Reprinted from NewsMax.com
Scam Artists or Victims? The Hasidic Defendants of New Square
Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2001
Note: the following article was written in June 1997, shortly after federal indictments were issued against six members of the Hasidic community of New Square, N.Y., two of whom became fugitives from justice and four of whom were convicted and jailed, then pardoned by President Bill Clinton on his last day in office.
"Why wouldn't they let us settle this case?" the Skverer Rebbe, David Twersky, says to me in his gentle, anguished voice. "Why do they torture us?"
To the embattled Hasidim of New Square, a village of 6,000 Orthodox Jews in Rockland County, N.Y., the recent federal indictments against members of their community for misuse of government education money represent a cruel double standard.
Several point to the mild treatment accorded Stanford University in a well-publicized scandal in the early 1990s. When it was discovered that Stanford had spent $231 million in federal research grants for such items as first-class trips to Turkey, depreciation on the university's luxury yacht, and cedar closets for President Donald Kennedy's mansion, no one was indicted. Stanford simply had to repay some of the money it had stolen, and Kennedy had to return to teaching.
Yet for similar misappropriations of federal funds – and on a far smaller scale – the federal authorities have unleashed all their formidable weapons against New Square, subjecting it to aggressive and intrusive investigation for four years (which has already cost the village $5 million in legal expenses and fines), refusing to accept a settlement offer that included repayment of funds and community service, and charging six of its leading residents as criminals. (Two of the six defendants did not appear at their arraignment on June 4 and are now fugitives from justice.)
Issued by United States Attorney Mary Jo White, the indictments allege, among other things, the fraudulent misuse over a 10-year period of $10 million in federal Pell grants that were earmarked for financially needy post-secondary students. The defendants are accused of transmitting the funds through bogus schools of independent study in which no real study took place, in which students did not meet regularly with their mentors as required, and where very few degrees were awarded, even to students who had been registered in the programs for years.
The residents of New Square (named after the Ukrainian city of Skver, where their sect originated) insist that nothing improper was done. "Without going into the question of whether or not they were obeying the letter of the law, the spirit of the law was always being complied with," declares Rabbi Mayer Schiller, an unofficial spokesman for the group, who lives in nearby Monsey. The purpose of the law was to support education, says Schiller, and that's exactly what the money was used for, even if the studies were not conducted in the formal manner required by the Pell Grant Program.
Moreover, the Skveras are adamant in their claim that the funds were not used to enrich anyone – "Nobody here owns a yacht," one resident said to me sardonically – but only to support needy Talmud students in a community whose sole reason for existence is mastery of Talmudic law. "The entire community's only leisure-time activity is study," Schiller told me. "Even men who have regular jobs spend two or three hours studying Talmud every evening."
As a visit to the modest village of New Square indicated, it is a vocation that begins in childhood. At the K-9 boys' school, neatly dressed 6-year-olds sat at tables with the Hebrew Bible open before them, loudly chanting the verses in Yiddish in response to their teacher's calls.
In another classroom the teacher kept an array of little plastic cups on his desk, one for each boy, into which he dropped a candy as a reward for correct answers. "We bribe them," the principal, Rabbi Chaim Tambor, said affectionately.
In every class that I visited (by age 13 the boys already wear the adult Hasidic garb of long black coat and wide hat), I was struck by the degree of the boys' attentiveness and involvement. Not one seemed bored, restless or disobedient. The contrast with a typical American public school of today could not have been more striking.
At about age 15 the students begin studying Talmud informally among themselves, a practice that continues in the kollel, the school for married men (everyone in the Hasidic community is married between the ages of 19 and 21). In a pleasant, high-ceilinged study room in the kollel, young men in pairs sat across from each other reciting and discussing.
The Hasidim's total absorption in the life of the mind has some well-marked distinctions and boundaries, within and without the community. While Talmudic learning is a sacrament and religious obligation for males, it is not required for females, although girls study the practical application of the Talmudic code in high school and continue such studies informally in later years. As a mark of their different spiritual status, women are not even obligated to attend Shabbos services.
Moreover, knowledge of the outside world is minimal in this Yiddish-speaking community. Not only do the schools teach nothing of American history and civilization, but many U.S.-born Hasidim speak English as though it were a foreign language, with thick accents, incorrect grammar and limited vocabulary – a linguistic separateness that seems to have been deliberately pursued so as to avoid any contaminating contact with contemporary America.
This cultural apartheid from the modern world, combined with the religious demand to spend as much time as possible in Talmud study, explains the Hasids' chronic dependence on government. As many as 150 of the 600 married men at New Square are full-time students, and many of those who work have only part-time jobs. With an average of 10 children per family ("Be fruitful and multiply" being their other sacred obligation besides Talmud study), the people of New Square consume large amounts of public assistance in the form of Section 8 housing subsidies, Food Stamps and Medicaid.
