FORTIS GROUP – LOUIS KESTENBAUM

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The biggest MAFIA crook in the history of orthodox

IN YIDDISH the word is mosser, informer: a word used to describe the ancient evils of folk-memory, the betrayal of communities to the pogrom-happy authorities of tsarist Russia or medieval Europe. In the secretive world of north London’s ultra-orthodox Jews, shaken to its foundations last week by separate scandals of sexual abuse and fraud, messira, the act of informing, remains the worst of all crimes.

‘People believe a person labelled as a mosser has forfeited the right to life; he can be killed,’ said Martin Braun, a member of one of the Hasidic orthodox sects who lives in their heartland, Stamford Hill.

‘To understand what is going on you have to realise we are not working to logic, but to certain special codes. The comparison with the omerta, the Mafia code of silence, is not inappropriate. ‘Something has gone crooked. We have lost our soul, we have lost our sense of reason. A lethal element has crept in: an arrogance and a total disregard for facts.’

The second is only just beginning. In ultra-orthodoxy’s version of the BCCI collapse, David Rubin, the son of the Rebbe of Sassow, the living saint who is rabbi and leader to the Sassower Hasidic sect, has disappeared owing up to pounds 150 million invested by fellow Hasidim, attracted to what seems to have been little better than a pyramid-selling confidence trick.

The deep-seated loathing for messira has characterised the ultra-orthodox response in both cases. Not one of the hundreds of families who have lost fortunes with the flight of Mr Rubin has gone to the police, or agreed to co-operate with an inquiry initiated by the Bank of England. Only one person, Louis Kestenbaum, has even issued a civil writ, and he is from New York, an outsider although also an Hasidic.

If no one has complained about Mr Rubin to the authorities, and some of his investors are so rich as to barely notice their losses, others have been ruined. Sources in the Hasidic community speak of men who remortgaged their family homes, attracted by promises of rates of return on investment in Mr Rubin’s company, David Rubin Associates, which seem to have swelled and fluctuated with his mood: five, 10 or 15 per cent per month.

There was pressure to invest more than any ordinary family could afford: Mr Rubin refused investments of less than pounds 250,000, helping smaller fish to form syndicates in which all sank together.

The Observer understands that one victim of the collapse tried to kill himself by drowning last week. He was found face down, almost dead, in the Golders Green mikvah, a ritual bath used by ultra-orthodox women to purify themselves after a period, and by worshippers before the Sabbath.

Those who knew Mr Rubin say his business became big only in the latter days of the 1980s boom. Previously, he had cashed in on the holy status of his father in a more direct fashion: charging pounds 500 to bring one of the more popular Hasidic rabbis to a family’s home.

At first he seems to have honoured his promises of glittering returns, partly through the bogus import-export game known as parallel trading. Using front companies in Zaire and Nigeria, he obtained huge discounts on commodities and finished goods for export to Africa which were then resold sometimes date-expired and repackaged in Britain.

His first investors were members of the Sassower sect led by his father, the least-isolated of the ultra-orthodox groups. However, as business burgeoned, Mr Rubin began to be pressed by other sects, including the Satmars of Stamford Hill, many of them vastly wealthy. Soon, as in classical pyramid selling, new business funds were being used to finance the ‘interest’ payable to older depositors.

Accounts differ as to the immediate cause of Mr Rubin’s disappearing act. According to papers filed in Mr Kestenbaum’s legal action, he confronted Rubin nine days ago in Amsterdam and demanded the return of a six-figure loan made in March with the promised speedy return of pounds 75,000. Other sources speak of links between foreign investors in Mr Rubin’s company and organised crime, and of death threats; there is also a report of New York investors demanding pounds 13m.

Neither the scale of the fraud, nor the exact course of events is likely to be established precisely: no one wants to be the mosser against even a man who has brought penury to hundreds. ‘The shtiebel (small synagogue) run by Rubin’s father has a reputation for charity,’ one source said yesterday. ‘Now the community is going to need it, but it’s also a way of keeping things self-contained.’

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