Expatriate Owl

A politically-incorrect perspective that does not necessarily tow the party line, on various matters including but not limited to taxation, academia, government and religion.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rambam's Daughter

"Rambam" is the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known to the western world as Maimonides, the great rabbi, philosopher and physician who was born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135 C.E.

Sephardi Jews, of whom Rambam was one, were scattered all over the world following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, on account of the Catholic Church's inquisition. In 1654, when the Recife in Brazil fell from Dutch hands into the hands of the Portuguese, the Jews of that town had to leave on pain of death. A ship carrying 23 of the Jewish refugees from Recife landed in Manhattan, then a Dutch colony under the governorship of Peter Stuyvesant. The Governor attempted to keep the Jews out of New Amsterdam, and, after they successfully appealed Stuyvesant's ruling, Stuyvesant continued in his attempts to abridge their civil rights. But the Jewish refugees persevered, and, led by Asser Levy, eventually secured their rights on par with the other residents of New Amsterdam.

In 1664, the British took control of the New Netherlands in 1664. The Articles of Capitulation negotiated between the British and the Dutch provided, inter alia, that the Dutch inhabitants of the colony would enjoy freedom of religion under British rule. When the Dutch recaptured the Colony in 1673, the British subjects there were given the same rights that the Dutchmen in the Colony had enjoyed under the British. When the Colony once again came into British hands in 1674, the personal civil rights, including free exercise of religion, persisted. Indeed, when New York became a State, its delegation insisted that the Bill of Rights be amended to the U.S. Constitution so that they would have the same personal freedoms they had enjoyed under British and Dutch rule.

Another Sefardi Jew, Sir Moses Montefiore (1784 - 1885), put much of his wealth towards philanthropy during his long life. Notwithstanding the exiles, there has always been a continuous residual Jewish presence in the Holy Land from the time of Joshua. Sir Moses Montefiore did much to better the condition of the Jewish population of the Land of Israel during his lifetime.

Eastern Europe became a breeding ground for Jewish scholarship, with numerous yeshivas and other educational institutions. These provided rabbinical support for other Jewish communities throughout the entire world. The Nazis were well aware that destruction of the Eastern European Jewish community would have negative impact upon world Jewry, and proceeded with their evil plans accordingly.

After World War II, the surviving rabbinical leaders from the Eastern European yeshivas transplanted their remnants to America, Israel, and elsewhere. In order to restore their decimated yeshivas, the rabbis took the unprecedented step of instituting long-term full-time religious studies for almost all Jewish males in their communities. In addition to the obvious economic ramifications it has wreaked in the communities, there are also the social repercussions. Jonathan Rosenblum compared it to chemotherapy, a drastic measure that poisons the body -- on a temporary basis -- in order to save the life. It has negative effects.

One of these negative implications is that the communities have become more insular. This insularity goes well beyond the distinction between religious Jews and non-religious Jews. Specifically, there are now religious elementary and junior high schools in Israel (and, for that matter, in Brooklyn, Lakewood and Monsey) that discriminate against Sephardim, and will not admit Sephardi pupils. They do not want their children to be exposed to outside influences, even those of different religious Jewish communities.

Along with everything else, this is ingratitude. Were it not for the groundbreaking efforts of Asser Levy, America might not have been tolerant enough to nurture the religious Jewish communities transplanted from the ashes of the Holocaust after World War II. And were it not for Sir Moses Montefiore, the religious Jews who emigrated to the Holy Land in the 19th Century would surely have had a far rougher time there.

Yet, there are certain religious institutions where even the Rambam's daughter would not be welcome!

The end of the calendar year of 2009 approaches. My wife and I am in the process of sending out our final tzedakah checks for the year, so that we can properly claim the charitable deduction on our taxes. We are taking care to not support institutions that discriminate against religious Jews.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Spanking for Spinka, Part 2

This Blog's posting of 15 July 2009 discussed some broader implications of the plea agreement entered into by Naftali Tzvi Weisz, the Grand Rabbi of Spinka, in connection with his criminal money laundering charges. The subsequent posting of 31 July 2009 mentioned some of the contritionary acts and statements made by the Rabbi as he awaited sentencing.

Yesterday, in Los Angeles, U.S. District Judge John F. Walter imposed the sentence. The following matters are noted:

1. The statutory maximum for the offense is 5 years incarceration, plus 3 years supervised release, plus monetary fines. The plea agreement provided that the Rabbi would face no more than 3 years. The sentence actually imposed by Judge Walter was 2 years.