It appears, then, that New Square's alleged illegal use of public funds is but a logical extension of its systematic legal use of such funds.
Which raises a troubling question: Why should American taxpayers finance a community that keeps itself culturally isolated from the rest of society, and that is unable or unwilling to support its own Malthusian population growth? To the Hasidim, the answer is obvious. Not only do they save the state as much as $15 million every year by educating their own children, but, as New Squarer Dave Braun said to me: "We contribute to America more than other comminutes by producing law-abiding citizens. How many rapes and murders and family abuse cases have there been here in the last 40 years? None. There is never any crime here, unless someone from the outside comes in."
It is a refrain heard over and over from the Skveras, who tend to speak of the larger society exclusively in terms of its moral decadence – crime, rampant sexual disorder, the degraded pop culture, and so on. While one can hardly dismiss these criticisms (though at times they verge on caricature), the problem is that the Hasids do not seem to see any positive values in the larger American society; nor, one surmises, can they contribute any positive values to that society because they are so radically separated from it.
All they offer to America is the absence of negative values, i.e., the absence of libertine and destructive behaviors, which in their minds distinguishes them from the debased mainstream culture and from other minority groups who, like the Hasidim, rely heavily on the dole but who, unlike the Hasidim, are immersed in illegitimacy and crime.
Ironically, then, this most rigidly conservative of all groups fits right into the politics of multiculturalism – the wondrous system we have created in which groups that are alien or hostile to America's mainstream culture are awarded the right to be officially recognized and financially subsidized by that culture.
The Hasidim, of course, have nothing to do with the leftist multicultural agenda to transform American identity. Nevertheless, they are quintessential clients of the multicultural welfare state, because it is their cultural differences from the rest of society – namely, their religious duty to study Talmud as much as possible and to have as many children as possible – that create their economic dependence on society.
Apart from the current allegations of fraud, the government seems to have had no problem with the Hasids' permanent reliance on public assistance. Why should it, given its relativist assumptions? After all, this is a government that (in addition to more conventional subsidies such as transportation or medical research) has massively subsidized illegitimacy and the resulting culture of crime and poverty; a government that funds Hispanic community colleges whose graduates can't write English; a government that pays for heart surgery for convicted illegal immigrant drug dealers; and a government that teaches public-school children to "respect" sodomy and places sexually perverse advertisements on publicly owned buses. In that context, who could possibly object to the earmarking of a few million dollars to help maintain a small community devoted to studying the Torah and living a righteous life?
Where the New Square defendants ran afoul of this system was in cooking the books. It's one thing to avail yourself of the welfare state's limitless compassion for the disadvantaged or the culturally different; it's another to engage in fraud. In addition to the misappropriation of education grants, two of the defendants are charged with fraudulently diverting more than $200,000 in Section 8 housing subsidies to their own bank accounts, and one is accused of making federally backed small business loans to local businesses with which the officers and directors of the lending entity were affiliated (though once again everyone I spoke to insists that none of the defendants used this money to enrich himself, but only to support needy Talmud students).
Enmeshed in a vast system of government largesse that virtually begs diverse groups to take government money on their own terms, a system based on the rejection of any common moral or cultural standards, should the New Square defendants be thrown in prison for failing to realize that multicultural America has one remaining standard that it still, though intermittently, enforces – the letter of the law? And that transferring federal education grants to non-existent students and diverting federal rental subsidies to non-existent tenants were serious crimes?
According to the relativist axioms under which our society now operates, the defendants' alleged behavior ought to be seen as a manifestation of their unique culture, bred of thousands of years of scraping by in a hostile world. Opportunistic improvisation, not bureaucratic propriety, is the traditional Jewish way. Is it not a bit unreasonable, then, to expect that this small, unassimilated community, whose affairs were run by just a few men, would not have had some overlap of personnel between the local corporation licensed to make federally backed loans to small businesses, and the small businesses receiving those loans? To the American mind such an arrangement is unethical and fraudulent; to the Hasidic mind it is normal and routine.
With their alien demeanor and pre-modern way of life, the Hasidim may be the ultimate test of multicultural America's commitment to welcome and empower groups that have nothing in common with America as a historic nation. In my own view, it would have been far better if the multicultural welfare state – with its inherent potential for abuse, dependency and ethnic conflict – had never been erected in the first place. But since we have erected it, it hardly seems fair to single out the Hasidim for harsh treatment.
The question cries out for an answer: If it was not criminal for mighty Stanford to stretch the meaning of federally supported "research" to include wedding parties for its president and luxury trips up the Nile, why is it criminal for tiny New Square to stretch the meaning of federally supported "education" to include its members' lifelong commitment to the study of Jewish law?
Lawrence Auster can be reached at [email protected]