Butler of Spinker Rebbe Will Do Time for Not Snitching on Fellow Jews
Mr. Mosheh Eliezer Zigelman the butler of Spinker Rebbe of Borough Park was ordered by a federal district court to surrender to prison authorities this coming Wendesday. He will be incarcerated for 18 months for contempt of court, having refused to heed a subpoena by a federal grand jury investigating financial improprieties committed by officials in charge of Spinker institutions and its financial donors.
The case has its origins in 2007 when investigators discovered a sophisticated tax fraud scheme in which many millions of dollars were donated to the Spinka institutions, thus qualifying them for federal tax exemptions, but were then mostly returned to the donors through an Israeli bank account. The Rebbe’s butler (known in Yiddish as gabbai) took the rap on those charges, thus absolving the real culprit, his master Rabbi Naftali Zvi Weiss, the Spinker Rebbe of Borough Park (headquartered on 16th Ave. and 60th st.) and he has served some hard time.
But the case evidently did not die with his conviction and sentence. For a year now, federal authorities have been pressing the butler to testify to the grand jury regarding other accomplices in the fraud scheme, such as the identity of the donors. (Apparently federal investigators were having a hard time pinning down the donors since the monies were not returned to their United States bank accounts.)
But the butler remained steadfast in his refusal to cooperate with investigators. He considers it contrary to Jewish law to inform against a fellow Jew and his lawyer thus tried to invoke the freedom-of-religion First Amendment constitutional right while appealing the district court’s “contempt of court” declaration to the Circuit Court of Appeals. The Circuit Court, however, rejected his appeal, thus paving the way for an 18 month prison sentence.
Haredi (Jewish Ultra-orthodox) opinion on this episode has been far from unanimous. For the most part, the haredi world regrets being caught, not the commission of tax fraud per se. Insofar as getting caught brings to light improprieties committed by observant Torah Jews it is said to cause a “hilul hashem” (desecration of god’s name) by setting a bad example to the world for an Ultra-orthodox Jew. Indeed at a symposium in 2009, the Rabbi resolved that this shall never happen again.
But what is the poor butler to do now that his overlords did screw up and he is asked to testify? As the bookkeeper he cannot claim eni yodea (I don’ know). Authorities know that he knows what was being done and who was doing it.
Some in the community hail his refusal to testify as a kiddush hashem (sanctification of god’s name), demonstrating his adherence to the Jewish law forbidding mesirah (snitching) in spite of the adverse consequence.
But others are not toeing the line. Since it’s is rather obvious that he would have betrayed others in the name of the secular law and the threat of prison if they were non-Jews or if the victims of the fraud were Jews, this sort of discriminatory behavior reflects poorly on Jewish morals, it is argued. By his refusal to testify, he appears to be saying: we Jews are above the secular law and its penal consequences. If a non-Jew commits fraud or if the victim is a Jew we can and ought to cooperate with authorities, but not if a Jew is the violator and a non-Jewish entity the victim. This message may incite anti-semitism, some caution.