From here to affinity

Holding the Orthodox to a higher standard.

magen david 63 (photo credit: )
magen david 63
(photo credit: )
I just learned a new term: "affinity" fraud. It came up in a story about a lawsuit in Lakewood, the central New Jersey township with a booming Orthodox community. According to the Jan. 17 article in the Daily Business Review , NJ developer Eliyahu Weinstein is alleged to have defrauded Miami investor - and fellow Orthodox Jew - Harvey D. Wolinetz out of some $78.5 million in loans and investments. "Affinity" investment fraud, according to the article, is when someone "preys on members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, seniors or professional groups." Wolinetz's trust was "founded on the fact that both men come from the same Orthodox Jewish community," according to his lawsuit against Weinstein. "Instead, Weinstein exploited Mr. Wolinetz's trust by defrauding him." Weinstein's lawyer said he is confident that the allegations will not stand up in court. Whatever the truth, it's an unpleasant story and awful fodder for those inclined to bash the Orthodox. And when I say those inclined to bash the Orthodox, I mean non-Orthodox Jews. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with fellow Jews who want to share stories of Orthodox gone wild. When they do, I have a standard reply: "Every group has its nogoodniks and shouldn't be judged on their behavior. Even religious people can be fallible, troubled, or conniving, but no more so than the general population. And you seem happy to ignore the exceptional commitment to charity and mutual support that is infinitely more emblematic of Orthodox communities." I'm not sure how much of an impact my little speech has, since there are bigger forces than logic or fair play at work here. For many Jews, the Orthodox represent the past, and their stubborn adherence to tradition is a rebuke to those who have abandoned it. Nothing expiates a secular person's sense of guilt faster than seeing an Orthodox Jew show up on the crime blotter. (Call it affinity schadenfreude.) At the same time, Americans' disdain for sanctimony is as old as "Elmer Gantry." DESPITE THE best efforts of the New Atheists, the most potent charge you can level at believers is not that they are irrational or intolerant, but that they are hypocritical. Conservatives get it wrong when they call the "liberal" media anti-religious for the salacious way they cover religious scandals. In fact, the media are never so happy as when then can play the role of defender of the faith. "Troubling news tonight, Jim," says the reporter, standing in front of St. Somewhere. "A priest who pledged to uphold the word of God is instead in custody for...." For the same reason, a newspaper is more likely to identify the religion of an Orthodox Jew than his non-Orthodox coreligionist. Take The New York Times' coverage of Martin Tankleff, the Long Island man whose conviction was overturned 17 years after he was imprisoned for the murder of his parents. Everyone in this sad story is Jewish, including a shadowy businessman who called himself the Bagel King of Long Island, but the word "Jewish" barely comes up in the coverage. That's because the Orthodox are in many ways Judaism's standard-bearers - and as a result, all Jews feel implicated when a guy in a yarmulke does the perp walk. That's how I felt after reading an investigative piece in northern New Jersey's Bergen Record about the various Jewish-run "charities" that seek used car donations to "Help Children in Need." One, The Outreach Center, turns out to be a Brooklyn synagogue, and several of the charities it says it supports say they haven't received any payments since 2002. At the very least, the article paints a disturbing picture of Jewish institutions raising money for their own purposes while playing on the sympathies of donors who think they are helping kids of all faiths (and certainly aren't interested in supporting a religious institution's particularistic agenda). IS IT UNFAIR for folks like me to expect more of those who are so visible in their embrace of the mitzvot? Not entirely. "In a way, this is a kind of tribute to Orthodoxy," wrote Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, discussing similar scrutiny in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. "It is a recognition that Orthodoxy has a higher standard, and anyone who would stand under its umbrella is held - I think rightfully - to this higher standard." Feldman, the former editor of the Modern Orthodox journal Tradition, reminded his fellow Orthodox Jews of the concept of hilul Hashem, the desecration of the Holy Name. "This means that every Jew is responsible that the good Name of the God of Israel be preserved; he or she is bidden to behave in such a way that the good Name of God - which he represents - not be sullied, and that, on the contrary, it be sanctified," wrote Feldman. "The more pious the Jew, the greater his responsibility in this regard." That doesn't at all excuse the Orthodox-bashers. They're also "preying on members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities." And there's a name for that too: anti-Semitism. The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. He blogs at