Their comments pit prominent leaders of the Syrian-Jewish communities of Brooklyn and Deal against the son of another community leader in a case that has brought intense and unwanted scrutiny on a group that values its traditions and tight communal bonds.
Dwek, who was charged but never tried in 2006 with scheming to defraud PNC Bank of $50 million, is the son of Rabbi Isaac Dwek, who founded the Deal Yeshiva and heads the Synagogue of Deal.
Although federal officials have declined to identify the younger Dwek by name, he is widely believed to be the government’s “cooperating witness” in the crackdown on corruption and money laundering that netted prominent New Jersey mayors, state legislators and other politicos in addition to at least five rabbis and numerous associates.
Authorities said they uncovered a network that laundered “at least tens of millions of dollars through charitable, nonprofit entities” and operated between Brooklyn, Israel and the Syrian-Jewish enclaves.
Most of 44 individuals arrested in the July 23 roundup were public officials, including the mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus and Ridgefield, state Assembly members, and City Council members from various parts of New Jersey.
They face corruption charges unrelated to the arrests in the Jewish communities — but in most cases linked by their alleged association with Dwek, who offered bribes and recorded damaging conversations in his role as government mole.
Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra Jr. announced the arrests at a crowded news conference with more than 100 media outlets in attendance.
Among the rabbis placed in custody and now released on bail are Eliahu Ben Haim of Long Branch, the principal rabbi of Ohel Yaacob Synagogue in Deal; Saul Kassin of Congregation Zion synagogue in Brooklyn, who is considered the chief rabbi of the Syrian-Jewish community; Rabbi Edmund Nahum of Deal; and Mordechai Fish, a rabbi at Congregation Sheves Achim in Brooklyn.
Ben Haim, Kassin, Nahum and Fish each were charged with laundering proceeds derived from criminal activity, as was Fish’s brother, Rabbi Lavel Schwartz of Brooklyn.
According to the criminal complaints, the rabbis laundered approximately $3 million between June 2007 and this July on behalf of Dwek.
Marra called the corruption “widespread and pervasive.”
But in conversations with The New Jersey Jewish News after the rabbis were released on bond, several attorneys insisted their clients were not guilty.
“Rabbi Nahum was not involved in any illicit activity as described,” said his counsel, Justin Walder.
Walder is also representing the mayor of Hoboken, Peter Cammarano III, who is facing bribery charges unrelated to the money laundering.
The lawyer wasted no time in attacking Dwek’s motive of allegedly coercing federal investigation targets in the Syrian-Jewish community into wrongdoing.
“It is apparent from what we have seen that the rabbi was taken advantage of by a man he has known for a very long time,” Walder said. “We intend to establish [that] the basic decency and goodness of Rabbi Nahum was utilized by a person seeking to be absolved for his substantial wrongful conduct by implicating others.”
Michael Bachner, a Manhattan attorney representing Fish, took a similar stance in attacking Dwek’s actions.
“Rabbi Fish was duped and manipulated by Mr. Dwek into business transactions which Rabbi Fish believed were wholly legitimate,” Bachner said. “Dwek used the sterling reputation of his own family to assure Rabbi Fish that the transactions were legitimate.”
“Rabbi Kassin asserts his innocence,” said Kassin’s attorney, Robert Stahl, in an interview with Bloomberg.com.
The 87-year-old Kassin is accused of trafficking in counterfeit Prada and Gucci handbags as well as money laundering.
“It’s a shame that he’s caught up in some misunderstanding,” said Stahl. “Despite his difficult circumstances, he remains confident that the system of justice will prevail.”
Attorneys for other defendants could not be reached by press time.
Federal prosecutors are alleging that Ben Haim received checks that ranged in value “from tens of thousands dollars up to $160,000,” made payable to a charity associated with his synagogue in Deal.
The Monmouth County beachfront community is a summertime destination for many members of Brooklyn’s 75,000-strong Syrian-Jewish community who own homes there.
Marra said the cooperating witness “was able to pick up the cash and bring it back to Rabbi Ben Haim. Rabbi Ben Haim would give him back approximately 90 percent of the face value of the bank check.”
According to the complaint, the checks came to Ben Haim from an unnamed business associate in Israel, “who he had worked with for years.”
“The rings were international in scope, connected to Brooklyn, Deal, Israel and Switzerland,” said Marra. “They trafficked in cleaning dirty money from all over the world.”
The complaint said another Israeli who is under arrest, Levi Deutsch, “was a high-level source of cash from overseas.”
Other “similar circles of money launderers” operated separately in Brooklyn and Deal “but occasionally co-mingled activities and participants,” the prosecutor said.
“In most cases the rings were led by rabbis who used charitable, nonprofit entities connected to their synagogues to ‘wash’ money they understood came from illegal activities,” said a press release issued by Marra’s office.
According to Marra, prosecutors have airtight evidence, including audio and video recordings of their witness soliciting and receiving bribes.
Attorneys for the rabbis are already preparing strategies to discredit those recordings.
“Conversations in which one party knows he or she is recording another person can be very much the subject of interpretation,” said Walder. “People doing this to benefit themselves sometimes have an agenda and may be feeding and making statements to the individual that can be ambiguous and misinterpreted. There is a whole area of forensic analysis which well documents the ability of a person knowingly recording an unsuspecting person to manipulate the discussion.”
“All I can say is Rabbi Fish is grateful that the transactions are taped. This ensures accuracy and prevents Dwek from continuing to fabricate,” said Bachner. “We are confident that once the entire relationship is understood and the tapes are explained in context, a jury will conclude that Dwek manipulated a man who loved and trusted Dwek’s family.”
Law enforcement officials were careful to deflect charges of bias.
“The fact that we arrested a number of rabbis this morning does not make this a religiously motivated case. Nor does the fact that we arrested political officials make this a politically motivated case,” said Waysan Dun, the special agent in charge of Newark’s FBI office. “It is about a shocking betrayal of the public trust.”
“Of course it is not religious-related,” Marra said after the news conference. “It is a group of criminals hiding behind a facade of being religious leaders in order to commit crimes.”
In a separate complaint that grew out of the probe, federal officials are charging a Brooklyn man, Levy Itzak Rosenbaum, with trafficking in the sale of human kidneys.
“He would pay people desperate for money $10,000 to donate a kidney, then charge recipients $160,000 for the kidney,” Marra charged. The complaint said Rosenbaum has been brokering kidneys for the past 10 years.