Navigate to Community section

Fugitive Prayer

First I learned that a wanted criminal from New York had fled to my Canadian shul; then I remembered that, as cantor, he’d begged God to forgive me

Michael Wex
November 10, 2011
Congregation Shaarei Tzedec, Toronto(Sarah Lazarovic)
Congregation Shaarei Tzedec, Toronto(Sarah Lazarovic)

Halfway through an article about immigration fraud in the erev Sukkot edition of the Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading daily, I realized that its subject, Earl Seth David, aka Rabbi Avraham David, had been sitting right in front of me in shul for the last five or six years.

Amused as I was to find out that Avrumie, as he was known in shul (with the accent on the second syllable), had been calling himself a rabbi—imagine Colonel Sanders claiming to have commanded the 82nd Airborne—I was amazed to discover that U.S. government investigators allege him to be the ringleader of “one of the largest immigration fraud schemes to have ever been committed in our country.”

According to charges filed by Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, David headed up a scheme that involved 26 others, among them employees at his law offices, to help illegal aliens obtain green cards for a fee. A statement from Bharara’s office says David and his cronies “created fake documents to support the fraudulent immigration applications; numerous phony ‘sponsors’—individuals who, in exchange for payments from David and his employees, agreed to falsely represent that they were sponsoring aliens for employment; corrupt accountants who created fake tax returns for fictitious sponsor companies; and a corrupt Department of Labor employee who assisted the scheme.”

They are allegedly responsible for at least 25,000 fraudulent applications between 1996 and 2009, charging clients up to $30,000 a pop. With that kind of money, Avrumie could have sponsored many a kiddush.

This shanda cake has a northern icing. David, who is Canadian by birth, was arrested in Toronto, and the judge who presided over his unsuccessful request for bail pending his extradition hearing wrote, “I have no confidence in the honesty of Mr. David in light of his conduct in misleading the court.” Meantime, the accused, who was arrested on Oct. 12, awaits extradition to the United States.

Amusement and amazement are one thing; panic didn’t set in until I recalled that, as one of the synagogue’s two regular cantors, Earl or Rabbi or Avrumie had begged God to forgive me and a shul’s worth of other Jews on more than one Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His arrest is the biggest scandal to hit this little community since 2002, when an elderly congregant who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer bludgeoned his wife to death and then hanged himself.

Bharara’s statement goes on to say that David “was suspended from the practice of law in New York State” and, in 2006, “fled to Canada … after learning that his firm was under federal criminal investigation.” And where in Canada did he flee? To the shul that his uncle was running on Markham St. in Toronto, one of three old-style shuls still functioning in downtown Toronto. Each is what Daniel Pinkwater once called “your basic, Orthodox, bare-knuckles shul.” Yom Kippur of 1982, the first that I spent at Markham St., was marked by a shouting match between two old men who couldn’t agree about whether to open a window. “Who cares what you want?” one of them yelled. “You’re nothing here.”

“I’m nothing?” They were already nose-to-nose. “You’re the one who’s nothing.”

Nobody said, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.” Instead, the cantor interrupted himself mid-daven, turned around, and screamed, “You’re both nothing, so shut the hell up. And open the window already.”

It beats the hell out of another Israel Bonds appeal.

I once tried to phone a neighboring shul. There was no listing in the phone book; directory assistance couldn’t help. I’d asked about it when I got to shul. “You didn’t know? They took out the phone because the shammes”—the guy who ran this rabbi-less congregation—“was making book on it.”

Avrumie wasn’t with us this past Yom Kippur. He and his uncle stormed out of the shul six or seven months ago, after an argument with the custodian, and never came back—and his absence was definitely noticed. Avrumie had been leading prayers ever since health problems made it impossible for his Uncle Sholem, a superb baal-tefillah, to go on doing so. Saturday after Saturday, holiday after holiday, even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the aspirations and regrets of an entire congregation were borne up to heaven on the wings of his maddeningly enthusiastic and utterly tone-deaf yawp.

In a shul that was once home to a mentally handicapped man in his sixties who would rinse his hands in the sink in the foyer and then dry them on the prayer shawls or coattails of daveners in the sanctuary, Avrumie didn’t really stand out. He seemed harmless enough, part Barney Rubble, part Willie Gingrich, the lawyer played by Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie. So what if he thought he could sing? At least his Hebrew was OK. His fondness for gematria, a venerable technique of biblical interpretation based on the numerical values of Hebrew letters, was considered a harmless, if slightly tedious, tic. In a milieu that often looks like a Yiddish-theater version of Of Mice and Men, strained or implausible interpretations of scriptural texts can’t really compete with the quotidian slapstick.

Sure, one of my teachers once defined gematria as “the last refuge of a guy who hasn’t looked at the sedreh”—someone forced to speak about a Torah portion that he hasn’t bothered to look over. Once you get the basic idea, you can do it in your sleep and still produce an illusion of insight—you can make anything mean whatever you want it to mean.

Avrumie is so fond of gematria that he even wrote a book about it called Code of the Heart. His interpretations are a tad discursive and difficult to excerpt, but his introduction provides a taste of his style and method: “Numbers are very important and relevant since we utilize them on a daily basis and it is easy to relate to them.” A tweet from Sept. 18, before he was arrested in Toronto, gives us a concrete illustration of his thesis about numbers. (I’ve substituted a transliteration for the final phrase, which he gives in Hebrew; spacing, punctuation and capitalization are Avrumie’s):

The last word in Torah,Israel has a gematria of 541.the first word in Torah, bereishis, has a gematria of 913.the difference is Dovid moshiach.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Bharara, the U.S. attorney, claims that some of Avrumie’s profits from the immigration scheme were funneled into Canada “through a bank account in the name of” his book, and I was struck by the fact that a number of Avrumie’s co-accused are thanked in the acknowledgements of Code of the Heart. Nu, you spend part of your time forging official documents, then use some of the proceeds to help demonstrate the inerrant authenticity of another document: Iz dos yidishkayt? You call this Judaism? Is evil being used in the service of good, or are Avrumie’s gematrias the fruit of a poisonous tree?

And what about Avrumie as a representative of the congregation? I know from what they told me in the schools where I learned gematria that God, if he’s listening at all, won’t hold any of Avrumie’s possible crimes against the hapless congregants on Markham St. We’ve got enough on our own consciences without having to worry about his.

Michael Wex’s most recent book, a novel, is The Frumkiss Family Business.

Michael Wex’s most recent book, a novel, is The Frumkiss Family Business.