2. Yeshiva Imrei Yosef, one of the Spinka charitable institutions involved in the scheme, also pleaded guilty, and is slated to be sentenced in January 2010. It is not practical to incarcerate a corporation, but it can be fined, and such fines can result in the discontinuance of its existence. It is noted that the Spinka institutions, with the approval and encouragement of some major Rabbis connected with the Agudath Israel of America, are currently engaged in a campaign to collect money (and have an Internet presence for doing so, notwithstanding the many broad brush condemnations of the Internet by those same rabbis). I have received their solicitations, which tug at the heart strings and ask me to think of the innocent children whose education is now jeopardized. I agree with Rabbi Harry Maryles that if the good works done by the Spinka institutions are worthy of support, then the institutions should sever their connections with the Spinka hierarchy.

3. Leslie P. DeMarco, the ranking FBI Special Agent in Los Angeles, insinuated a quote into the US Attorney's press release: "Grand Rabbi Naftali Weisz exploited his position in the community, knowingly using the Spinka charitable organizations for the benefit of greedy donors. Today's sentencings close this aspect of the investigation. The donors, who were refunded up to 95 percent of the contributions they made to the Spinka charities but falsely claimed a charitable contribution deduction for the entire donation, are put on notice that they, too, have committed a crime, and that crime is tax fraud."

My take on it all:

Special Agent DeMarco's statement is an unambiguously clear signal that additional repercussions are in the pipeline. There is no doubt that scrutiny of the list of Spinka contributors has already begun. Rumors already are circulating, to the effect that one or more of the Spinka contributors have already cut deals with the IRS in order to avoid prosecution (or at least lessen the severity of criminal liability). I do not doubt that those who participated in the Spinka tax scam who have not come forward can expect some unpleasant visitors in the near future.

As for the Rabbi's sentence: The Rabbi got two years when he could have been slapped with three. That the Rabbi has been contrite is no secret. It is almost a given that he has encouraged his donors to make amends, and this has probably played a role in his sentence reduction.

The real question is whether the Rabbi has done more than that in return for the lenity he received. Has he, for example, provided or facilitated the provision of valuable information regarding transactions of others beyond the pale of the Spinka institutions?

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Rhymes with Improper

There is a scandal afestering, as many readers of this blog are surely aware. It involves some very damning evidence of a certain individual engaging in the provision of certain lewd and bawdy services. I shall not specify any names, but the whole thing both is and rhymes with improper. I expect further repercussions as everyone scrambles to cover their toochases, and in doing so, gets caught up in complicating falsehoods.

Much has been posted in the blogosphere and beyond regarding this scandal, but I cannot help but wonder about the tax angle here. The alleged services provided by the mistress are, more often than not, provided in return for money, and, if so, the alleged transactions would be taxable events, to the pimp if not to the sex object herself.

I am informed that counsel has been retained. Such counsel (if indeed, he still is admitted to the practice of law) should include, among the pieces of advice, the implications of reporting or not reporting the taxable events on the tax return.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Texts and Subtexts

For the record, tonight is the Fifth Night of Chanukah. My prior post, which was done the Third Night of Chanukah, did not even mention Chanukah. This is not in any way a derogation of the holiday, nor an indication that my family and I are sitting out the holiday. But this Blog was not established as a "me, too" vehicle. Like most of the Jewish community, we have found the holiday quite enjoyable this year, as usual. I have nothing to add to Debbie Schlussel's take on it, other than to say that my menorah (or, more properly, Chanukiyah) collection pales in comparison to Debbie's.

And, of course, to wish all a Happy Chanukah!!

Anent to this post, there are arrangements in Israel called Hesder Yeshiva arrangements, whereby yeshiva students alternate between learning for a few months and serving in the Israeli army for a few months. Yes, there are more than a few of the so-called "Charedi" Jews who actually serve in the military; moreover, they tend, like our Maccabee forebears, to be very effective and valiant as soldiers.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, who heads the Har Bracha Yeshiva, stepped across the line. Rabbi Melamed advocated that his students refuse to carry out such Israeli Army orders as would expel Jews from the areas where, for political reasons, a housing freeze has been decreed. Melamed's yeshiva has been terminated from the hesder program, and now, the Rabbi is a hero amongst the more religiously observant communities.

To dispense with some collateral issues:

(A) The notion of civil disobedience by Israel's soldiers is certainly disturbing, for it imperils the chain of command discipline so vital to the success of the military forces that defend the land against vicious and sworn enemies. On the other hand, I believe, along with Rabbi Melamed, that NO portion of the Land of Israel, G-d's gift to the Jewish people, should, under any circumstances, be made Judenrein. There is a trade-off to be made here, the valuation and calculation of which I shall do, if at all, in some future endeavor.

(B) Many of the Hesder Yeshiva students are Americans. For various individual reasons, the Israeli Army is more appropriate for some people than the U.S. Army. No nation has ever been entirely comfortable with its citizens or subjects serving in other nations' armed forces (unless such service also happens to serve the sovereign interest, such as when Landgraf Frederick of Hesse-Cassel rented out his Hessian soldiers to England during the Revolutionary War). But those who defend Israel also defend America, and indeed, Israel takes much of the flak that otherwise would hit American land and people.

