Ultra-Orthodox Community is Expanding, Blockbusting, Lakewood, Jersey City

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A woman and boy in the Greenville neighborhood in Jersey City, where several dozen Hasidic families from Brooklyn have settled. They are part of a major movement of ultra-Orthodox Jews into communities around New York City in search of more affordable places to live.CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

JERSEY CITY — To the gentrifying stew of bankers, artists and college graduates who are transforming this once blue-collar city across the Hudson River from Manhattan, add an unexpected flavor.

In a heavily African-American neighborhood, 62 families from a number of Hasidic sects based in Brooklyn and rarely seen here have bought a scattering of faded but roomy wood-frame rowhouses whose prices are less than half what homes of similar size would cost in New York — roughly $300,000 compared with $800,000.

These families are pioneers in a demographic and religious shift that is reshaping communities throughout the region. Skyrocketing real estate prices in Brooklyn and Queens are forcing out young ultra-Orthodox families, which are establishing outposts in unexpected places, like Toms River and Jackson Township in New Jersey, the Willowbrook neighborhood on Staten Island and in Bloomingburg, N.Y., in the foothills of the Catskills.

The influx, however, has provoked tensions with long-established residents, as the ultra-Orthodox seek to establish a larger footprint for their surging population. Residents complain that investors or real estate agents representing the ultra-Orthodox community have been ringing doorbells persistently, offering to buy properties at “Brooklyn prices.” Jersey City, Toms River and Jackson have all passed no-knock ordinances barring such inquiries under the threat of fines or have banned solicitations altogether.

The mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop, said his town took pride in its diversity but had been concerned about “very aggressive solicitation.”

“They literally go door to door and can be very pushy trying to purchase someone’s house,” Mr. Fulop, a grandson of Holocaust survivors and a graduate of yeshivas, said in an interview. “It’s not the best way to endear yourself to the community, and there’s been a lot of pushback.”

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In Jersey City, a Hasidic influx has provoked some tension among longtime residents who complain of aggressive tactics from buyers seeking to purchase homes for Hasidic families. The city now prohibits door-to-door solicitation. CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

New York City and the surrounding suburbs are home to the largest concentration of Jews in the country and because of their high birthrate — five or six children are common — Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox Jews represent the fastest-growing subset. They are now estimated to number about 330,000 in New York City alone — one-third of the city’s overall Jewish population.

They have become a more muscular political and social force and have turned the generally liberal profile of the area’s Jews more observant and conservative. Lakewood Township, near the Jersey Shore, voted for Donald J. Trump last year by the largest margin — 50 percentage points over Hillary Clinton — of any New Jersey community, according to an analysis by NJ Advance Media.

Squeezed out of their traditional neighborhoods, ultra-Orthodox Jews have taken steps that have raised concerns as they settle into new communities.

Michele Massey, a former Jersey City councilwoman who is the executive director of an organization that oversees a commercial corridor along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, said Hasidim had opened a synagogue on the avenue despite a recent zoning change forbidding new houses of worship.

“It’s not because they’re Jewish,” Ms. Massey said of her opposition. “It could have been any other religion or group. It was simply the zoning law. I’m a person of color. Obviously I don’t care who lives where.”

The Hasidim contend that they have been primarily buying boarded-up or vacant homes and that solicitations have come from outside investors, not from the families that have moved in. They support the city’s no-knock law and point out that the Hasidic families that have moved into the Greenville neighborhood are a minuscule fraction of the area’s 47,000 people, half of whom are black.

“We’re not looking to push out anybody,” said Mordecha Feuerstein, a volunteer for a Hasidic organization that helps people find new homes in affordable places like Jersey City.

What Hasidim have opened in a boarded-up dry cleaner on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, he said, is not a synagogue but a small community center that, like many Jewish institutional buildings, is also used for prayer and study. Next to it is a narrow grocery stocked with kosher foods and Yiddish newspapers. Some Hasidim point out that within a few blocks along the avenue are a Catholic church, a mosque and a storefront church called the Sanctified Church of Jesus Christ. Those were grandfathered in under zoning rules and officials are weighing whether the community center violates the rules.

Underlying the objections of many municipalities is an often unspoken worry that ultra-Orthodox Jews will transform the character of their communities. The ultra-Orthodox may not explicitly raise the specter of anti-Semitism, but they do see a bias against their unconventional lifestyle, modest dress and customs. Orthodox Jews, in general, live in tight-knit communities because of their need to cluster around an infrastructure that includes a synagogue within walking distance, kosher butchers, yeshivas for boys and girls, and ritual baths.

One community that is rapidly changing is Bloomingburg, on the edge of Sullivan County. A developer, Shalom Lamm, started building a complex of 396 townhouses that he marketed to Hasidim. Opponents claimed the development would quadruple the village’s population of 420 and significantly alter its tranquil, rustic ambience. Thirty homes are occupied and another 70 or so are in various stages of building. Vacant homes nearby have been bought for Hasidic tenants, while a boys’ yeshiva, a ritual bath and a kosher store have opened.

