By Brenda Flanagan
“When the word spreads in the community that this can happen, you know, then people get panicky,” said Rabbi Moshe Weisberg.
Weisberg says, Lakewood’s Orthodox Jewish community is in a panic after law enforcement busted seven couples in connection with a welfare fraud sting. On Monday, officers from the county prosecutor went to the upscale Olive Court home of Rabbi Zelman and Tzipporah Sorotzkin and arrested them for theft by deception of more than $338,000 in Medicaid, food stamps, rental assistance and SSI [Supplemental Security Income]. Also arrested on the same charges at their home on Blue Jay Way were Mordechai and Jocheved Breskin for alleged theft of almost $586,000 in welfare benefits.
No one answered questions at the Hadassah Lane home of Shimon and Yocheved Nussbaum, arrested by federal agents, and Rachel and Mordechai Sorotzkin, who charged by the FBI with collecting federal benefits despite earning millions. On Wednesday, officers swooped in and arrested three more couples charged with the same offenses. The 14 defendants allegedly defrauded almost $2 million in welfare benefits that, when Lakewood’s Mayor Ray Coleman says, there’s a waiting list for Section 8 vouchers.
“To see something like this happen is just like a knife in the heart. There’s so many people out there who need the help. When something like this happens, it turns people against everybody,” Coleman said.
Court documents indicate that the suspects basically declared themselves to be poverty-stricken, all the while earning tens of thousands of dollars more. The alleged fraud often involved hidden income, bogus applications and dicey financial records.
Is there a pervasive attitude of bend the rules? “I don’t know if I’d use the term ‘bend the rules,'” said Weisberg. “I would say there’s a pervasive attitude that, ‘there are programs out there that could help me out, let me try to get those programs.’”
Weisberg is a member of Lakewood’s Vaad, a local Orthodox Jewish council. He says its been fielding a barrage of calls from members of the Orthodox community who are now worried they could be targeted because of a careless attitude towards using government benefits. He says the Vaad will organize educational programs to change that.
“Because of confusion and because of financial pressures that people might have, they probably might’ve done certain things that they shouldn’t have done and certainly should’ve asked about, and that’s what we’re dealing with here,” Weisberg said.
Ocean County Prosecutor Joe Coronato stated, “Financial assistance programs are designed to alleviate family hardships for those truly in need. My office gave clear guidance and notice to the Lakewood community in 2015 of what is considered financial abuse of these programs. Those who choose to ignore those warnings by seeking to illegally profit on the backs of taxpayers will pay the punitive price of their actions.”
The mayor asked: “I just want people not to jump to conclusions, not to draw conclusions about an entire community, an entire township, based on the actions of a few people. We’re a township of probably over 100,000 folks, and no matter how hard you try, you’ll always going to have people who will take advantage of a system.”
More arrests are expected in this ongoing investigation.