I thought of Cousin Harry when I read about the July 21 bust of five New York and New Jersey orthodox rabbis along with scores of New Jersey officials. Like the clean shaven, dapper and secular Harry, these long bearded and black garbed religious leaders and a ring of politicians, had become professional scammers. They engaged in massive money-laundering and illegal organ trading operations in addition to selling fake Gucci and Prada handbags and anything else. The Sopranos-style network operated with Brooklyn and New Jersey rabbis washing tens of millions of dollars through charities which they controlled.
The arrested included mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield, two state legislators, the Jersey City Council president and its deputy mayor. The rabbis forwarded some of their ill gotten gains to Israeli yeshivas linked to the super-duper Orthodox Shas Party and its uber Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Federal officials also discovered that some of the money laundered by these supposed pillars of Jewish law and ethics came from the sale of human kidneys by a Brooklyn orthodox Jew named Levi Izhak Rosenbaum.
This kick back to politicians, illegal organ sale rackets and rabbis laundering illicit dough — supposedly to support their ultra orthodox kin in Israel – offered new twists in Talmudic logic. In this tangled narrative the leading money laundering suspect, Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Haim’s good buddy in Israel, Rabbi David Yosef, is also Shas jefe Ovadia Yosef’s son. They belonged to an advanced Talmudic studies center in Jerusalem headed by Ovadia Yosef’s family. Ben-Haim got rich Jews in New York to bankroll the institute. Because of the scandal, Haaretz reporter Zvi Zrahiya concludes, “these donations are expected to cease.” He also reports that un-named banks were also apparently involved in the scandal. (Haaretz, 26/07/2009) Shocking!
As a young boy, I accompanied my grandfather to interminable Saturday services at his East Bronx Orthodox synagogue. After hours of muttering in Hebrew, the men in prayer shawls and skull caps retreated to a table laden with sponge and honey cakes alongside shot glasses of whiskey. As they partook, one of my grandfather’s prayer colleagues would inevitably offer me a shot glass and watch, with the others, as a seven year old imitated the pious elders. I was dizzy for hours as the elders giggled “The little pisher is drunk.”
Grandpa also introduced me to some long-bearded, extremely pious looking rabbis, clad in traditional black with skull caps or black hats. Just a few years later, in the early 1950s, some of these authorities on Jewish law and ethics found their names in the New York newspapers as accused Harlem slum lords who refused to supply heat in the winter, make basic repairs or call the exterminator in the rat and roach-laden tenements they owned.
Indeed, periodically such scandals erupt around the hypocrisy of the fundamentalist preachers of the Hebrew faith, as my wife’s Methodist grandmother from Texas referred to them. But the family “oyed” and “veyed” when Cousin Harry got nabbed in a sleazy money fraud in Florida and went to prison. “How could a good Jewish boy [as if!] do such a terrible thing?”
After my grandfather died and I recognized one of the slum owners as a rabbi friend of my grandfather, I asked my grandmother about how such a religious man could have refused to supply heat to poor black families and not called exterminators to oust the rats and roaches. She shrugged indifferently.
“They’re not our people,” my grandmother said in Yiddish.
In October 1964, a story again erupted. Jewish demonstrators picketed the Manhattan offices of the New York Board of Rabbis to protest against Jewish slumlords. The mostly young – teens and twenties – protestors claimed that a published list of New York slumlords contained a large proportion of Jewish names and they were petitioning “the rabbis of New York to seek out the slum owners in their congregations and to threaten them with denunciation from the pulpit and even excommunication if they fail to repair and maintain their properties.” More than 250 Jewish landlords owned more than 500 slum buildings in Manhattan alone.
The demonstrators tried to meet with Head Rabbi Harold Gordon, but he refused. The picketers handed out leaflets charging that “most of 600 buildings whose tenants have complained to housing ‘clinics’ and ‘tenants’ councils on the lower East Side have Jewish landlords” and that “74 of the 80 Lower East Side buildings hit by rent strikes have Jewish landlords.”
A Conservative rabbi told the Village Voice reporter – refusing to give his name or congregation – the picket line was “more exotic than effective.” Asked what the rabbis have done, he said: “They did what they could.” When pressed on what, specifically, the rabbis have done, he replied: “Specifically, I don’t know.” (Stephanie Gervis Harrington, Village Voice, May 7, 1964)
Forty five years later, another scandal involving rabbis and dubious business practices brought this comment from one of my cousins. “At least they don’t test little boys for hemorrhoids and hernias like the Catholic priests do.”
Over the centuries, rabbis, like priests and Protestant ministers galore, have engaged in sexual hanky panky as well as old fashioned theft. Often, they try to cover their wrongdoings with pretenses of religious zealotry – keeping those cash-starved yeshivas open in Jerusalem or bankrolling other charities. But the invisible shield of ethics did not protect these supposed holy men from engaging in flagrant crime.
A New Jersey State Attorney said “it seemed that everyone wanted a piece of the action. Corruption was widespread and pervasive.” The politicians sold their services to the rabbis who “cloaked their extensive criminal activity behind a facade of rectitude.”
The laundered money came from Israel, via Swiss banks and then to New Jersey. Israeli gonifs would buy kidneys from “vulnerable people” in Israel for $10,000, and then get them shipped to their rabbinical associates who would sell them in the United States for $160,000, he said. (AP, July 25, 2009)
Like Cousin Harry, Brooklyn’s Levy Izhak Rosenbaum considered himself a “matchmaker.” In a secretly recorded conversation, Rosenbaum boasted about matching kidney donors with recipients. “I bring a guy what I believe, he’s suitable for your uncle.” Rosenbaum, 58, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn, resembles Tony Soprano who worked in “waste management.” Rosenbaum claimed he was in “construction.” Criminals who lead traditional lives!
Unlike the traditional shotchen (Yiddish for marriage broker), Rosenbaum promoted illegal kidney transplants, not marriages, as he explained to a government informant and an FBI agent posing as the informant’s secretary. The Agent claimed he had an uncle on dialysis, on a transplant list at a Philadelphia hospital. But shortage of kidneys might cost him his life. 4,540 people died in the U.S. last year while waiting for a kidney, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Thus, the kidney black market!
In 2002, UC Berkeley’s Nancy Scheper-Hughes alerted the FBI that Rosenbaum was a broker for an international kidney trafficking gang. He used Moldovan villagers as donors. He promised them jobs in the United States, then coerced them into “donating” their kidneys to recipients who posed as relatives and threatened them with a gun if they resisted. Rosenbaum would show his real gun and then make his fingers into a gun and point one at the reluctant donor’s head. (Somatosphere: Science, Medicine and Anthropology. July 27, 2009, http://www.somatosphere.net/)
Some kidney transplants using Rosenbaum’s donors were performed at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Secret FBI recordings of Rosenbaum had him saying he had to spread money around liberally to Israeli doctors, visa preparers and those who cared for the organ donors in this country. “One of the reasons it’s so expensive is because you have to shmear (pay others) all the time,” he was quoted as saying. (AP, July 25, 2009)
Like Cousin Harry, Rosenbaum bragged: “So far, I’ve never had a failure.”
Harry went to synagogue on high holidays and prayed. Rosenbaum went more often. The rabbis prayed daily. Nowhere in the sacred texts did any of them find the quote: “Religion is about getting rich, no matter how, and you can use God to cover your path.” Or, “it’s OK to commit crimes to help Israeli yeshivas.”
SAUL LANDAU is vice chair of the Institute for Policy Studies board of trustees. His most recent book is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD (CounterPunch / AK Press).