What the village will look like is in limbo, however, because Mr. Lammpleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to corrupt the electoral process by signing up ineligible voters to elect a village government friendly to his project. He will face sentencing in September.

Lakewood is also feeling the impact of a fast-growing minority group. Decades ago the area was rural, filled with hardscrabble egg-raising farms owned by Jewish Holocaust refugees, a few grand hotels and an estate that had once been owned by John D. Rockefeller.

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Lakewood’s Civic Leaders, Negotiating Better Treatment – Amnesty for the Orthodox

From the Asbury Park Press:

Lakewood fraud: Vaad met with N.J. officials before amnesty deal

LAKEWOOD – Jewish Orthodox civic leaders had exclusive access to state officials during the planning of a controversial county-wide Medicaid fraud amnesty offer — a program critics say caters to Lakewood’s Orthodox community, the Asbury Park Press has learned.

State officials on Thursday said the only community group they met with as they formed the amnesty program was the Vaad, Lakewood’s politically influential council of local Orthodox Jewish religious and business leaders. Local African American and Latino groups told the Asbury Park Press that they were not asked for their views on amnesty.

The meeting’s disclosure comes as criticism has intensified about the amnesty program that was launched after 26 in Lakewood were charged in June and July in a public assistance fraud sweep.

The defendants — accused of taking more than a combined $2 million in public assistance they weren’t entitled to — include a rabbi and his brother, business owners, students and housewives from the township’s religious enclave.

After plans were announced to rent out the 3,200-seat Pine Belt Arena in Toms River to hold an amnesty “informational” program, the Vaad publicly endorsed the program.

But fewer than 40 people showed up for that Sept. 12 session, and State Comptroller Philip Degnan, who is overseeing the program, demurred when asked by an attendee if he had “reached out to rabbis” for their support.

“We have reached out to a number of community groups. We have had meetings with a number of community groups. I’m not going to talk about which ones,” Degnan replied.

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On Thursday, Degnan in an emailed statement said his office’s Medicaid Fraud Division “was solely responsible for conceiving of and developing what has become the Ocean County Medicaid Recipient Voluntary Disclosure Pilot Program.”

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Degnan said officials met with the Vaad and also had meetings with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, the Ocean County Board of Social Services, and representatives of other prosecutor’s offices and law enforcement agencies.

No religious restrictions

The Medicaid amnesty reprieve doesn’t have race or religious restrictions but is only open to residents of Ocean County.

Leaders of non-Orthodox groups in Lakewood say the amnesty opportunity came as a surprise to them.

“Nothing to us at all. No one reached out,” said Alejandra Morales, president of La Voz Latina, which supports immigrant rights.

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Pastor Glenn Wilson, whose church in Howell has a congregation of largely black and Latino worshipers who come from neighboring Lakewood, said state officials didn’t contact him nor church members – and he called the amnesty “a slap in the face to all people of all groups.”

Wilson also heads Lakewood UNITE (United Neighbors Improving Today’s Equality), a group that advocates for the township’s public school students.

“Amnesty is something you give to people who don’t know they were making a mistake. I have the same sense that the general public has that Medicaid fraud is probably not often done by mistake,” he said. “I know of people who were denied services for programs just by being over an income limit by a few dollars. The rules weren’t bent for them or by them.”

Degnan in his statement said his office “is willing to attend informational meetings with interested community groups in Ocean County at any time during the 90-day program.”

Vaad leaders in an emailed statement didn’t address questions about the group’s role in planning.

“The program continues to have the Vaad’s support as another tool to encourage greater compliance with the program’s rules,” said Vaad spokesman Rabbi Moshe Weisberg.

State officials concede it’s the first time such an undertaking has been targeted to a specific area.

“We’ve offered this program because, based on our Medicaid fraud investigations in Ocean County, we believe there may be a larger problem in that county,” said Degnan, a 2015 appointee of Gov. Chris Christie. “This is an opportunity to bring a significant number of people into compliance. That’s our goal.”

“We have not seen it in any other state,” he said. “As far as we know, it’s a fairly unique program.”

Degnan’s office audits government finances, programs and contracts and has a Medicaid Fraud Division.

‘We would be hung’

Lakewood resident Mami Quinonez, 61, is among critics who say the program selectively gives a pass to Orthodox Jews at a time when New Jersey has the nation’s highest racial disparity in incarceration rates.

Quinonez, 61, a native of Puerto Rico who describes herself as a “community activist,” said allowing others in the township who’ve wrongly received Medicaid benefits to avoid criminal charges is being done “because there are so many of them and their votes give them influence.”

“If an Afro-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican or Caucasian did what they did, we would be hung,” Quinonez said. “We would have went straight to the federal prison.”

Lakewood’s population topped 100,000 in the most recent U.S. Census estimate and Orthodox residents now account for more than half of that figure, community leaders say, though no official statistics are available.

The offer runs until Dec. 12. Degnan said it’s a “pilot program” and that it could be available in other counties in the future.

Last week the Root online magazine — a popular black news and culture site — posted a story titled: “White People Commit Welfare Fraud, State Creates Amnesty Program so They Won’t Go to Jail.”

