After arrests, Sephardic community shudders


By Michael Orbach

Issue of July 31, 2009 / 10 Av 5769

On a warm summer Friday in Great Neck — the morning after the

chief rabbi of Syrian Jews in America was perp walked for the cameras

with several other rabbis — Jenevieve Gold was angry.

“It’s a horrible thing that they did to the community!” she said, sitting in the office of Magic Home Realty. “People put their faith in them... How did they live on Shabbat?”

“You have to look at the positive...,” consoled Yvette Zubli, the Iraqi born-owner of the 30-year old real estate agency.

“What positive?” Jenevieve, an Algerian Jew, asked in exasperation, “the rabbi was selling a kidney!”

While she didn’t have the details exactly correct — a different defendant is charged with organ trafficking — her sentiment was unmistakable.

Last Thursday a decade-long FBI corruption probe in New Jersey and New York was wrapped up with the arrests of 44 men, including several prominent rabbis from the Syrian Jewish strongholds of Deal, N.J. and Brooklyn, N.Y. Most notable of all was Rabbi Saul Kassin, 87, of Cong. Shaare Zion on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. He is considered the leading rav of Syrian Jewry. Imagine any current charedi Gadol in handcuffs and you can imagine the shudders that went through Deal and Brooklyn.

The tight-knit medley of Sephardic Jews in Great Neck, who range from Iranian to Syrian and Afghani, were taking the news personally. Later, Zublie, who ten years ago waived her fee to help Shaare Zion, a Syrian shul, buy a building, sighed heavily. “All Jews, we’re part of the same family,” she said.

Joe Franco, the president of Shaare Zion, refused to speak about the arrests. Leon Manoucheri, who lives next door to the shul, described the arrests as “very sad.”

“People look at the Jewish community as a whole,” he asserted.

At Elias’s Hair Design on Middle Neck Road, the feelings were the same. An older Syrian woman who moved to Great Neck this past year to be closer to her daughter was aghast.

“It’s terrible what they did. To have a rabbi...” she trailed off and then asked not to be named in print. “It’s a terrible thing.”

Standing behind the counter, Elias, an Iranian man with Three Weeks stubble and a blue-and-white yarmulke, urged his two Syrian hairdressers to talk to a reporter. Both declined and quickly returned to curling their customer’s hair.

“You never know how they say your words,” one hairdresser explained to the other quietly.

“It’s not the rabbis, it’s beyond this,” Elias stated, “Madoff: It was not himself, it was a hand behind him. Jews have to go buy property in Israel for the future of Jews.”

Much of the evidence was gathered by 30-something former real estate mogul Shlomo Dwek. He went to work for the government in 2006 after he was arrested for depositing a bogus $25 million check at a bank drive-in window, then quickly wiring the money elsewhere.

In one recorded exchange between Dwek and a defendant, laundered

money was referred to as “Gemarah.” On another occasion,  $97 thousand

was handed off in an Apple Jacks cereal box. A separate investigation also led to the arrests of a number of politicians including the mayors of Hoboken, Ridgfield and Secaucus. The latter resigned Tuesday night.

Rabbi Arnold Marans of Sephardic Temple in Cedarhurst said the Sephardic community here is not “monolothic” and that his shul was European Sephardim and not close to the Syrian Jewish community.

“As a rabbi I feel embarrassed,” Rabbi Marans said. “Am I going to call it a chillul Hashem? Let the trial take place.”

Albert Edery, a prominent Syrian businessman sent out an email to his

community on the day after the arrests.

“This has nothing to do with our Dear Rabbis it has to do with the Almighty showing us a sign,” he wrote. “With the internet, print and TV the world can now know everything and unfortunately the  people around us in Deal and Brooklyn will now ask What Kind Of People are These Jews ..”

“It is now our job to show them all the beauty of who we are..”