(JTA) — The Orthodox rabbinical council in Lakewood, New Jersey, responded to the arrest of community members on charges of welfare fraud by declaring “[t]here is no such thing as ‘justified’ theft.”
The statement, issued Thursday by Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg in the name of the Lakewood Vaad, follows the arrests of at least seven couples in the community’s haredi Orthodox community on charges of illegally obtaining government benefits.
The four couples arrested Monday were charged with underreporting their incomes to receive government benefits. Some of the couples are alleged to have hidden millions of dollars in assets while collecting tens of thousands of dollars in Medicaid and other benefits.
In its statement, the Vaad said the accused are “innocent until proven guilty,” and that it would “suspend judgment until the disposition of these charges.” Nevertheless, it regards the probe and arrests as “a valuable teaching moment.”
“There is no such a thing as ‘justified’ theft,” according to the statement. “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. To deliberately bend a safety-net eligibility rule is stealing, no different than stealing from your friend or neighbor.”
The statement called on community rabbis, teachers and parents to “redouble and triple our efforts in our communities, reminding each and every one of us that there is never any excuse for dishonesty in any form.” The Vaad pledged to launch a series of “intensive educational programs” to address the issue.
Two years ago, nearly 1,000 people attended a meeting in Lakewood with local prosecutors who warned about welfare fraud.
Haredi Orthodox Jews are thought to make up 60 percent of Lakewood’s population of 100,000. Since 1943, the suburb has been the home of the Beth Medrash Govoha, one of the world’s largest yeshivas with a student body of about 6,500 students.