Theocratic Fraud in Ultra-Orthodox Judaism

Theocratic Fraud in Ultra-Orthodox Judaism March 28, 2016

Money

Religious sects and cults that conceive of themselves as serving a higher, sacred purpose will, almost inevitably, end up believing that they’re above the law. We’ve seen this recently with the FLDS Mormon splinter cult and the Catholic church protecting monstrous child abusers, and now there’s another example on offer.

I’ve written about the malign political influence of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Judaism, both in New York City and in the upstate satellite community of Kiryas Joel. Because they vote as a bloc in obedience to the decrees of their rabbis, the ultra-Orthodox wield political pull which they’ve used to win special privileges that enable them to continue their isolated, medieval lifestyle.

Life in these communities is a suffocating blanket of all-encompassing religious rules and intellectual repression, for all young people but especially the girls. Because ultra-Orthodox women are forbidden to work and most ultra-Orthodox men aspire only to a life of perpetual Torah study and don’t seek outside employment, they depend on food stamps and other state subsidies to live. This is the reason why Kiryas Joel is the poorest community in the entire U.S.

But it now appears that when getting government aid through legitimate channels wasn’t enough, there were some who were willing to go further. Last week, the FBI swooped in:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has raided yeshivas and technology vendors in ultra-Orthodox corners of Brooklyn and Rockland County, serving search warrants as part of a sweeping fraud investigation into religious schools’ use of the federal government’s E-Rate program, the Journal News reported.

The raids began in the Orthodox town of Monsey and the Hasidic village of Kiryas Joel on Wednesday morning, then continued in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Wednesday afternoon. The website Yeshiva World News posted video on Wednesday evening of FBI agents entering the offices of a Williamsburg yeshiva associated with the Kiryas Joel-based branch of the Satmar Hasidic group.

Although the U.S. Attorney’s office has been tight-lipped, the specific allegations appear to center around the federal E-Rate program, which provides money to schools and libraries in low-income areas to help pay for phone and internet service. Yeshivas in Kiryas Joel and other ultra-Orthodox communities have received millions of dollars through this program, which is interesting since, as the Journal News drily notes, “many of the schools prohibited student access to the Internet”.

Over the last few years, media watchdogs have repeatedly raised questions about E-Rate funds flowing to ultra-Orthodox communities. In many cases, the tangible results from this influx of money range from dubious to nonexistent:

The plaque on the door at Kollel L’Horauh calls the room a library. As a library, it has received $135,000 in congressionally mandated library subsidies. But there’s no librarian, and the room’s “collection” consists of a subscription to a single digital database of Jewish books that is not even available on all the computers.

Since E-Rate draws from a fixed pool of money, these lavish giveaways leave less for everyone else. But while wastefulness would be bad enough, the FBI raids suggest that the authorities have reason to believe that outright fraud was committed. It’s possible that some of these religious schools, or their contractors, were billing the government at hugely inflated rates, or even charging for work that was never done at all. And this could be the tip of the iceberg, with another story suggesting that the feds are taking a hard look at potential misuse of money from the National School Lunch Program.

The real question, assuming this investigation bears fruit and charges are eventually brought, is how high the corruption might go. Was it a few people acting for their own selfish gain, or could this point to some kind of broad-ranging conspiracy to defraud the government for the enrichment of the whole community? I’m hoping we’ll soon find out the answer.

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