Fraud and bullying

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some days I’m afraid to open the daily newspaper or turn on the television. Misbehavior and unpleasantness seem to be on the rise. Below are two recent examples that have gotten under my skin and caused my blood pressure to rise.
  • Lakewood fraud
I grew up hearing that Jews should always be on their best behavior because to misbehave or commit a crime was a “shanda fur di goyim” – a scandal that embarrassed the entire Jewish people. I’ve never liked the idea, but it’s not uncommon for the behavior of any member of a minority to be considered typical for the whole group. I thought of this when reading about the arrests in Lakewood, NJ. As of this writing, 26 Orthodox Jews have been arrested for defrauding the government. The New Jersey prosecutor’s office claims that they fraudulently received Medicare, nutritional assistance, public assistance and other funds by lying about their incomes.
One member of the community defended those arrested, saying that it’s expensive to be Jewish, so they bent the rules. Even if that’s true, it’s not acceptable. I doubt he would say the same thing if someone sold the community nonkosher meat because that was the only way he could make a living, or if people regularly worked on Shabbat because they needed the income. When I’ve heard people say that the Orthodox only care about ritual, I’ve been quick to explain how wrong they are: Orthodox Jews are required to observe all the ritual and ethical laws. My hope is that this is all a misunderstanding, but I very much doubt that’s the case. In the meantime, this behavior feeds into the stereotype that Jews feel they are above the law, especially when it comes to making money.
  • Tweeting and bullying
I’ve never really cared for Robert Fulghum’s poem, “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” After all, the world is complex and not everything can fit so simply into a list of do’s and don’ts. Fulghum includes the line “say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody,” which certainly doesn’t fit the current political climate, where nastiness and bullying are in vogue. Both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of these actions, but the worst bully has been the current president of the United States. Even putting aside the fact that many of his tweets are inaccurate, the ones that deal with people he doesn’t like are just plain rude. Even when he’s proven wrong, President Trump seems incapable of saying he’s sorry or caring that he hurt someone’s feelings. In fact, it looks as if he takes pleasure in being mean.
Someone asked me why anyone would support a person who acted like this. I think it’s because there are many people out there who wish they could speak as President Trump does: that they could express their true feelings – be they sexist, racist or antisemitic. These people want to be as public with their prejudices as the president, but they fear the consequences: public censor or being fired from their jobs for creating a hostile atmosphere. So they cheer on someone who does what they wish they could do: freely express their prejudices and dislikes without caring about how other people feel.