Author Monique Judge wrote, “Religious leaders in the town support the program because it will let participants avoid prosecution. … Will this happen in a predominantly black town in New Jersey as well, or nah? Asking for black people everywhere.”

The Forward, another online site that says it offers “news that matters to American Jews,” also weighed in with a story titled, “Lakewood Medicaid Fraudsters Get Amnesty – Proving Jews Are On The White Side Of The Law.

Author Helen Leshinsky wrote that reactions to the program on social media “seemed to come in three categories. There were those who decried the program on ‘Law and Order’ grounds, claiming all criminals should be charged. Then there was the downright anti-Semitic response, clamoring that Jews are getting preferential treatment.

“Finally, there was the double standard argument coming from people of color, to whom the law has never been this lenient and humane. The first two can be dismissed, but the latter cannot be ignored.”

Blacks make up about 15 percent of New Jersey’s population but more than 60 percent of the state’s prison population, according to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project.

There were 3,803 arrests for fraud in New Jersey in 2015 — the latest year available from the State Police Uniform Crime Report — with 55 percent of persons arrested white, 42 percent black, and 3 percent other races. The Hispanic ethnic origin accounted for 20 percent of the arrests.

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Residents of Newark, Camden, Paterson and other cities “where the racial makeup of the populations are very different” could use a similar boost with “not amnesty, but stepped-up state support for things like prisoner reentry programs and transition shelters,” said Fred Rush, president of Ocean County’s NAACP chapter.

“In the cities where you have a different racial makeup, they might have gun buyback programs, but those are open to anybody,” Rush said. “To be honest, when I heard there was Medicaid fraud amnesty for Ocean County, I thought it was a scam. Why would they do that? And why does it seem it’s geared to one religion?”

Self-reporting vs. court cases

NJ FamilyCare, a Medicaid insurance program funded by both federal and state dollars, covers children 18 and under who have no other insurance in families with incomes up to 355 percent of the federal poverty level – as an example, in a family of four the income limit would be $87,336 year, but the income limit for parents to qualify is $33,948.

Degnan said having public assistance cheaters self-report makes more sense than pursuing court cases, which can tap the government’s limited manpower for investigations.

The amnesty terms of settlements call for full restitution payments, plus additional penalties, and voluntary withdrawal from Medicaid for a one-year period. After the amnesty offer expires Dec. 12, prosecutions will resume as needed, Degnan said.

The Office of the State Comptroller’s Medicaid Fraud Division says it opened 407 cases for investigation and made 32 referrals to law enforcement agencies last year. The division also said it received 1,962 telephone fraud hotline tips.

Degnan noted that prosecuting public assistance cheats doesn’t typically result in jail time. First-time offenders in many instances are offered pre-trial intervention, a probationary program that results in dismissal of charges upon completion, he said.

On Sept. 12, at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River, an information session on how to apply for amnesty attracted only about three dozen people. Degnan spokesman Jeffrey Lamm said applications to the program can be submitted online, but information about the number of applicants won’t be available until the program is over in December.

LAKEWOOD – Jewish Orthodox civic leaders had exclusive access to state officials during the planning of a controversial county-wide Medicaid fraud amnesty offer — a program critics say caters to Lakewood’s Orthodox community, the Asbury Park Press has learned.

State officials on Thursday said the only community group they met with as they formed the amnesty program was the Vaad, Lakewood’s politically influential council of local Orthodox Jewish religious and business leaders. Local African American and Latino groups told the Asbury Park Press that they were not asked for their views on amnesty.

The meeting’s disclosure comes as criticism has intensified about the amnesty program that was launched after 26 in Lakewood were charged in June and July in a public assistance fraud sweep.

The defendants — accused of taking more than a combined $2 million in public assistance they weren’t entitled to — include a rabbi and his brother, business owners, students and housewives from the township’s religious enclave.

After plans were announced to rent out the 3,200-seat Pine Belt Arena in Toms River to hold an amnesty “informational” program, the Vaad publicly endorsed the program.

But fewer than 40 people showed up for that Sept. 12 session, and State Comptroller Philip Degnan, who is overseeing the program, demurred when asked by an attendee if he had “reached out to rabbis” for their support.

“We have reached out to a number of community groups. We have had meetings with a number of community groups. I’m not going to talk about which ones,” Degnan replied.

On Thursday, Degnan in an emailed statement said his office’s Medicaid Fraud Division “was solely responsible for conceiving of and developing what has become the Ocean County Medicaid Recipient Voluntary Disclosure Pilot Program.”

Degnan said officials met with the Vaad and also had meetings with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, the Ocean County Board of Social Services, and representatives of other prosecutor’s offices and law enforcement agencies.

No religious restrictions

The Medicaid amnesty reprieve doesn’t have race or religious restrictions but is only open to residents of Ocean County.

Leaders of non-Orthodox groups in Lakewood say the amnesty opportunity came as a surprise to them.

“Nothing to us at all. No one reached out,” said Alejandra Morales, president of La Voz Latina, which supports immigrant rights.

Pastor Glenn Wilson, whose church in Howell has a congregation of largely black and Latino worshipers who come from neighboring Lakewood, said state officials didn’t contact him nor church members – and he called the amnesty “a slap in the face to all people of all groups.”

