Cityside- Jeffrey Goldberg
December 12, 1994
The Lubavitchers just held a stunningly acrimonious election to pick political leaders.The Repercussions may reach City Hall.
NOTHING EVER GOES DOWN smoothly in Crown Heights, so it stands to reason that on the day the Lubavitcher Hasidim are choosing their communal leaders, the place would he crawling with cops. But even by local standards, this election for the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council is a bit absurd.
Dozens of Hasidim crowd the sidewalk in front of the yeshiva where the voting takes place. Some of the Hasidim carry video cameras. ready to capture on film the depredations of their political rivals. Rabbi Joseph Spielman, the incumbent head of the council and a man recently labeled by his enemies as the reincarnation of Hitler, makes his way through the crowd.
In front of the yeshiva, observers from a group that usually monitors union elections are sweeping an elderly Hasid off the school steps: he’s campaigning too close to the voting booths. “Teamsters elections are a lot easier than this one,” says Maralin Falik, executive director of the Honest Ballot Association.
This cold November Sunday is the climax of a season of spleen-venting. slashed tires, and outrageous allegations in Crown Heights. It has always been a feverish place—how many Brooklyn communities, after all, announce to the world that their leader is the Messiah?— but even those used to the Lubavitchers and their idiosyncratic ways have to be shocked by the ferocity of the just-ended campaign.
The proximate cause of all the biliousness is not the oft-discussed battle to succeed the rebbe, whose death six months ago has left a gaping void in the Lubavitchers’ lives, but something more earthbound—a RICO lawsuit brought by the council that asserts that a Lubavitcher housing official, Rabbi David Fischer, stole more than $20 million in communally owned real estate and, for good measure, robbed government housing agencies of millions more. Fischer, Crown Heights leaders allege, decided that the best way to quash the suit was to vote out Spielman and his allies, gain control of the community council, and then force it to drop the legal action. Allies of Fischer successfully sued the council to force last month’s election.
The case has exposed an oily underside of a community that would rather be known for its hyperactive outreach to secular Jews, its Vegas-style TV specials and menorah lightings, and the cloak of martyrdom it has worn since the 1991 riots. The case’s reverberations reach all the way to City Hall, where a top aide to the mayor has become a partisan of the community council’s enemies.
During the campaign, the eight challengers to Spielman’s incumbent slate— all men, since only men are allowed to run—charged Spielman and his allies with failing to protect the neighborhood during the 1991 riots. Spielman’s group argued that the challengers, some of whom are connected to Fischer by marriage or business, were just apparatchiks. Says Israel Weinstock, the community council’s lawyer. Fischer “had to get rid of the RICO case, and there’s one way to do it—install his own puppets on the council to withdraw the case.”
Fischer first came to prominence in Crown Heights in the late seventies, when the rebbe asked him to lead a housing program designed to keep young Hasidim from fleeing the neighborhood. By all accounts, Fischer did an excellent job acquiring houses and apartment buildings. The only problem, community leaders say, is that he secretly took control of the real estate himself, collecting rent money, taking out mortgages on the properties—and using the money to buy buildings for himself. He even secured government loans, ostensibly to provide housing for poor people.
(Fischer could not be reached for comment, but he has consistently denied the community council’s claims against him.)
When the council discovered what it says was his pattern of corrupt activity, it summoned Fischer to a rabbinical court. Fischer refused to appear, hopping a jet to Israel—from where he controls up to 40 separate companies he set up to manage his properties. He now travels back and forth between New York and Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and seventeen children.
His supporters—and he has more than a handful—say that whatever he gained pales in comparison with the work he did in providing homes to families in need.
“Maybe he’s a thief, maybe he’s a crook. but he saved Crown Heights,” says Fagy Rubenfeld. who is related to Fischer by marriage. Rubenfeld, a spokeswoman for the “Fischerist” opposition, says that the established council leadership is making a scapegoat of Fischer to deflect attention from its own wrongs, the nature of which she declines to elaborate on.
But an anonymous leaflet mailed to residents before the election details the supposed sins of Rabbi Spielman’s slate. “The big Tzadik [righteous man], Yankel Spritzer. … What about the treif [unkosher] sandwiches you fed to Jewish children?” the leaflet reads. “Shloimie Ralph Drimmer … if you want to know about him, ask Shmulik Schechter…. A vote for Sam Malamud is really a vote for Rozie Malamud, who cannot keep her mouth shut!” (For the record, Spritzer says he “wouldn’t even feed treif to non-Jewish children,” and Shmulik Schechter could not be reached for comment: as for the Malamuds, the flier might have a point—Rosalyn Malamud achieved legend status last year as the city’s loudest anti-David Dinkins heckler.)
