahu Ben Haim, Once, in class, I asked Rabbi Kassin why the Messiah couldn't be a woman. "Because he can't," he replied tersely.

The arrests spotlighted a world of tremendous wealth, one that had prospered since I left for college in the 1970s. A roster of some of the Syrian Jewish community's most successful members includes the Nakash brothers, who founded Jordache Enterprises, and the Gindi family, who started Century 21, the popular department-store chain in New York. Duane Reade, the drugstore chain, was founded by the Cohen brothers, who grew up in the Syrian community in Brooklyn. One of the community's top guns is Joseph Cayre, chairman of Midtown Equities, who is one of the leaseholders of the World Trade Center site and an owner of Barneys department store buildings in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Also from the community is Joe Sitt, chairman of Thor Equities, which owns the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago and several acres of Coney Island.

"I suspect there's more wealth on Ocean Parkway than there is in Beverly Hills," says Steve Solarz, the area's former congressman.

The community's ornate mansions aren't concealed behind hedgerows or gates as they are in the Hamptons—the wealth is on display for everyone to see. Along Ocean Parkway, houses are sometimes built right up to the lot lines. In Deal, there are Mediterranean-style villas with sweeping vistas of the ocean and stately Victorian homes with porches and Hollywood-style swimming pools.

Deal's social season is a swirl of engagement parties, bar mitzvahs, circumcision ceremonies and get-togethers at the Deal Casino, a club with a massive swimming pool and private beach. Weddings are elaborate affairs, some with 1,000 guests or more, held at Magen David of West Deal, the largest and most elegant synagogue.

Constant charity events are also a part of the social scene. Fund-raisers and raffles and auctions raise money for an array of causes: infertile couples, cancer-stricken children, impoverished adult cancer victims, religious schools, even brides too poor to afford a wedding trousseau. Tithing, or giving at least 10% of one's wealth to charity and your synagogue, is the practice.

There are also pockets of poverty. The community has been hit hard by the economic downturn, and many of its members in retail have seen business evaporate.

Rabbis were traditionally entrusted to see that money given for charity reached the needy. Wealthy community members who are fond of Rabbi Kassin say that he constantly approached people to help this needy person or that.

In the U.S. Attorney's complaint, Rabbi Kassin is alleged to have laundered more than $200,000 from the informant through his charity, while his nephew, Rabbi Ben Haim, is alleged to have laundered some $1.5 million; Rabbi Nahum is alleged to have laundered $185,000.

Mr. Shargel says the charges are baseless. "Rabbi Kassin did not launder money and never intended to violate any law—he was doing charitable work," he says, adding, "Rabbi Kassin didn't know from Prada and he didn't know from Gucci."

Any money collected "was for the people, and it was written down, and it was in the book, check by check," says Rabbi Nahum. He remains in his position at his synagogue. "At no time did Rabbi Nahum receive any personal gain related to these transactions and all monies received went to the charities," says his attorney, Justin Walder.

The community is home to several modern philanthropic institutions with lay boards, but a more antiquated system, where charitable funds are controlled by individual rabbis, has persisted. Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Edmond J. Safra synagogue in Manhattan says that the community also maintained "a mom and pop shop" style of philanthropy, not always subject to "oversight or checks and balances," which made its charities more vulnerable to allegations of improprieties. David G. Greenfield of the Sephardic Community Federation says there will now be a focus on "transparency," lay boards and "accountability."

Behind the scenes, there are deep divisions in this tightly knit community. Some are so shaken by the allegations that for the first time they say they are questioning their faith in the rabbis and calling for a thorough house-cleaning. Others—particularly more conservative, ultra-observant members of the community—are rallying around the rabbis and believe them to be innocent victims.

The division reflects a broader and more long-running split that's visible on the streets of Brooklyn and Deal. On Norwood Avenue, Deal's main shopping street, some Syrian-Jewish women wear wigs and long skirts—traditional religious garb that stands out in a community where many men and women pride themselves on dressing at the height of fashion.

Nostalgia for the Middle East suffuses the Sephardic community, and focuses on the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo. Aleppo produced legions of influential rabbinical scholars, and the community had strict customs about how to live, how to pray, how and when and whom to marry. It was also a city on a major trading route, which meant that Syrian Jews worked and interacted with Muslims and other groups, says Rabbi Abadie.

"On the one hand, the community was close-knit, and on the other it was worldly. They did not see a contradiction between their religion and close-knit family relationships with being cosmopolitan," he says.

That ability to function in the larger world served Syrian Jews wherever they settled. Many were adept, aggressive businessmen, their skills honed in at the Aleppo souk, and those talents have also been handed down through the generations.

The community has tried to hold onto to the traditions of Aleppo, or "Halab," as they call it, using its Arabic moniker. Even third- and fourth-generation Syrian Jews in Brooklyn pepper their conversations with Arabic expressions that hearken back to a country most never really knew. "Hazeet," they'll say of a man who has suffered a misfortune, "poor fellow." An inappropriate act is "eyb," or shameful.

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Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

I read the NY Times article on the arrests of rabbis and politicians, etc., in New Jersey and New York. Only one man was charged with trading in body parts and he was not any of those named in Lucette Lagnado's article.

Ashekazi Mizrahi said...

three rabbis from the reclusive Syrian community in the US turn out to be guilty of corruption and trafficking in body parts

Please don't replicate the slander of the Gentile media:

1. Over 40 people were arrested of all ethnicities.

2. Roughly four were Jewish.

3. The rabbis in question laundered money but did NOT deal in organs.

4. ONE individual, ultra-orthodox but NOT a rabbi, did do organ matching, which is legal in some countries (such as India and China) though not in the uSA or in Israel.

So, the presence of rabbis is irrelevant. Their ethnic or religious identity is irrelevant. And, finally, NO rabbis dealt in "organ trafficking".

Emma Klein said...

What;s the name of the memoir?