Wilson also heads Lakewood UNITE (United Neighbors Improving Today’s Equality), a group that advocates for the township’s public school students.

“Amnesty is something you give to people who don’t know they were making a mistake. I have the same sense that the general public has that Medicaid fraud is probably not often done by mistake,” he said. “I know of people who were denied services for programs just by being over an income limit by a few dollars. The rules weren’t bent for them or by them.”

Degnan in his statement said his office “is willing to attend informational meetings with interested community groups in Ocean County at any time during the 90-day program.”

Vaad leaders in an emailed statement didn’t address questions about the group’s role in planning.

“The program continues to have the Vaad’s support as another tool to encourage greater compliance with the program’s rules,” said Vaad spokesman Rabbi Moshe Weisberg.

State officials concede it’s the first time such an undertaking has been targeted to a specific area.

“We’ve offered this program because, based on our Medicaid fraud investigations in Ocean County, we believe there may be a larger problem in that county,” said Degnan, a 2015 appointee of Gov. Chris Christie. “This is an opportunity to bring a significant number of people into compliance. That’s our goal.”

“We have not seen it in any other state,” he said. “As far as we know, it’s a fairly unique program.”

Degnan’s office audits government finances, programs and contracts and has a Medicaid Fraud Division.

‘We would be hung’

Lakewood resident Mami Quinonez, 61, is among critics who say the program selectively gives a pass to Orthodox Jews at a time when New Jersey has the nation’s highest racial disparity in incarceration rates.

Quinonez, 61, a native of Puerto Rico who describes herself as a “community activist,” said allowing others in the township who’ve wrongly received Medicaid benefits to avoid criminal charges is being done “because there are so many of them and their votes give them influence.”

“If an Afro-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican or Caucasian did what they did, we would be hung,” Quinonez said. “We would have went straight to the federal prison.”

Lakewood’s population topped 100,000 in the most recent U.S. Census estimate and Orthodox residents now account for more than half of that figure, community leaders say, though no official statistics are available.

The offer runs until Dec. 12. Degnan said it’s a “pilot program” and that it could be available in other counties in the future.

Last week the Root online magazine — a popular black news and culture site — posted a story titled: “White People Commit Welfare Fraud, State Creates Amnesty Program so They Won’t Go to Jail.”

Author Monique Judge wrote, “Religious leaders in the town support the program because it will let participants avoid prosecution. … Will this happen in a predominantly black town in New Jersey as well, or nah? Asking for black people everywhere.”

The Forward, another online site that says it offers “news that matters to American Jews,” also weighed in with a story titled, “Lakewood Medicaid Fraudsters Get Amnesty – Proving Jews Are On The White Side Of The Law.

Author Helen Leshinsky wrote that reactions to the program on social media “seemed to come in three categories. There were those who decried the program on ‘Law and Order’ grounds, claiming all criminals should be charged. Then there was the downright anti-Semitic response, clamoring that Jews are getting preferential treatment.

“Finally, there was the double standard argument coming from people of color, to whom the law has never been this lenient and humane. The first two can be dismissed, but the latter cannot be ignored.”

Blacks make up about 15 percent of New Jersey’s population but more than 60 percent of the state’s prison population, according to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project.

There were 3,803 arrests for fraud in New Jersey in 2015 — the latest year available from the State Police Uniform Crime Report — with 55 percent of persons arrested white, 42 percent black, and 3 percent other races. The Hispanic ethnic origin accounted for 20 percent of the arrests.

Residents of Newark, Camden, Paterson and other cities “where the racial makeup of the populations are very different” could use a similar boost with “not amnesty, but stepped-up state support for things like prisoner reentry programs and transition shelters,” said Fred Rush, president of Ocean County’s NAACP chapter.

“In the cities where you have a different racial makeup, they might have gun buyback programs, but those are open to anybody,” Rush said. “To be honest, when I heard there was Medicaid fraud amnesty for Ocean County, I thought it was a scam. Why would they do that? And why does it seem it’s geared to one religion?”

Self-reporting vs. court cases

NJ FamilyCare, a Medicaid insurance program funded by both federal and state dollars, covers children 18 and under who have no other insurance in families with incomes up to 355 percent of the federal poverty level – as an example, in a family of four the income limit would be $87,336 year, but the income limit for parents to qualify is $33,948.

Degnan said having public assistance cheaters self-report makes more sense than pursuing court cases, which can tap the government’s limited manpower for investigations.

The amnesty terms of settlements call for full restitution payments, plus additional penalties, and voluntary withdrawal from Medicaid for a one-year period. After the amnesty offer expires Dec. 12, prosecutions will resume as needed, Degnan said.

The Office of the State Comptroller’s Medicaid Fraud Division says it opened 407 cases for investigation and made 32 referrals to law enforcement agencies last year. The division also said it received 1,962 telephone fraud hotline tips.

Degnan noted that prosecuting public assistance cheats doesn’t typically result in jail time. First-time offenders in many instances are offered pre-trial intervention, a probationary program that results in dismissal of charges upon completion, he said.

