The arrests of more than 40 prominent politicians and Jewish leaders in New Jersey and New York on corruption and money laundering charges have sent shockwaves through the close-knit Syrian Jewish community there.
Federal investigators in New Jersey announced Thursday they had arrested more than 40 people, including public officials charged with corruption. Charges against others included international money laundering, selling counterfeit goods, and the black-market sale of human organs.
In addition to three mayors, officials arrested five influential rabbis from New Jersey and the New York borough of Brooklyn.
"They used purported charities, entities supposedly set up to do good works, as vehicles for laundering millions of dollars in illicit funds. The rings were international in scope, connected to the city of Deal, New Jersey, Brooklyn, New York, Israel and Switzerland," said Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra about the money-laundering scheme.
The rabbis are accused of using their congregations' charitable organizations to launder about $3 million by passing money from alleged illicit activity through their charities' bank accounts. The FBI said the rabbis then kept about 10 percent for themselves.
All of the rabbis come from the close-knit and wealthy Sephardic Jewish communities of southern New Jersey and Brooklyn - and the arrests have put the spotlight on a usually quiet community.
One of the rabbis arrested, Saul Kassin, is considered the leading cleric of the U.S. Sephardic community, comprised of families that emigrated mostly from the Middle East, Syria in particular, following the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Rabbi Kassin leads the largest Sephardic synagogue in the United States, Shaare Zion in Brooklyn, and has written books on Jewish law.
Members of the community have expressed shock and disbelief over the allegations against Rabbi Kassin. Many have been reluctant to speak publicly. One member of Shaare Zion, Ezra Kassin, told reporters he did not believe the charges.
He's just a very honorable person. I can't believe it, I don't believe it. Whatever they want to say, it's hogwash," he said.
Authorities said an FBI "cooperating witness" helped federal investigators gather evidence in the case. Media reports said he was arrested in 2006 for bank fraud.
FBI agent Weysan Dun said the probe seeks to root out corruption in New Jersey, wherever it is found.
"This case is not about politics. It is certainly not about religion. It is about crime, corruption, arrogance. It is about a shocking betrayal of the public trust," he said.
The FBI said the two-year probe is part of a wider investigation into political corruption and money laundering that started 10 years ago.