“David Fischer is a Jew who is pointed at so they can get away with messing up.” Rubenfeld says. “How did the Nazis succeed in Germany? They blamed the Jews. That’s what’s happening to David Fischer.”
Fischer hasn’t had much luck convincing judges he’s a scapegoat: in state court, he was ordered to return two apartment buildings, one to its shareholders and the other to the community, and a Crown Heights rabbinical court has excommunicated him, ordering Jews to stay at least four biblical cubits (about seven feet) away from him.
But sources say the excommunication hasn’t stopped Fischer’s Hasidic supporters from associating with him, and it hasn’t stopped him from providing funds to candidates to wage their anti-incumbent battle.
Fischer, not irrelevantly, has given generously to another politician—Rudolph Giuliani. He donated at least $10.000 to the mayor’s election effort last year. Fischer also appeared at a Cuomo fundraiser early this year, but apparently no money was given to the campaign under Fischer’s name. Fischer, who remains one of Crown Heights’s biggest landlords, was brought into the mayor’s camp by Bruce Teitelbaum. Giuliani’s controversial deputy chief of staff and his Jewish-community liaison.
Sources say Fischer was introduced to Cuomo’s campaign by Teitelbaum’s girlfriend, Suri Kasirer, the governor’s Jewish liaison. It is the Teitelbaum-Kasirer connection that caused some in Crown Heights to sour on the mayor and the outgoing governor, both of whom have been more than usually tight with the Lubavitcher community.
Teitelbaum’s relationship to Fischer is not known, and he declined an opportunity to comment. But The Village Voice reported that soon after joining the Giuliani campaign two years ago, Teitelbaum helped organize a fund-raiser in the home of Fagy Rubenfeld, even though Teitelbaum, sources claim, had been made aware of the accusations against Fischer. Spielman says that Teitelbaum and Kasirer have taken the side of Fischer’s allies, and have attempted to intimidate him, even threatening him with a cutoff of funds to the community council if he didn’t support Cuomo. In a pre–Election Day telephone call, Spielman says, Kasirer “mentioned her knowledge of applications for funds we have pending in Albany, and she interwove that into her discussion about the importance of re-electing the governor. Anyone half-sophisticated could figure out what she was doing,” Kasirer could not be reached for comment.
The Kasirer call, opponents say, was only part of a broader pro-Cuomo pressure campaign she and her boyfriend ran in the months leading up to the election. “Teitelbaum indicated there would be a problem if we didn’t support his candidates,” says another rabbi, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Teitelbaum, who has many Jewish supporters, has also offended Giuliani’s most important Orthodox ally, Brooklyn assemblyman Dov Hikind. Hikind, who backed George Pataki over Cuomo, is said to be furious at the way Teitelbaum treated Jewish Pataki supporters and the way he treats several young Orthodox Jews in the Giuliani administration (not the least of whom is Hikind’s brother, Pinchus). “A lot of people have expressed irritation and more about the way they’ve been treated by Bruce.” says Dov Hikind. “I don’t think Bruce is helping relations between the Jewish community and the mayor.”
Spielman agrees. “We don’t have diplomatic relations with [Teitelbaum] anymore.” he says.
That’s bad news for the mayor, since Spielman and his slate ended up thrashing the opposition in the special election. The eight challengers received about 400 votes each to the establishment slate’s 1,800 per. So the RICO suit lives on, at least for the moment—a federal magistrate has ruled that the suit was filed after the statute of limitations had expired, and a federal judge is now considering the magistrate’s decision. In the meantime, the election has done nothing to end the divisions in the community. Strife is nothing new—the RICO suit was filed in 1992—but without the rebbe’s guidance, the Hasidim seem ready to go for one another’s throats. Says Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociologist and close observer of Lubavitch: “With the rebbe gone, everyone is asserting himself, and using the rebbe’s name to do it.”
Comment by WIS: Any wrongdoing or illegal actions the Cabal at the Crown Heights Community Council, Inc. (a.k.a Vaad Hakohol) have accused anyone else of doing [over the years] has been nothing more then a projection of their own wrongdoing and illegal activity. If you want to know what they are up to, just read what they write on others. In fact, their lawsuits against Fischer, Hershkop and recently in 2009, the Rubashkin Vaad (which included many Mosdos and Gemachim) has been my guide/blueprint into finding their very own corruption and fraud.
Exit Question: Whatever did happen to all the buildings Fischer had to return to the CHJCC, do they still belong to “the community” or are currently under the ownership of private individuals? What’s happens with rent money collected from the few buildings the CHJCC still has? More on all this in the future.