Syrian Jews in shock after rabbis' arrest

By Elicia Brown, July 30, 2009

America’s Syrian-Jewish community is reeling from a double blow.

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 Allepo, 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.

A number of elaborate Halebi shuls operate in Deal, which was built specifically for the summer months when the town’s population swells.

It is claimed that much of the money-laundering was carried out through shuls and other Jewish charities.
According to some estimates, 100,000 Syrian Jews now cluster in the New York City borough of Brooklyn and a few New Jersey towns in and around Deal; others estimate closer to half that number.

Those who grow up on the Syrian streets of Brooklyn seldom leave the neighbourhood as adults, opting to live down the block from parents and in-laws. Women tend to marry young and focus on family. Men join the businesses of their fathers.

They dine on a rich array of foods such as kibbe (meatballs coated with cracked wheat) and lahem b’ajean (little cheeseless pizzas topped with meat).

They continue the traditions of their ancestors, belting out Arabic-influenced melodies at synagogue services.
Carole Golan, a writer who is of Syrian Jewish ancestry, expressed dismay at the image portrayed by the recent media hoopla.

“It’s an amazing community. I don’t think there’s anything like it,” said Ms Golan.

“If someone gets sick, everyone comes out and prays. If someone is sick and pregnant, they come everyday with food. There’s a gentleman who caters the senior citizen’s home every Shabbat. Look, it’s a family. They go above and beyond.”

Last updated: 4:59pm, July 30 2009