Friday, July 31, 2009

Dirty dealings in Deal: scandal rocks Syrian Jews

Chief rabbi Saul Kassin

The Syrian Jewish community in the US has been rocked by a far-reaching scandal incriminating three of its rabbis. Elicia Brown of The Jewish Chronicle looks at the insular Halebi community, which began leaving Aleppo in the 19th century.

Three of its rabbis have been arrested for money laundering in a wide-ranging sweep which netted 44 people, including three New Jersey mayors, several local politicians and two other rabbis of Ashkenazi background. The alleged fraudulent activity was exposed by a fourth Syrian Jew, Solomon Dwek, who was accused of being a traitor by his community.

The property developer had been charged in 2006 with bank fraud and became an informant for the FBI.

“There’s a lot of anger against Solomon Dwek,” said one Syrian Jewish woman on holiday in Deal, NJ, where the allegedly corrupt rabbis were based.

Her friends, she added, have expressed mixed feelings about the rabbis involved. These include the chief rabbi of this notoriously close-knit community, 87-year-old Saul Kassin, and Levi-Yitzhak Rosenbaum, who is accused of conspiring to broker the sale of a human kidney for transplant, paying the donor $10,000 and selling it for $160,000.

“You have some people defending the rabbis, saying what the rabbis did wasn’t so bad. You have other people saying, what kind of examples are they setting? Some people feel they should step down,” said the woman.

The probe shed a rare light on this insular Jewish community, which began leaving Aleppo, Syria, in the late 19th century, moving on to Cairo, and later to the US, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina and Israel.

Despite the geographical distances, the Halebis, as they are known, remain very insular, with many marrying within their community. In 1935, the chief rabbi of the community in America forbade followers to marry a convert, an edict which is still widely followed.

Famous Halebi families include the Safra banking dynasty and the Nakash brothers, of Jordache Jeans fame, but the community numbers hundreds of lesser known millionaires.

Keeping to themselves, the Halebim even holiday together and many of the arrests were carried out in the seaside town of Deal, where many of them have their second homes.

Read article in full

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