Analysis: The community’s insularity makes these stories more likely

By Anthony Weiss, July 30, 2009
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Only two weeks before law enforcement agents arrested Rabbi Saul Kassin, chief rabbi of the American Syrian community, as part of a massive corruption sweep, another US chief rabbi pleaded guilty to exactly the same charge.

Naftali Tzvi Weisz, Rebbe of the Spinka Chasidic sect, admitted to laundering money by accepting tax-deductible charitable donations and then returning the money to the donors, minus a fee.

The only significant difference between what Rabbi Weisz did and what Rabbi Kassin is alleged to have done is that Rabbi Weisz offered a cheaper service. His fee went no higher than 7.5 per cent, versus an alleged 10 per cent for Rabbi Kassin.

A number of Rabbi Kassin’s defenders have been quick to point out that he is innocent until proven guilty. That is true, although the evidence in federal court documents looks ominous and copious.

They also argue that even if the charges against Rabbi Kassin and the four other rabbis arrested prove true, they are only a few bad apples, not evidence of some deeper communal rot. But when the bad apples include chief rabbis who act as the spiritual and moral leaders of their communities, it is time to start looking at the tree.

Unlike most American Jews, but like many highly observant Jewish sects, both Rabbi Kassin and the Spinka Rebbe preside over communities that are profoundly insular.

To some extent, that insularity is rooted in ancient history. In the old country, whether in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, insularity and communal loyalty were an essential protection against the hostility of the larger society that surrounded them.

In the US, the justification has shifted — American society is not too hostile but too seductive. An insular lifestyle is essential to protect Jewish traditions and culture.

There is no better evidence of this in the Syrian community than the edict issued by Rabbi Kassin’s father, Rabbi Jacob Kassin, in 1935. The edict declares that any Syrian Jew who marries a gentile, or even a convert, is cast out of the community. Saul Kassin has not only upheld the edict but made good on it. When one of his daughters married a non-Jew, he cut her off.

But while insularity may keep Jewish ties and traditions strong, it can also encourage contempt for both society’s mores and its laws. When the Spinka Rebbe was arrested, most of his community’s anger was directed at the informant who turned him in.

Judging by the early reaction in the Syrian community, it appears this same process is being repeated. Most of the outrage has been directed not at Rabbi Kassin for allegedly breaking the law, but at informant and fellow Syrian Jew Solomon Dwek for turning on his own; his father is reportedly sitting shivah for him.

Two years ago, Rabbi Kassin wrote to his followers, “There is nothing more important than our unity.”
Unfortunately, it appears that his followers agree.

Anthony Weiss is a former staff writer for The Forward.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010