On Sept. 12, at the Pine Belt Arena in Toms River, an information session on how to apply for amnesty attracted only about three dozen people. Degnan spokesman Jeffrey Lamm said applications to the program can be submitted online, but information about the number of applicants won’t be available until the program is over in December.

Lakewood – LA Times – What is going on? A Little Fraud, Perhaps?

Getty Images Lakewood1-0

Raids in New Jersey town target ultra-Orthodox Jews accused of welfare fraud. ‘What is going on here?’

 

LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-new-jersey-orthodox-20170923-story.html

It was the dramatic kickoff of a series of well-publicized raids that since late June have netted 26 suspects on charges of stealing $2 million in government benefits. Prosecutors say that the suspects understated their income to get free healthcare, food stamps, rental subsidies and other benefits.

All of those arrested — 13 men and 13 women — were ultra-Orthodox Jews. The charges have tapped into a well of festering hostility toward an insular and eccentric minority.

nce a backwater at the edge of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, Lakewood is now home to one of the largest concentrations of ultra-Orthodox Jews outside of Israel. They are a fast-growing population with a high birthrate; the population of Lakewood has exploded from 45,000 in 1990 to more than 100,000 today. Many of the newcomers are from large families priced out of Brooklyn by gentrification.

At first glance, little sets Lakewood apart from any number of other suburban communities on the fringes of the New York metropolitan area. But the differences are there. Signs are commonly in Hebrew and Yiddish. The Shop-Rite has closed and was replaced by Glatt Gourmet, a kosher supermarket. New subdivisions have Jewish-themed street names, like Hadassah Lane.

Like the Amish, these strictly observant Jews are instantly recognizable by their modest dress — the women in long skirts and wigs that cover their hair, and the men with yarmulkes or black fedoras and tzitzit, the strings hanging out of their shirts that remind them of their religious obligations. Instead of buggies, though, they mostly drive SUVs or minivans to fit large broods of children.

Around New York, there are a handful of similar towns that are dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews, but only in Lakewood have federal and state authorities laid down the gauntlet so definitively.

Many young families are heavily dependent on government benefits. Couples marry and bear children young, usually in their early 20s while the fathers are full-time students in religious schools, the mothers working part-time doing office work.

With five or more children, many of them with special needs — a result attributed to women having multiple births until late in life and genetic disorders in a relatively closed population — families cannot survive without government assistance, especially to buy health insurance.

In Lakewood, 65,000 people — more than half the town’s population — are on Medicaid, the government health program for low-income families, according to state data. Lakewood has more children with two parents receiving government benefits than any other municipality in New Jersey, including large, chronically depressed cities such as Newark and Camden. A report by the Asbury Park Press found that Lakewood had received 14% of the money from a $34-million state fund for catastrophic illnesses in children, despite having only 2% of the state’s children. It also found that the town had 29 times more grant recipients than any other town in New Jersey.

In 2015, the New Jersey state controller’s office flagged the disproportionate sums of government money being absorbed by Lakewood. The town didn’t look poor by any conventional yardsticks of poverty.

“You have a family or six or seven or eight, somebody is paying the mortgage, somebody is paying the taxes, they have two cars in the driveway, they’ve got food for all the kids … and they’re reporting their total income at $10,000,’’ said Joseph Coronato, the Ocean County prosecutor who took the lead in the case. “You have to ask — what is going on here?’’

In one case unsealed by the court in June, a couple with six children are alleged to have reported their income at $39,000 per year — low enough to qualify for Medicaid — when in fact they were getting more than $1 million annually from a limited liability corporation.

Members of the religious community say that cases of deliberate fraud are rare. For the most part, they say, the couples caught up in prosecutions had failed to report money they’d gotten from parents who were either paying the tuition for children in private schools or helping with the mortgage.

“The rules are very confusing. You have to be a Talmudist to figure out which program treats gifts from family as ordinary income,” said Rabbi Moshe Weisberg, the Lakewood head of what is called the Vaad, a self-governing council for the ultra-Orthodox community.

People most often got in trouble with their Medicaid applications, motivated by their inability to afford market-rate health insurance, which he said ran as high as $30,000 annually for a large family. Several of the families have disabled children, he noted.

“None of these people used any of this welfare money for an extravagant lifestyle. They were struggling to make ends meet and trying to pay medical bills,” said Harold Herskowitz, a businessman who runs a toy store in Lakewood. He believes the prosecutions were motivated by hostility toward the ultra-Orthodox.

“I’m the child of Holocaust survivors; I don’t appreciate Jewish people dragged out in public early in the morning,” Herskowitz said.

The initial arrests in June received extensive news coverage, with television crews tipped off in advance to film the scenes of couples in handcuffs being led away. Following complaints, the prosecutors have made subsequent arrests more discreetly, but still the publicity rankles.

The case has tapped into a wave of hostility toward the community. Last month, somebody hung an anti-Semitic banner on a Holocaust memorial in Lakewood, and fliers were distributed on the windshields of cars with photos of those arrested under the caption, “Thieving Jews Near You.”