But I digress. The intended observation of this posting is that, notwithstanding the enmity and antipathy in many rabbinical circles towards modern communications technology in general and towards text messaging in particular (see here, here and here), text messaging technologies were used more than sparsely to announce, and draw the welcoming crowd for, Rabbi Melamed's recent visit to Bat Yam.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Honors for EL AL

It is not the purpose of this posting to delve too deeply into the entire history of EL AL Airlines. EL AL began as Israel's national airline in 1948, and at the time of its establishment, David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, made what purportedly was an ironclad promise that EL AL would serve kosher meals on its flights, and not operate flights on the Sabbath.

There have been a number of incidents over the years of departures from that ideal, especially following EL AL's privatization, a process that occurred between 2003 and 2005.

The latest major spat occurred in December 2006, when, following a short strike at Lod Airport (I do not care to glorify Ben Gurion by attaching his name to Israel's national airport at Lod, near Tel Aviv), EL AL played catch-up by operating a flight on Shabbat.

I am a Sabbath observer. But I understand that:

(A) Not every Jew is; and

(B) As a practical matter, EL AL cannot totally completely cease all activities on Shabbat (guarding its aircraft, for instance).

It is my stance that even though EL AL is privatized, EL AL is what it is today on account of its background. The name and trademark of EL AL stands for the Jewish people, and therefore, it should serve kosher meals in flight, and should not operate flights that require passengers to fly, or go to or from the airport, on Shabbat.

In December 2006, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, the Editor of Yated Ne'eman, wrote an editorial for Yated which was carried on The Yeshiva World website (Yated does not -- yet -- have an Internet presence, what with all of the opposition to the Internet amongst its constituency) in support of the boycott announced by several rabbis in America and in Israel.

Now, on page 125 of the 11 December 2009 edition of Yated Ne'eman, there is a photo with a caption beginning: "EL AL was honored at the Belzer dinner with an award for outstanding devotion and dedication …" And so, in just 3 short years, EL AL has been rehabilitated from pariah to sterling, and is no longer (for now) shitlisted by the rabbis.

I am most uncomfortable in placing labels on my fellow Jews. But there are some insular groups of Jews who label themselves as "Charedi." The word means that they tremble in fear of G-d (except, for a few of them who have besmirched the others, when they are committing financial fraud and tax evasion). I have some relatives and friends who would be labeled as Charedi, but who, like most Charedi Jews, embody honesty, strong character, and class. In any event, the same Charedi Jews who run rampant in the aisles and knock into other passengers on EL AL flights when they assemble to pray (in light of safety concerns, one is permitted to pray from one's seat in an airline situation. The pilot, some of my pilot friends have informed me, can feel the weight shift when 10+ men all get together in the tail to daven.) all seem to behave themselves quite well on the transatlantic flights of other airlines. And, as I have seen, they exhibit greater courtesy to the flight attendants of other airlines than they do towards the EL AL stewardesses.

I take these rabbinical boycotts with more than a few grains of salt. By issuing various proclamations, the rabbis can periodically squeeze concessions out of EL AL that cannot be exacted from other airlines. If the rabbis ever are successful in shutting down EL AL, then they would have absolutely no power over any other airline.

The Belzer Chassidim have now declared that EL AL is kosher … at least until the next rabbinical boycott.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Agudah Watching

The Agudath Israel of America's annual Convention this past Thanksgiving weekend has provided much grist for the mill [here, here and here, for example]. Blogwise, I have held my fire on it, but that does not mean that I have not been following it with great interest. [For the uninitiated, the Agudath Israel is an "umbrella group" advocating the interests of the more insular Jewish factions in America.].

The main reason I did not attend the Convention myself is that the extended Thanksgiving weekend has become a time for my family to travel and visit our relatives and friends. The combination of geography and our family priorities do not facilitate my personal attendance.

But because I was not there personally, I must digest and assimilate second-hand information, and I want to tap diverse sources for that info, including but not limited to blogs, personal accounts of friends, clients and acquaintances who were there, and, of course, the newsrags. In the latter regard, the 2 December 2009 copy of Hamodia, and the 4 December 2009 copy of Yated Ne'eman, which take a circuitous route through many hands before coming into mine, reached me a bit earlier than what has been the norm for the past few months. Sure enough, each covered the Convention.

As discussed in several postings this past summer [15 July 2001, 31 July 2009, 13 August 2009, and, more to the point, 2 August 2009], the Agudath Israel is a troubled organization now in a state of flux. Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, having recently been elevated to the position of Agudath Israel's Executive Vice President, now needs to kick butt and make some people uncomfortable. This he purported to do at the Convention, if only by the mere passing mention of the problems of domestic violence and sexual abuse in his plenary speech. This is a milestone for Agudath Israel; formerly, those issues were swept under the rug and their seriousness if not existence within the religious Jewish community denied.

