Sitting in the Chocolate Soda, a tidy Kosher sandwich shop on Norwood Avenue in the heart of downtown Deal, you would never guess that a tempest had just hit this wealthy Syrian Jewish enclave.
Deal is a place where ladies who lunch do so frequently, chatting about their children and making social plans. Chanel pocketbooks dangle from their arms, and five-carat diamond rings are not uncommon.
It’s midsummer at the Shore. Just weeks earlier, New Jersey had been rocked by the July 23 arrests of 44 elected and appointed officials, businessmen, and religious leaders in a wide-ranging scandal with allegations of influence-buying and money-laundering. Among those arrested were two prominent Deal rabbis.
But while the rest of New Jersey buzzed, Deal kept quiet. Few at the Chocolate Soda would answer a reporter’s questions. Those who did wanted to remain anonymous—and were more outraged by the government informant, the son of another Deal rabbi, than by the alleged misdeeds.
There is also a sense of denial. “The rabbis were just trying to help other people—that’s how all this happened,” said one young Syrian Jewish woman, eating lunch with her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law.
Once home mainly to farmers, Deal has been a summer destination for the wealthy for more than a century. Isidor Straus, owner of Macy’s, had a home in Deal in the early 1900s. His next-door neighbor was Benjamin Guggenheim, heir to a mining fortune. They were both Ashkenazi Jews, with roots in Germany and Switzerland, respectively (and both died on the Titanic).
The Syrian Jews are considered to be Sephardic, a sub-group with roots in Spain, Portugal, and the Middle East. They are distinct from Ashkenazi Jews, who hail from Northern and Eastern Europe and comprise the majority of American Jews. (Technically, the Syrian Jews are a mix of Mizrahi, which means they came from the Middle East, and Sephardic. Today, however, Sephardic has become a broad term for any Jew who is not Ashkenazi, says Aviva Ben-Ur, an associate professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and author of Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History.)
Sephardic families from Brooklyn—the nation’s largest enclave of Syrian Jews—began summering in Deal in the 1960s and 1970s. Attracted by the town’s large homes, some eventually stayed, raising their children and building their own Jewish community. Today, there are about a dozen Orthodox synagogues and numerous religious schools in the area. Kosher restaurants and markets catering to the community line Norwood Avenue.
Signs of wealth are everywhere. Downtown Deal is replete with stores selling pricey designer clothes and jewelry (a sign in the window of one store says, “We gladly deliver, local and Brooklyn”), and the women who shop in them wear the latest styles. These are modern Orthodox women; they do not cover their hair or wear long skirts in the manner of more traditional Orthodox groups. The men usually wear yarmulkes, the only outward indication that they are Jewish.
During the summer, the population in Deal swells from 1,000 to about 6,000 people, and about 80 percent of the summer community is Syrian Jewish, says Jim Foley, the borough historian.
“The fact that so many Syrian Jews ended up in Deal is typical behavior; everybody wants to live near their family and friends,” says Foley.
Sean T. Kean, a Republican state senator from Wall Township, is an Irish Catholic who grew up in Deal. He remembers when the Sephardic community moved in and started buying houses there.
“The rumor was that residents would answer their door, and people would be standing there with a briefcase full of cash,” says Kean, whose mother still lives in Deal. “They were paying top dollar for these houses. It was sad for families like ours, because people we had known for a long time sold their homes and left.”
Kean says that many of the older Deal residents resented the changes because some of the beautiful Victorian mansions from the early 1900s were knocked down and replaced with modern homes that some found architecturally challenging. “One of the houses looked like an air conditioner,” he says.
Many of the newer homes in Deal are built in the Mediterranean style, with red-tiled roofs—reflecting the Syrians’ geographic origins. Language also sets the Sephardim apart. Unlike Ashkenazi Jews, who traditionally speak Yiddish, some Sephardic Jews speak Arabic, or Judeo-Arabic, a Jewish dialect; others speak Judeo-Spanish, also called Ladino. Their rituals and prayers are also distinct from those of Ashkenazi Jews, and so is their diet. Sephardic cuisine is distinctly Middle Eastern, and uses many grains, fruit, nuts, beans, and aromatic spices.
As their numbers grew, Deal’s Syrian Jews worked to create their own community, building temples and religious schools, and starting restaurants and shops that catered to their tastes. But some in town were critical of the Sephardim for being too insular and for rarely mixing with other members of the community.
Kean, who as a teenager worked as a lifeguard and in the snack bar of the Deal Casino, the town’s historic pool and beach club, says that while the club had Sephardic members, they typically kept to themselves.