Under fire from many sides, the observant Jews of Lakewood are trying to burnish their reputation in New Jersey. They’ve hosted outreach programs between the community and the police — Bagels, Lox & Cops, as the meetings have been called. Other public programs have been designed to advise ultra-Orthodox families on how to stay on the legal side of public assistance programs.

Lakewood, about 50 miles from New York City, was a resort town for the New York elite beginning in the late 19th century, attracting luminaries such as Mark Twain and members of the Rockefeller family. Their fancy retreats were later turned into kosher hotels catering to working- and middle-class Jews, the town becoming an extension of the Catskills’ Borscht belt across the border in New York state.

In 1943, the Rabbi Aharon Kotler, a Holocaust survivor who fled Lithuania, picked the town for his Beth Medrash Govoha, a yeshiva — religious school — that is now one of the world’s largest with 6,500 students, all men. That would in turn attract other yeshivas, along with Jewish primary schools, kosher delicatessens and shops.

“It was an idyllic little town with a strong Jewish flavor,’’ said Aaron Kotler, the founder’s grandson and current head of the yeshiva, in an interview in his sprawling suburban ranch house, the walls proudly displaying oil paintings of previous generations of bearded rabbis. “My grandfather chose Lakewood because it was quiet, which is ironic because people complain the yeshiva has ruined the quiet.’’

Kotler describes Lakewood today as one of the most attractive destinations for young religious Jews to study and raise families, making the demographics similar to other university towns.

“I like to think of Lakewood as poor by choice,’’ said Kotler.

The community has shown itself to be unusually adept at navigating the intricacies of politics and government.

“Their lives depend on knowing everything about how Section 8 [subsidized rental housing] works and getting into WICs,” the government Women, Infants and Childrenfood assistance program, said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queen College who has written several books on the community.

Politically speaking, the ultra-Orthodox wield clout beyond their numbers, with adult members almost always turning out for elections and voting as a single bloc.

“They tend to vote like the Christian right, and they have learned to make their votes very important,” said Heilman.

In all of New Jersey, Lakewood had the highest concentration of Donald Trump voters in last year’s presidential election – 74.4%. With their children all in private religious schools, they are strong supporters of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary who has called for school vouchers. Charles and Seryl Kushner, the parents of Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, are benefactors of the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva, and the rotunda of the school’s 2-year-old main building is named for them.

Ultra-Orthodox votes are even more important in local political races. They have installed candidates who favor their interests on the Lakewood school board, township committee and zoning board.

Lakewood’s 30,000 ultra-Orthodox children are ferried to 130 private religious schools on public school buses — boys and girls separately, since they attend single-sex schools — while public schools with only 6,000 children, mostly Latino and African American, have been gutted by a lack of funding. (This is in part due to a quirk in New Jersey’s school financing formula that requires busing for private school students but reimburses the districts based on public school enrollment.)

Some 4,000 new units of housing have been approved in Lakewood in the last two years, making the township the fastest-growing municipality in New Jersey. Real estate developers catering to the ultra-Orthodox are carving new subdivisions lined with four- and five-bedroom townhouses for large families.

“When I moved here, there were trees. Now I wake up and I’m surrounded by high-density townhouses,” said Tom Gatti, a retiree who heads a coalition of senior citizens opposing the pace of new development in Lakewood. “Anytime you try to challenge anything the ultra-Orthodox are doing, they drop the anti-Semitic card on the table.

“They are not looking to assimilate into the community; they are trying to take over,’’ Gatti said.

The ultra-Orthodox Jews also face criticism from less religious and secular Jews.

“Being observant should, first and foremost, involve living and working ethically,’’ complained a hard-hitting editorial in the Forward, the Yiddish- and English-language Jewish publication based in New York. The editorial called the welfare fraud cases “a desecration of God’s name.’’

“It’s too simple to say that this is a problem with Jews,’’ said Heilman, the sociology professor. “It is not their Jewishness that has created the problems; it is the way they interpret the demands of being Jewish.’’

More Couples Arrested for Welfare Fraud in Lakewood

http://nypost.com/2017/07/06/welfare-scam-deepens-as-six-more-couples-are-arrested/

Welfare ‘scam’ deepens as six more couples are arrested

Six more couples were busted for alleged welfare fraud in Lakewood, NJ, officials said Thursday, adding to a growing list of suspected cheats from that shore town.

FBI agents and investigators with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office’s Economic Crimes Unit knocked on doors at about 6 a.m. on Thursday, handing over charging documents and court dates for them to appear between now and Tuesday.

The most recently arrested are accused to scoring nearly $400,000 in elaborate schemes to get Medicaid, food and home energy benefits when they weren’t eligible for them.

“The nature of the criminal events investigated and basic charges allege that the defendants misrepresented their income, declaring amounts that were low enough to receive the program’s benefits, when in fact their income was too high to qualify,” according to a statement from Ocean County prosecutors.

“The investigations revealed that the defendants received income from numerous sources that they failed to disclose on required program applications.”

Ocean County prosecutors charged 14 Lakewood residents last week, accusing them bilking taxpayers of more than $2 million.

