Ultra-Orthodox Community in New Jersey Grapples With Welfare-fraud Charges

Over a dozen people have been arrested including a rabbi, sparking a fierce internal debate over Haredi reliance on financial aid in Lakewood, N.J.

This June 26, 2017 photo shows suspects in the New Jersey welfare corruption case: Clockwise from top left:  Tzipporah Sorotzkin, Jocheved Breskin, Zalmen Sorotzkin and Mordechai Breskin.
Ocean County prosecutor / AP

NEW YORK — It was a tumultuous week for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Lakewood, New Jersey. In a series of raids, police arrested seven couples on welfare-fraud charges.

The 14 people, including a prominent rabbi, are accused of cheating the government out of nearly $2 million. As Lakewood waits for more raids and arrests — and perhaps even more anti-Semitic attacks in their wake — community leaders are calling for a reexamination of the community’s complicated relationship with welfare benefits.

The arrests have caused anxiety in the town of 100,000, where many people rely on welfare. According to USA Today, hundreds of Lakewood residents have phoned township leaders asking how they can avoid arrest or obtain amnesty.

Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, told NJ Advance Media that more arrests were coming. Either way, the arrests that have already been made quickly triggered anti-Semitism. Over the weekend a Lakewood Holocaust memorial was vandalized, and leaflets with anti-Semitic slurs mentioning the arrests were distributed.

Yet the raids and arrests have also raised questions about the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community’s reliance on financial aid. Some people have argued on social media that the arrests have been long in coming; they say other people in the community have engaged in similar schemes. The Lakewood Vaad, a rabbinical council, has issued a statement calling for reflection inside the community and condemning welfare fraud.

A teachable moment

“There is no such a thing as ‘justified’ theft,” the Vaad said in the statement, signed by Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg. “Federal and state social-safety-net programs are meant for those in need; even those in need have rules and criteria that must be strictly followed. To deliberately bend a safety-net eligibility rule is stealing, no different than stealing from your friend or neighbor .... Let us take this moment to speak openly of these matters, from the pulpit, in the classroom, and by parents at the dinner table, so that this tragic but necessary learning moment is not lost.”

The Vaad also said it would launch educational programs to help ensure that any transgressions didn't happen again.

Some are skeptical about the Vaad’s sincerity. “I find this to be self-serving, and I have a hard time believing that they are surprised by it,” says Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College, CUNY, who focuses on the social ethnography of contemporary Jewish Orthodox movements.

“People are saying that they are shocked, but I don’t believe in that shock. I spoke to a rabbi yesterday, he serves a large Orthodox community, and he is Haredi and has children living in Lakewood. He said he was shocked,” Heilman told Haaretz.

“I asked, where you shocked when you read about the cardinal of the Catholic Church who has been arrested for child abuse? And he said no. I said, most Americans, when they read about Lakewood, aren’t more surprised than you were about the cardinal.”

The community’s contributions

While community leaders are calling for reflection, others have suggested that the need for change might not be in the community, but in public policy.

In an op-ed in The Yeshiva Times, Ezra Friedlander, a Washington lobbyist and chief executive of the PR firm the Friedlander Group, has argued for public policy that recognizes the contributions of the Haredi community. He says the community is caught between the need for financial assistance and restrictions on who is entitled.

Ezra Friedlander with Paul Ryan
The Friedlander Group

Friedlander told Haaretz that many Orthodox families are struggling with the tuition of private Orthodox schools. For that community, secular public schools are out of the question, so families have to cover tuition costs that rise with each child.

“A small family pays $10,000 to $15,000 a year for their children’s enrollment in a yeshiva, while a bigger family might pay $50,000 to $70,000 a year .... You start your years in a deficit,” he says.

Friedlander argues that while struggling with private tuition costs, the Haredi community is also a “net contributor,” paying property taxes, creating community networks that contribute to society, and most importantly, not taking up funds or spaces in local public schools. He says public policy should thus consider letting families in higher tax brackets be eligible for social programs.

“We contribute to society in so many different ways,” Friedlander says. “It starts with recognizing the vast humanitarian networks that we provide not only to our community, but to all citizens of the community we live in. To try reach out to our community, to hold our hand and to work with us so that we can become even more productive citizens of this great country."