The 2 December 2009 Hamodia's treatment of the Convention is interesting. Firstly, there is an editorial on page D37 entitled "Crisis in our Community: Under the Rug? Denial? Or Confrontation and Solution." This editorial reveals that, upon advice of the ranking rabbinical sages, Hamodia will "begin to address these topics, albeit in a sensitive and appropriate way." This, of course, is a tacit admission that Hamodia has heretofore taken pains to not address domestic violence and sexual abuse. And into the editorial's disclosure that Hamodia's challenge is "to balance the need to educate about what to beware of against the danger of enlightening the youth about things they should never know" one can read that its coverage will seldom if at all be front-page.

Indeed, elsewhere in the 2 December 2009 edition, the Convention was extensively covered, but mostly on the financial improprieties issues. The rabbis invariably are less uncomfortable and embarrassed over monetary scandals than sexual ones.

As for Yated Ne'eman, its coverage of the Convention was not as extensive as that of Hamodia, neither in verbiage nor photographs. Yated's references to the sexual abuse and domestic violence was indirect at best, a situation into which I do not read too much because (A) Yated's comparatively short article had to cover other matters from the Convention; and (B) it was Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, the Editor of Yated Ne'eman, who first broke ground by mentioning in a printed editorial the taboo subjects nobody wishes to discuss.

In my little Long Island community, we are one of a small group of families that comprise our congregation [I am uncomfortable using the word "Orthodox" to label Jews, but that is how our congregation is usually labeled.] For most of my life, I have never had the luxury of being able to squabble with my fellow Jews. Unfortunately, in many of the heavily populated religious Jewish communities, the residents frequently avail themselves of such pastimes, to the detriment of all involved. One of the more notorious of such shameful altercations involves one brother and his faction against another brother and his faction.

[We Jews are often accused by others of being clannish. Perhaps we are. When my family relocated and my sister and I enrolled in the local junior high school, we made it necessary to use two hands to count the Jewish students there. We all had to stick together. And, in the early 1970's, when my family was driving through the South towards Dallas, we needed some more rope to lash the luggage to the roof rack of the station wagon, so in a small Alabama town we stopped at a hardware merchant which happened to be the local "Jew Store" (seems that even the smallest of Southern towns often had at least one Jewish merchant). While we neither requested nor received any special discount, the proprietor and my father did spend more than a few minutes shmoozing, they let us all use the restroom facilities, and we received good advice as to places to go and to avoid along the remainder of our trek (this was before the Interstate Highway System was fully functional).].

There are various kulturkampfen within the big Agudath Israel kettle. Zwiebel needs to manage them (he certainly cannot halt them). So now, the question is whether Zwiebel is really trying to be a catalyst of change within Agudath Israel of America, or whether he is trying to put up a front by saying the right things, to delay the dirty work until the poor bastard who becomes the next Executive Veep gets stuck with the problem.

I would like to think that Zwiebel is genuinely trying to change the culture of the Agudath Israel so that it might better advocate for its constituency (of which I would like to think I am one). I cannot help but harbor a considerable amount of skepticism, though. One cannot ignore the fact that Zwiebel is an entrenched company man, and accordingly, there remains some question as to just how clean his broom can really be. But he is a highly intelligent and perceptive person, and he no doubt knows well that if he doesn't do some cleaning up, then the Agudath Israel of America may well cease to exist. This I really, really do not want to see happen.

And so, one may view the most recent Agudath Israel Convention as a turning point. Which direction -- upward or downward -- remains to be seen.

With that background, I now pose the following imponderable:

The Agudah [Hebrew grammatical and dialectical issues result in various spellings of the word] has been sullied by certain problems of many of its various constituents, namely, financial improprieties and tax scandals, sexual abuse scandals, and domestic violence. It is those fires that the Agudahniks have, of late, been scrambling to douse. The efforts so expended sap its strength to lobby the solons for favorable legislation, or, more commonly, against unfavorable legislation.

In this latter regard, the same-sex "marriage" measure that recently lost in Albany, and the one now going onto the table in Trenton, have been quite a consternation to the Agudath Israel. [For the record, I personally oppose quite vehemently giving legislative imprimatur to such abominations, but believe that two consenting adults should not have to abide the government insinuating itself into the bedroom.]. The Agudath Israel has been speaking to the various Assemblycritters in terms of public morality.

How can the Agudath Israel credibly make the public morality argument when they themselves have so long facilitated, through denial and sweeping beneath the rug, the immorality of sexual abuse and domestic violence in the religious Jewish community?

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