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September 20, 2014 / 25 Elul, 5774
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Succumbing to Temptation

I don’t know what it is that turns good people into crooks.

(L-R): William E. Rapfogel, Rabbi David Cohen, and Senator Malcolm Smith.

(L-R): William E. Rapfogel, Rabbi David Cohen, and Senator Malcolm Smith.
Photo Credit: Met Council

William Rapfogel and Dovid Cohen (…not the Posek by the same name) are apparently crooks. I really don’t know much about these two individuals except that they are both Orthodox Jews and have been accused of stealing millions of dollars from a charity organization they headed.

They now join the ranks of other prominent religious figures whose personal ethics are far from their lofty public ethics. And far from the ethics of the Torah that they are supposed to represent as religious Jews.

I don’t know them. But I have read about their accomplishments. If one factors out their greed one will find their lives were filled with charitable acts. But their Achilles heel is greed. And the fact that they have done so much good in the world is now overshadowed by the personal financial gain they have gotten via theft of charity money.

I don’t know what it is that turns good people into crooks. Or… perhaps I do. It’s about the temptation of great wealth and the comfortable lifestyles one can live with that kind of money. (Although in some cases it more of a ‘Robin Hood’ type approach of stealing from the rich US government and giving to the to religious institutions that need it to survive – as was the case with the Spinka Rebbe.)

It’s also about the opportunity that may present itself that makes it easy to do so. These people saw an opportunity for great wealth… and believed that there was no way they would get caught… so they apparently took advantage of it… siphoning millions of the charitable dollars from that charity via a financial kickback scheme.

Most people know the work of Hatzalah. This is an organization that has evolved into one of the most efficient and recognized ambulance services in the country. A service that was sorely needed in the New York area since the standard of such care was so poor that lives were lost.

Rabbi Dovid Cohen was the CEO of Hatzalah until his resignation a few days ago… after he the New York Times named him as a co-conspirator along with Rapfogel. Cohen worked with Rapfogel as an advisor to his charity, The Metroplitan Council on Jewish Poverty (popularly called the Met Council). They stole money from the charity by overcharging the Met Council for their insurance contracts and pocketing the difference.

One may not become a millionaire by heading Hatzalah. But $183,000 a year in salary is not peanuts either. He was probably paid for his consulting work for the Met Council too. I guess Rabbi Cohen felt he could not get by on that income and needed to steal from the poor so that he could live in a manner appropriate for an Orthodox Jew.

Mr. Rapfogel felt the same way. He apparently siphoned of 5 million dollars, kept a million for himself and used the rest to influence politicians via political donations. According to the Forward the indictment said that he stashed $400,000 in cash at home!

I’m sure the hearts of the poverty stricken families who the Met Council served were warmed by the fact that the organization’s leaders were able to better their own lives with the millions they stole!

But is everyone like that ? Given the opportunity with assurances that we would not get caught… would we be tempted to steal from the poor? Or steal from the government? I sometimes wonder if all of our righteous indignation about crooks like these is just because we have never been tempted – not being presented with these kinds of opportunities.

I don’t mean to say that our indignation isn’t real. I’m sure in most cases it is. But most of us have never been tempted. Who among us would fail the same way these two individuals did? I would hope none of us would. That is what I believe about myself. But… then again, I have never been tested in that way. I am not God forbid trying to justify it. It is evil and a major Chilul HaShem when Orthodox Jews are caught doing such things. I’m just wondering how well most of us would do in similar situations?

These two gentlemen – I’m sure – are not all that different than you or me. I’m sure that they were just as disdainful of cheaters and crooks as the rest of us before they realized they could do this and thought they could get away with it.

I have read that Mr. Rapfogel was an eloquent spokesman for the poor and probably believed what he said about helping them. And you don’t get chosen as the CEO of Hatzalah unless you have a pristine reputation. Rabbi Cohen must have had one. And yet both of these guys are crooks, allegedly.

The Greek philosopher Diogenes is said to have searched all of ancient Greece to find an honest man and could not find one. I am not as cynical as he. I’m sure that there are plenty of honest people in the world, today. But with so many good people going bad – perhaps not as many as we would like to believe.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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