The 12 newly named defendants were:

  • Eliezer and Elkie Sorotzkin, 33 and 31, were accused of wrongfully collecting $74,960 in Medicaid funds between January 2011 and December 2013.
  • Samuel and Esther Serhofer, 45 and 44, allegedly pocketed $72,685 in Medicaid between January 2009 to December 2013.
  • Yisroel and Rachel Merkin, 37 and 34, are suspected of improperly taking home $70,557,51 in Medicaid, food and home energy benefits between January 2011 and December 2014.
  • Jerome Menchel, 33, and Mottel Friedman, 30, were accused of wrongly scoring $63,839 in Medicaid and food benefits between January 2011 and July 2014.
  • Tzvi and Estee Braun, 35 and 34, were busted for allegedly ripping off $62,746.74 in Medicaid, food and children’s medical benefits between January 2009 and December 2013.
  • Moche and Nechama Hirschmann, 30 and 27, are suspected of wrongfully collecting $53,418.39 in Medicaid and food benefits between January 2011 and December 2015.

A rep for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office declined to say if the defendants know each other or worked in concert.

Religion is Not the Issue in Lakewood – Why Whitewashing is Damning to All Jews

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/becoming-every-brothers-keeper/

Becoming Every Brother’s Keeper

All humanity descended from one family.

“And in this original familial relationship resides our profound responsibility to one another. The recitation of the generations of Adam trumps the golden rule as the “greater principle” because it clarifies the subject of the ethical imperative. “Let there be no mistake,” the begetting seem to say. “The ‘neighbors’ for whom you must care are not only the people around you, but the entirety of this large, unruly human family from which you are a lucky, and burdened, descendent. Each member of this family is your ‘brother.’ And none, therefore, are you free to abandon.”
This section of the Torah, the recitation of the generations of Adam, thus challenges us to allow God’s question to Cain–“Where is Abel, your brother?”–to reverberate throughout the millennia. It demands that we pose this question with the awareness that, in the eyes of Bereshit, all humanity is descended of one family. It compels us to pay attention to the words of the question itself–to recognize that it is not only a query about Abel’s whereabouts, but also an insistence that he is our brother.
As common descendants of Adam, we are not free to shed our brotherhood with Abel. We are simply not at liberty to allow the gulfs created by national, cultural, linguistic, religious, or racial differences to obscure our responsibility to those who are hurt or violated. Instead, we must step up to this haunting question whenever it is asked and answer resolutely: “I am my brother’s keeper.””

Dear Reader:

The following is a comment received by one of our readers. We are bothered by the comment because, whether intentionally or otherwise, it defines all ultra-Orthodox Jews by the actions of those who chose to defraud the system.

It then by association defines all Jews by those very same ultra-Orthodox criminals and the various Rabbis, websites (OJPAC) and other Jewish spokespeople who try to justify or whitewash the criminal behavior. It is our belief that if you paint the truth and the lies with the same white paintbrush you taint the good while you are trying to shade the bad.

To the author of the initial post below: there are exemplary, devout, honest and descent members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Simply because they dress the same as those accused of committing crimes, does not mean that they themselves don’t find those very same crimes unthinkable and the very same people reprehensible. Your commentary makes broad generalizations, that we agree are difficult at times to avoid.

While sadly we can’t disagree with much of it, we would be remiss if we did not point to a religion which, when not taken to extremism, when taken as written is rich in charitable random acts of kindness, laden with spectacular cultural history, sincere in its piety and actively trying to achieve a high moral standard and ethical character. 

We are here because we believe that we must be our brothers’ keepers. That means reporting the good with the bad. We may miss our mark on reporting the good, but it is there nonetheless.

Finally, you are right in commenting that religion is not the issue. Criminal behavior is the result of those committing the crimes. Judaism does not allow it. As such, please do not view the entire community by the acts of some.

 

Religion not the issue in Lakewood welfare raids: So much for ‘Thou shall not steal’

by Steve Trevelise June 28, 2017 12:26 PM
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So much for “Thou shall not steal.”
As more and more arrests come out of Lakewood’s Jewish community for people accused of cheating the government out of various benefits, it makes you wonder how adherent these people are to their religion in the first place — as opposed to the “golden calf” of government.
LAKEWOOD WELFARE RAIDS
NEW:Hundreds attended Lakewood meeting warning of welfare fraud risk
Lakewood welfare fraud raids: Six more people scammed another $700,000, authorities say
‘Hundreds’ of Lakewood residents scrambling after welfare fraud raids, report says
Deminski: Zero excuse for any welfare cheats in Lakewood
Lakewood welfare fraud: It’s too easy, and not just Orthodox Jews to blame
Isn’t the belief of any religion to trust God that he will provide for you? What happened to Psalm 23 — “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want?” As someone who grew up in Hudson County, I’ve seen people cheat the system all my life, but you wouldn’t think that members of a religious community would be cheating the government out of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Don’t they answer to a higher authority?
So why would religious residents of Lakewood cheat the government? To maintain the expense of their religion, of course. Or so says Duvi Honig of the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce to the Asbury Park Press:
“The pressure of the community overhead — especially the (cost of) private schooling is unsustainable,” “People are forced to find ways to bend the system.”
He later told New Jersey 101.5 he was talking about using legal loopholes, not breaking the law. But no religion should force you to find ways to bend the system — and the truth is, this isn’t about the religion. It’s about the people who broke the law. To blame the religion is an insult to all those people who worship and who don’t steal.
What these people are accused of doing had nothing to do with their religion, and hopefully their religion will have nothing to do with it at their trials.
What’s going to be interesting is if they are convicted and must serve time. How much will the prison system conform to their beliefs? I’m guessing the government will find ways to get it done much cheaper.
More from New Jersey 101.5:

Lakewood, New Jersey – Making the News… 11 Things to know… and When Will they get to Rockland County?