“It wasn’t like they said, ‘Hey, Sean, get me a burger.’ They didn’t want anything to do with me. It was strange behavior, and it wasn’t positive for anybody,” he remembers. “There were some exceptions; we rented our house out a few summers to a great Sephardic family. My mother is still friends with them.”
Foley, the borough historian, who has also managed the Deal Casino for the past ten years, disputes the assertion that the Syrian Jews kept to themselves. A Catholic, he remembers growing up with Sephardic and Ashkenazi neighbors, and playing ball with the other children.
“We never knew the difference,” he remembers. “All this speculation that there is tension has been blown out of proportion. I don’t sense it at all.”
He says the recent headlines about the arrests have understandably caused embarrassment and anger. “They’re afraid that people will think all members of the Sephardic community are crooks,” says Foley. “But every time a Catholic priest messes with a boy, I don’t think, ‘I’m going to stop going to church.’”
Harry Franco, the mayor of Deal—believed to be the first Sephardic mayor in the nation—says the community is “shocked and dismayed” by the arrests. In interviews, other Syrian Jewish residents of Deal expressed their own sense of dismay.
“It happens in every community,” said one middle-aged woman. “What Dwek did wasn’t right. They used him as a rat.”
The Dwek she referred to is Solomon Dwek, the fallen scion of a powerful Deal family who is believed to be a cooperating witness for the government in the sweeping corruption probe that has implicated the Deal rabbis, as well as dozens of New Jersey politicians. Dwek was a multimillionaire real estate mogul who went bankrupt and earlier was charged with bank fraud for trying to deposit bad checks totaling $50 million.
Among those arrested on charges of money laundering were two Deal religious leaders, Eliahu Ben Haim, principal rabbi of Congregation Ohel Yaacob, and Edmund Nahum, principal rabbi of the Deal Synagogue, where Dwek’s father is a rabbi. Also charged was Rabbi Saul Kassin of Brooklyn, who is considered the spiritual leader of the Sephardic community in the United States.
Few will talk about the charges against the rabbis, or take them to task for their alleged crimes. As part of the suspected scheme, money was donated to charities overseen by the rabbis. Then, according to the charges, the rabbis gave the donors most of the money back in cash, keeping a fee for themselves.
That Dwek informed on his own people is considered by many in the Sephardic community to be the worst kind of betrayal. Dwek is viewed as a pariah who should be shunned, and who should even fear for his life. Without naming his son, Dwek’s own father reportedly alluded to the incident during a religious talk after the arrests, denouncing a Jew for informing against other Jews.
“I thought it was disgusting what [Dwek] did,” said a 20-year-old Deal resident who asked that his name not be used. “He set them up.”
In an attempt to repair some of the damage, the Sephardic Community Alliance, an umbrella group for various Syrian organizations, hired a publicist to present the positive side of the community—including the generosity of the Sephardim. Observers say the Sephardic community gives millions of dollars each year to charity. Syrian Jews also make sure that those within their community are taken care of when the need arises.
But that has hardly silenced critics of the Syrian Jews. Even some liberal Sephardim have used the Internet to condemn—and even mock—the community for being too materialistic.
Deal, located in Monmouth County, between Long Branch and Asbury Park, is a place where the average home price in 2007 was $1.2 million. By comparison, in 2007 the average home in New Jersey was $452,919. Three recent Deal home sales came in at $4.8 million, $3.3 million, and $6 million. The Syrian Jews even have their own versions of Craigslist, called Vixlist and Symall, where they buy and sell homes, find Jewish singles, and locate services, such as bar mitzvah lessons.
At least some of the affluence comes from the retail stores and clothing companies owned by the Sephardim, such as the Century 21 department stores, the Conway stores, and Jordache and Bonjour jeans.
It is generally held that the insularity of this group in America can be traced to a rabbinic edict from the mid 1930s that is still in effect today. It forbids members of the community from marrying anyone outside of the Jewish religion, including those who have converted to Judaism. Anyone breaking this rule is excommunicated from the community.
“Since their immigration in the early twentieth century, Syrian Jews have by and large successfully resisted extra-communal marriage, whether with Ashkenazim, gentiles, or converts to Judaism,” writes Ben-Ur in her book.
Still, it may take a long time for the Syrian Jewish community in Deal to overcome the negative publicity that has clung to the town since the corruption scandal broke.
“It’s a black eye for everybody,” says Kean. “People still have a lot of pride in the town—nobody looks at it as a positive thing. But it’s also not fair to have everybody [in the Sephardic community] painted with the same brush.”
Jacqueline Mroz is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment