By Maryann Spoto
Religion News Service
TRENTON, N.J. (RNS) As the spiritual leader of the nation's largest Syrian Sephardic community for decades, Rabbi Saul Kassin has met with heads of state and performed countless charitable acts.
But the Brooklyn rabbi was also accused of using his charity to transmit millions of dollars while keeping a 10 percent cut in his effort to help others avoid paying federal taxes.
Kassin, who pleaded guilty in March to operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business, was sentenced Wednesday (June 1) to two years of unsupervised probation. He also agreed to forfeit $367,500, a portion of his cut.
The 89-year-old rabbi made an impassioned plea for the government to return hundreds of thousands of dollars of those fees so that his charity, Magen Israel Society, could continue to donate funds to the needy.
"The money should be returned to Magen Israel because you are not judging me, you are judging tens of thousands of people who are involved in this project," Kassin told U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano, invoking the Torah's lessons on mercy.
Kassin, who was initially charged with money laundering, pleaded guilty March 28 to transmitting from $200,000 to $400,000 through Magen Israel between June 2007 and December 2008. For his work, he admitted that he took a 10 percent cut.
The transactions were arranged by Solomon Dwek, a disgraced developer and member of the Syrian community in Deal, N.J., who cooperated with the federal government's sweeping investigation into public corruption and money laundering. The sting culminated with the arrest of more than 40 people, including four other Orthodox rabbis, three mayors, two New Jersey assemblymen and dozens of other public officials.
Seated at a table in the courtroom with hundreds of letters of support stacked in front of him, Kassin said his charity provides financial assistance for "needy rabbis who study day and night" as well as widows and orphans, the sick, the elderly, the handicapped and young newlyweds.
"It would be wrong and cruel to take even one dollar of that money," the rabbi said. "One should have mercy and compassion to help all of the above who are in dire need."
Kassin's attorney, Gerald Shargel, asked the judge to consider Kassin's 78 years of community service. But Pisano said Kassin alone was responsible for the missing charitable funds.
"At the end of the day, the reason the charity does not have the $367,500 is because of you -- and you're responsible for that and not anybody else," Pisano said.
Kassin could have faced 18 to 24 months in prison, but Pisano said he chose not to because of the rabbi's advanced age.
"You have been judged properly," Pisano said. "What you did was criminal."
(MaryAnn Spoto writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)