Sunday, March 18, 2001

Skwere Trial

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in September 1998)

Shortly after the holidays, the trial of a half-dozen religious Jews accused of defrauding the government is scheduled to begin in the Federal Courthouse in White Plains. All but one of the defendants are members of the Skwere chassidic group and residents of a small town known as New Square in Rockland County.

As the case has proceeded to trial, there have been some disturbing elements, although they do not challenge the confidence all of us must have in the judicial process. Media comment – Jewish and general – has assumed the guilt of the accused, a familiar feature when the defendants are Orthodox Jews. Too many of us have a selective view of the principle that people are innocent until they are proven guilty.

New Square residents did not help matters with their frenzied reaction to the federal investigation, a posture that undercut confidence in their cause. Although what they did was wrong, it fundamentally was the confused reaction of people who did not understand what was happening and whose view of governmental action is liberally tinged with traces of paranoia, the unhappy legacy of centuries of persecution and destruction, too often at the hands of governmental agents.

Nor are the actions and words of the government beyond reproach. In pre-trial submissions, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District has suggested that the Skwere community is on trial, not merely individuals who may have acted wrongfully. The claim is made that –

“. . . many male members of the New Square community choose to pursue religious studies rather than vocational or professional training, and many female members of the community elect to marry in their teens and raise large families. These choices have contributed to the development of a community that cannot sustain – and has not sustained – itself economically, even with the assistance of legitimate governmental subsidies. As a result, the defendants and others have, for many years, chosen and undertaken to supplement the income of community members, and to fund the religious and educational institutions within the community, by defrauding the federal government.”

This smacks of the entirely unacceptable notion of communal guilt. By living in New Square one is guilty, if not of any crime then of attitudes and behavior which somehow must be regarded as harmful to society. Overwhelmingly, in fact, Skwere chassidim live honorable lives.

So far as I know, there is no precedent for the “community is guilty” tack taken by the U.S. Attorney. It is not difficult to imagine the outcry that would ensue should comparable language be used when minority group members are accused of crimes.

If the government would like to provide a full profile of New Square and its reliance on public funds, it would note that governmental expenditures are substantially below what they are elsewhere, if only because public school education which annually costs an average of $10,000 per student in New York is non-existent in the community. The need to invest in social programs to counteract pathologies that are rampant elsewhere is also very low.

New Square was established as a haven from unwanted secular influences, as the government notes, and also as a haven from materialism and hedonism. There is a quiet dignity to the town’s way of life. It is true that most young men pursue religious study, a choice that, to my knowledge, has not been criminalized. As for the adults, most, including women, work, although their income scarcely lifts them above the poverty level.

If it matters, the community has survived primarily because of the modest life-style of its members and the financial assistance given by outsiders, mainly non-Skweres, who admire the dignity and decency of a chassidic group whose members live a simple, religious life.

While New Square is not on trial, despite the government’s unfortunate efforts to the contrary, the case has taken a heavy emotional and physical toll. The point was made in a memo prepared by a medical doctor, a Fellow of Johns Hopkins University, who knows the community. I quote from it at length because it is a moving document that tells an important story:

“I have come to deeply respect this unique community which turns to me for medical care. The sincerity of their religious commitment and the simplicity of their life-styles have impressed, even inspired me time and again.

“The psychological well being of this community has been shattered. Psychological disorders of every sort are shockingly prevalent. Sleep and eating disorders connected to fears real and imagined now abound. Symptoms of paranoia and panic disorders are in evidence in many patients.

“This astonishing turnaround in the community’s psychological well being is clearly coincidental with the intensification of a grand jury investigation into alleged financial misdeeds by some village leaders. The details of this care are unknown to me. It is the human wreckage that has been created in its wake with which I am intimately familiar. From housewives to geriatric patients none are left unaffected.

“This is not a worldly community, and they seem not to be equipped to deal with the stress of the past few years. Because they have no advocate, I would like to express my concern for a lot of fine hard working men, women and children.”

None of this excuses fraud or lessens any individual’s possible guilt. But it adds a perspective to a picture that the government has distorted. Instead of the community being the guilty party, it has become the victim. In many other situations of fraud where institutions have been involved, the strong tendency has been to work out a civil settlement that includes penalties, presumably because the object of governmental action is to combat fraud and not to destroy an institution that provides needed services. In the case of New Square, despite efforts to bring about closure, the government has driven a hard bargain, one that is cruel to people who do not deserve to be treated cruelly.

I write this shortly before Yom Kippur, a period of reflection and forgiveness. Is it too much to ask our government to seek both justice and mercy?