Locked Up with Syrian Grand Rebbe Ben Haim

Locked Up with Syrian Grand Rebbe Ben Haim

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The Jewish inmates get to sit and eat in the prison “sukkah.”  A “sukkah” is an outdoor hut which Jews eat and “dwell” in during the holiday of Sukkah, or what is also known as the “Feast of Tabernacles.”

Not all Jews grow up to be ‘my son the doctor’ or ‘my son the lawyer.’ There are many Jews, like myself, who chose to lead a life of crime.  You would think that such Jews are failures in life. An embarrassment to the Jewish community.  A ‘shonda’ or a “shame” as they say in Yiddish.  But it all depends on who you ask.  In the criminal world Jews have achieved great success.  Charles Ponzi may have invented the Ponzi scheme, but Bernie Madoff perfected it.  Madoff ran up losses of almost two hundred billion dollars, the largest Ponzi scheme in human history.

Otisville consists of a medium security prison and a low security ‘camp.’  For whatever reason the Feds have designated Otisville the prison destination for members of  the Chosen People.  But you won’t find anything in the Federal regulations that officially designates Otisville a “Jewish prison.”  Nobody in the Federal Bureau of Prisons will tell you why so many Jews end up in Otisville. The reason is not important to me.  I went to Otisville because I committed a crime and had to pay a debt to society.  I also went to Otisville in order to study members of the Jewish race living together under highly stressful conditions.

There were times when the Jewish inmates danced and bonded together during Sabbath meals and religious services.  But there were also moments of high drama and emotional meltdowns. There is an old expression, “two Jews, three opinions.”  I spent 17 months with Hasidim, Haradim, Ashkanazim, Sephardim, Israelis, Ukranians, Russians, Jews for Jesus, self-hating Jews, athiest Jews, Chabadniks, and your run of the mill shnorrers, shmegegies, shmendrecks and shlamazels.

I was locked up with Rabbi Eliahu Ben Haim, a prominent Syrian rabbi from Deal, New Jersey. The Rabbi pleaded guilty to money laundering.  He received a sentence of five years of prison.  Rabbi Ben Haim was set up by a man named Solomon Dwek.  Dwek was involved in a massive ponzi scheme and a $50 million bank fraud.  Dwek was was facing life in prison.  Dwek agreed to cooperate with the Feds and went under cover trying to set up other guys.  He handed the Feds the scalps of 48 people.  He set up many Jews in his tight knit Syrian Jewish community of New Jersey.  His parents publicly disowned him.  As a reward for his cooperation Dwek did a couple of years of prison and is now living openly in a Jewish community in the Baltimore area.  I guess he didn’t need witness protection.

Dwek and Rabbi Ben Haim were featured on the  television show American Greed.  Dwek did more than just uncover crime.  The Feds used him to create crimes that may not have occurred without Mr. Dwek.  American Greed shows how Dwek solicited as many politicians as possible, posing as a developer with wads of cash, until someone took the bait.  This used to be called “entrapment.”  But today Federal courts rarely enforce the laws against entrapment.  In the area of terrorism, Human Rights Watch found that half of all investigations were based on the work of informants.  It found that 30% of all terrorist plots were hatched, directed and controlled by paid government informants.  While the government is getting ripped off by paid informants, the real terrorists are out there planning their next attack.

Rabbi Ben Haim was well behaved in prison.  He occasionally lost his temper, but who didn’t, being cooped up like an animal 24/7.  He once got very upset when his friend Roman stole his tomato.  Rabbi Ben Haim tried to take on the role as the leader in the Sephardic Jewish community, which consisted of about a half dozen guys. The Rabbi gave classes every night.  He related well with guys who were not very knowledgeable about Judaism.  He liked to tell “moshels,” or fables or parables that had a moral lesson. Many of his stories featured kings, princes, peasants, wagon drivers, and water carriers.  Most of his stories were of Eastern European origin, although Rabbi Ben Haim was from Syria, a long way from the shtetls, or little Jewish villages, of Eastern Europe.  Many of his tales were about golden coins and pots of gold.  He was often ribbed by the other inmates because his stories involved a similar cast of characters.  He sometimes got into arguments with the Ashkanazi inmate rabbi, who felt his “moshels” should not replace serious Torah learning.

Rabbi Ben Haim gained weight after he came to prison.  In his picture on American Greed, taken before he went to jail, he looks about 50 pounds lighter than when I saw him.  He wasn’t too happy about being locked up.  He despised his prosecutor Chris Christy, the former governor of New Jersey.  He did not care much for Solomon Dwek.  I don’t blame him.

Ben Haim tried to befriend billionaire art dealer Helly Nehmad, also a Jew of Syrian ancestry.  Everyone in the camp tried to befriend Helly. One guy who tried very hard to befriend Helly was Sam Antar.  Sam Antar is the nephew of the infamous 1980s electronics pitchman Crazy Eddie.  Sam did about a year for defrauding investors out of about a half a million dollars while his uncle Eddie Antar was sentenced to eight years for causing investors to lose $145 million.  Helly and Sam went to same halfway house in the Bronx.  Not sure if Sam was hip enough, or rich enough, to join Helly’s Club after they got out of the halfway house.

Rabbi Ben Haim got five long years for being involved in small scale operation consisting of 34 money transactions over the course of three years.  Money laundering is an unsophisticated tax avoidance scheme utilized by wealthy individuals to hide income. Its not just drug dealers and mobsters who get involved in money laundering. Large corporations set up “tax shelters” all the time.  Large corporations hire high priced accountants and lawyers to set up complicated off shore corporations or Swiss bank accounts .  Yet big corporations and extremely wealthy individuals rarely go to jail. If they do get caught all they get is a warning.  Or they get offered a tax amnesty program.  its the little guys who get no warnings. The FBI shows up at the doors of the little guys at five in the morning to haul them away to jail for five years.


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