Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Honesty and The Jewish Community V: Well Intentioned

(continued as part of this series)

A friend sent over a video a few minutes ago, asking what I thought about it. The video is of two children at the seder, with them looking over to their father's empty seat while they say the Mah Nishtana. Where is their father? Well, an image of him standing by his chair appears, wearing the orange jumpsuit of convicted criminals. He speaks to the camera, saying "No matter if I was right - or wrong - I will make peace with my situation. (pause) But I cannot speak for them, my children." The information for a charity then comes up, detailing its services, which include basic charity work such as food and babysitting, but also includes visitation to the incarcerated and Jewish resources for prisoners.

A few people have already defended the video, saying that we must separate the children from the parent in terms of how they are viewed: They are children who are essentially orphans, and need our help, and that to not support them would be "punishing them for their parents' sins".

I find the video appalling. To separate out convicted criminals as a class of people who deserve our assistance is mind-boggling to me. I see no reason at all why there should be added sympathy for someone who has committed a crime, and I strongly feel that the knowledge of the existence of such a safety net that is specific to criminals will only placate the concerns of those who are considering committing crimes, allowing them to feel safe in the knowledge that should they be unsuccessful in or caught committing criminal activity that there is an organization to take care of their children. There is absolutely no reason to separate these families from other families who need assistance, and there are certainly better ways to allocate our charitable donations than to make up for the activities of criminals.

This well-intentioned approach to Jewish criminals is not exclusive to this charity; it strikes as a familiar mantra whenever criminal acts are committed by members of the community. The varied comments one hears when someone commits a crime are almost always dedicated to judging the criminal favorably, or even mitigating if not denying the impact of the criminal acts that were committed:
  • "But he's so nice - he gave so much charity, he helped so many people out."
  • "He created jobs for people, including people who were unemployed."
  • "He's not the first nor will he be the last... sometimes these things happen/Come on, everyone does it."
  • "Was anyone really hurt by what she did? She helped so many people through what she did. Those people/companies/governments won't miss a penny, they'd have just wasted it anyway."
  • "They probably felt pressure to succeed from their families and the success they saw their neighbors having."
  • "Living in the frum world is really, really expensive - sometimes the only way to 'make it' is to try something a little more... questionable."
  • "It's muttar to take from the government/their rules are ridiculous anyway/he didn't really do exactly what they said he did."
  • "That's just the way it is."
Some of these are worse than others, but the general theme is clear. People have well-intentioned approaches to how they view those who have committed criminal activity, often for very different reasons.

On top of these well-intentioned approaches, we have the rare individuals or groups who try to expose problems in the community, but almost never seem to manage to do so appropriately. Even when the intentions are positive, so often the methods cross all lines of human decency or harassment and worse, honesty. These methods only end up backfiring, allowing people to twist stories into discussions about the accuser(s) and/or their methods rather than the issues at hand, and the backlash they face discourages those who may be open to help solving the issues that plague our community, and they retreat for fear of the consequences they may face.

It is not enough for us as a community to be honest ourselves - though if we all did so, it would be an excellent start. While we must be sure not to allow our positive intentions in one way to let ourselves get carried away and act inappropriately, we should also not allow our other positive intentions to judge people favorably to mask the disgust we must feel at those who are dishonest and commit crimes, both within the community and outside of it. We should never be acting in a way which even implies a defense of those who commit dishonest acts - it is not just insensitive to those who have been hurt, but it's just plain wrong.

(to be continued)


  1. I will never understand why frum people think laws do not apply to them. I just recently commented to someone that something she does is illegal (not worthy of jail, but still wrong) and she made all kinds of excuses. I couldn't believe it. She thinks she is not hurting anyone, and she probably isn't, really. But that's not the point.

  2. Makes me sick, tired, and poor. ;)

  3. Look at Mr. Goldish playing innocent again. We all know the role you had in multi million dollar frauds.

    Stop being holier than everyone else.

  4. Lol. Anyone who actually thinks that is as delusional as the criminal responsible.

  5. Criminals are people, too, Ezzie. If what they did was an isolated incident, or if they have had a significant change, then they could be overall very good people.

    Lots of religious people from other religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam) work with inmates to help them improve their lives and become better people. Is there some part of Judaism that I'm not aware of that says once you commit a crime, it's unforgivable?

    Your feelings sound like they come more from a desire for vengeance than from a desire for good.

  6. JA - I think you misunderstood my points. I'm merely saying that for charities to give special status to criminals or their families is wrong, even if well intentioned. I have little interest in vengeance, but I'll save my sympathy for those who deserve it far more.

  7. While it's true that charity is a finite resource, in practice there are all kinds of charities based on the charity's priorities. For example, there are charities that rescue animals even though there are people that need rescuing.

    A charity for prisoners and their families strikes me as reasonable as many and more reasonable than many others (like kollels, charities that help build shuls, charities that do missionary/kiruv work, etc.)

  8. And sympathy is not a finite resource.

  9. TO Anonymous- How much did SM pay you to be his mouthpiece? Don't you feel a little guilty taking stolen money from SM?

  10. I live in a major metropolis. There is a gentleman here who is a major philanthropist. He has been honored by many of our local institutions on any number of occasions. His last name appears on a substantial number of buildings such as schools and shuls. He has been hailed as a tzaddik. At the same time, he is the kind of nursing home owner that gives this industry a bad name. There is more that I can say about the man, but if I do, you might be able to identify him. What are we teaching our children when we honor him?

  11. JA - I am not unsympathetic; I merely do not believe that focusing on the prisoner is the appropriate message. I believe that the same organizations which service those without fathers can service these families as well, and the way this was presented was horrible.

    Roy - Thank you!

    Anon - I think that's a rather good example, though hard to know without specifics. A better example may be Rubashkin - I think there may be valid questions about the judge or what not in that situation, but if I'm not mistaken there was little argument about some aspects of what he did. Why is he defended so virulently and presented often as a tzaddik? There's a difference between saying "yes, he did wrong, but let's keep it in perspective" and accusing people of anti-Semitism for how they treated "such a righteous" person.

  12. I never thought about the Anti-Semitism question. I wanted to vent because I am outraged. The man had sex offenders in his nursing home. In addition, he and his son were accused of running an
    "interesting" pharmaceutical company. It made the papers, and you can google the man's name and find out all about it.

  13. Wow, that's horrible. (I'm not familiar with the situation - feel free to email me.) But perfect example - by honoring or even overly acknowledging those who commit horrible acts, we are doing a disservice to everyone.

  14. What burns me up even more is that I have learned about "funny bookkeeping" It is the kind of bookkeeping in which you use loopholes in the law to create charities that aren't charities. I became familiar with this kind of thing by reading about Kiryas Yoel, but if it can be done there, I assume that it can be done anywhere. Can you imagine what non-frum Jews and gentiles think when they get wind of that kind of thing?