11 things to know about Lakewood, suddenly the newsiest town in N.J.

 

To read the article as written click, here.

Lakewood – Parents – Families Panic, oh no! They are Getting Caught…

Lakewood welfare: Half of children get assistance; families panic after arrests

 

But one statistic stands out among all other municipalities in the state. There are 10,000 more children in households with married couples in Lakewood receiving food, income or state aid than the next closest town.

Of the 43,600 children under 18 years of age, 18,200 with married parents receive government assistance. Newark, the largest city in the state, is second with 7,800 families receiving aid, according to the Census Bureau’s 2015 5-year average American Community Survey.

That poverty indicator is telling in two ways: Lakewood has a strong family tradition with many of it residents living in a two-parent household with young children, yet most of those families can’t make ends meet without government help.

Following the FBI’s public assistance fraud raids this week that saw the arrest of seven married couples with children, it may be an understatement that many township residents are in a “panic,” as termed by one of the leaders of the majority Orthodox Jewish community.

More: Lakewood welfare fraud: What we know so far

“It’s absolute panic,” said Rabbi Moshe Weisberg, a member of Lakewood’s Vaad, or Jewish council, about the mood in the town after this week’s arrests. “People are begging us for guidance.”

Rapidly growing Lakewood has more than 100,000 residents, up 15,000 from 2010, according to census records. The average Lakewood resident is 22.4 years old – making it one of the youngest towns in the state – and roughly 31 percent of people in town live under the poverty line, including retirees and single residents, according to the Census Bureau. The median household income in the town is just under $42,000, which is in the bottom 5 percent of N.J. towns, data shows.

Lakewood has a flourishing Jewish population, thanks in no small part to Beth Medrash Govoha, one of the largest yeshivas in the world, which now has about 6,500 students, according to Aaron Kotler, CEO of the yeshiva.

More: Lakewood welfare fraud: How did the scheme work?

Seven married couples were arrested in Lakewood this week on charges of welfare fraud, including a well-known rabbi of a congregation. He and his wife are accused of taking more than $338,000 in public assistance they weren’t entitled to receive. Five couples face state charges and the other two couples face federal charges. Combined, they are accused of stealing about $2 million in government assistance.

More: More Lakewood arrests: Raids continue in welfare fraud investigation

After the arrests, and considering so many Lakewood families receive some form of public assistance, the Vaad on Wednesday announced that it will hold seminars to educate residents about the rules for full financial disclosure when it comes to applying for and collecting public assistance.

“Federal and state social safety-net programs are meant for those in need, even those in need have rules and criteria that must be strictly followed,” the Vaad said in its statement. “To deliberately bend a safety-net eligibility rule is stealing, no different than stealing from your friend or neighbor.”

More: Lakewood welfare raids send some residents scrambling

Weisberg said that many young Jewish families collect public assistance as their families grow.

The men are often studying in yeshivas and have moderate incomes, if any income at all, he said. Census data shows that 3,302 people in Lakewood between the ages of 25 and 34 — 21.8 percent of everyone in that age range — are enrolled in school, most of those likely being yeshiva students.

Meanwhile, there is strong community pressure for men and women to have large families and send the children to private Jewish schools.

“The average family feels it an absolute necessity to send their children to private schools,” Weisberg said, adding that large families are also a part of Jewish culture. “They really want to build a large family with lots of happy children.

“Financial considerations come second,” he said.

To make ends meet, many of these families rely on public assistance, Weisberg said.

Duvi Honig, CEO of the Lakewood-based Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce, said for many Jewish families, collecting public assistance is almost an inevitability.

“People have such overhead that they don’t have a choice,” Honig said.

More: Lakewood rabbi, others arrested in alleged million-dollar welfare fraud

Honig and Weisberg condemned the alleged assistance fraud but acknowledged that some residents are tempted to take more welfare than they’re entitled to get.

“There are bad actors and bad apples,” Weisberg said. “A lot of this is not, most of this is not.”

Weisberg added that the vast majority of people reaching out to the Vaad after the arrests are concerned about what they termed as minor discretions in their public assistance applications, not people involved in a large-scale welfare fraud scheme.

Some of the minor discretions Weisberg mentioned are not reporting cash gifts or school tuition received from family members.

“These are families under stress,” he said. “Regrettably, people are a little loose with it.

“Until the hammer falls, people are lax about it.”

The hammer is expected to keep falling in Lakewood.

To read the remainder of the article click here.