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DEAL, N.J. — This wealthy seaside town might not have a Syrian Jewish
community at all if it hadn’t developed as a summer escape for
Brooklyn’s Syrian Jews, more than 10,000 of whom visit each summer.
Indeed, in the Syrian Jewish community, Deal is known as “Brooklyn
South,” and the approximately 1,000 who stay here year-round have built
a dozen or so Orthodox synagogues, several religious schools and a wide
selection of kosher restaurants.
On Thursday (July 23), federal agents arrested five rabbis, two New
Jersey state legislators, three mayors, and dozens of others in a
political corruption and money-laundering probe that spanned from
Hoboken to Israel. The sting has brought an unwanted spotlight to the
Syrian Jewish community, which has long tended toward insularity.
“These are only allegations. All these people are innocent until
proven guilty,” said Yosef Reinman, an author and rabbi in Lakewood’s
sizable Orthodox Jewish community, which is less than 20 miles from
Deal. Though he is not Syrian, Reinman has worked with Syrian Jews for
more than a decade.
“Even if some of them did stuff over the line, it should not reflect
on the community,” he said. “They help the poor. They service people in
hospitals. They go to visit people there, entertain them, cheer them up,
it’s a very big thing.”
Among the Syrian Jews arrested were:
— Edmund Nahum, 56, principal rabbi at Deal Synagogue in Deal.
Authorities said he laundered $185,000 between June 2007 and December
2008. He was released from custody on $700,000 bail.
— Eli Ben Haim, 58, principal rabbi of Congregation Ohel Yaacob in
Deal. Authorities said he laundered $1.5 million between June 2007 and
February 2009. He was released from custody on $1.5 million bail.
— Saul Kassin, 87, chief rabbi of Congregation Shaare Zion in
Brooklyn. Authorities said he laundered more than $200,000 with the
government’s cooperating witness between June 2007 and December 2008.
Kassin was released from federal custody on $200,000 bail.
In 1994, Kassin succeeded his father as chief rabbi of the Syrian
Jewish community in the United States.
The Syrian Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Deal are known for
their ability to flourish financially in the secular world, particularly
in the garment and electronics industries, while retaining centuries-old
religious customs and traditions.
“It’s a community that is committed to its rabbis and their rule,”
said Jonathan Sarna, an American Jewish history professor at Brandeis
University.
The Syrian Jewish community is also noted for adherence to the
absolute authority of its religious leaders, and nowhere is this more
evident than in a 1935 ban by Syrian rabbis against intermarriage,
including people who converted to Judaism and who are openly accepted in
most other Jewish communities. The decree is believed responsible for
one of the lowest rates of intermarriage of any Jewish community.
The penalty imposed for marrying outside the faith or to a convert
is severe: excommunication. “It really was designed to ensure that blood
would be preserved,” Sarna said.
The publicity surrounding Thursday’s arrests was a major blow to the
tight-knit community whose leaders have long guarded its reputation and
independence with care.
“We would prefer that you not discuss it on the news. It’s not good
for anybody — especially us,” said a man outside Brooklyn’s Shaare Zion
synagogue, who said he’d been receiving calls about the news all
morning.
Sarina Rosse, a Syrian Jew from Brooklyn who has studied and spoken
widely on the history of the community, said this inwardness is rooted
in the Jewish experience in Syria. “You learn to live under the radar
and not draw attention to yourself,” she said. “You get into an argument
with a Muslim, it’s Muslim court, Muslim law, they take the word of a
Muslim over the word of a Jew. You learn to be apolitical.”
In the early 16th century, Jews expelled from Spain made their way
to Syria, where the Ottomans extended a relative welcome. Another wave
of Jews came from Italy and France in the mid-17th century; they had
been granted special privileges to trade without paying taxes, said
Yaron Ayalon, a doctoral student in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton
who will teach at the University of Oklahoma in the fall. Many of the
Jews became traders in silks, spices and other luxury goods.
Syrian Jews began emigrating to the U.S. in the early 20th century,
but left Syria in droves after pogroms sparked by the 1947 U.N.
partition of Palestine.
When they arrived in America, they were considered uneducated and
didn’t speak Yiddish, making for a hostile welcome among the Eastern
European Jews already settled in New York, Rosse said. “It was just a
very rough start for them,” she said, and that contributed to their
effective isolation.
Though Syrian-American Jews eventually assimilated in many ways,
including dress and language, they have retained their traditions,
including naming practices, religious customs and a cuisine that looks
and tastes more like the Arabic cuisine of Syria than other regional
Jewish foods.
“It’s a community that has been deeply proud of its identity and its
success in America, of the fact that it has managed through several
generations to maintain some of its distinctiveness, unlike other
sub-ethnic Jewish groups,” Sarna said. “No doubt this will lead to some
introspection, especially if significant members of the community are
taken into custody.”
By JEFF DIAMANT and VICKI HYMAN
(Jeff Diamant and Vicki Hyman write for The Newark Star-Ledger.
Carly Rothman and Chris Megerian contributed to this story.)
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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