On Wednesday evening, well over 1,000 men and women filled the Fountain Ballroom on Vassar Avenue in Lakewood for the largest-ever Lakewood community event to guide locals regarding the intricacies of tax law and regulations of various family support programs.
This unprecedented standing-room-only turnout at the symposium, which is the latest step in the extended “Community Conversations Series,” underscored how the Lakewood community’s grassroots and leadership have joined forces to promote maximum compliance with the law and an adherence to the principles of ethics at every step. The success of this event was a result of the coordinated efforts of The Lakewood Vaad, Agudath Israel’s New Jersey office, the Lakewood Resource and Referral Center (LRRC) and the Lakewood Community Services Corporation (LCSC). The Lakewood Police Department and Chaveirim worked together seamlessly on security and logistical coordination.
Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, President of the LCSC and member of The Lakewood Vaad, chaired the symposium. He warmly welcomed attendees and thanked the high level presenters for taking the time and effort to guide and encourage the Lakewood community amidst much confusion. He led the recitation of Tehillim on behalf of a refuah for Chaim ben Rochel Leshkowitz, the noted CPA and tax attorney who was originally scheduled to present at this event but unfortunately suffered a medical episode several days ago. Tehillim was followed by the Tefillah of “Acheinu Kol Bais Yisroel.”
The Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Dovid Schustal shlit”a, delivered opening remarks, expounding upon the beracha that our blossoming Torah community has merited over the decades. Rav Schustal stressed America’s status as a benevolent nation and the importance that his father in law, the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Shneur Kotler zt”l, placed upon the need for full honesty and transparency when it comes to benefitting from public funds. “Dina D’malchusa Dina and ehrlichkeit, along with bitachon in Hashem, brings beracha,” the Rosh Yeshiva exclaimed. “There are many ways how Hashem can provide beracha to a family.”
A visibly-pained Rabbi Weisberg decried the vicious anti-Semitism that the Lakewood community has endured in recent weeks, when much of the mainstream media and social media has been filled with venom and even calls for violence against Jews. Rabbi Weisberg pointed to the large, attentive crowd that has gathered to raise the bar of ethics and legal compliance as a clear testimony to how false those stereotypes are. Rabbi Weisberg concluded by voicing the unequivocal dedication that the Roshei Yeshiva and various community askanim, and entities such as The Lakewood Vaad and LRRC, have for each individual in the community. “This is not the time for fright,” he stressed. “We are here to guide you and assist you in any way we can.”
One of the nation’s leading white collar defense attorneys and former Assistant US Attorney Mark Harris Esq. of Proskauer Rose LLP shared his perspectives on legal compliance. He touched upon various principles, particularly the need to act in good faith and keep clear records of all financial transactions. One key aspect of “good faith” is to consult with a professional throughout the applications and renewal process, and at every other point necessary. He marveled at how fortunate Lakewood is to have an agency like the LRRC, which has a staff of experts who are familiar in all these areas, and is equipped to answer questions in an efficient manner.
In the month of June alone, the LRRC answered the questions of nearly 3,000 residents. On every seat at the symposium was a packet of clear, concise LRRC brochures detailing the guidelines and frequently-asked-questions related to a host of major programs. (These are also available at the LRRC office.) Attendees were urged to call the LRRC hotline at any time, at 732-942-9292.
Zachariah Waxler, Partner at Roth and Company CPA firm, expounded upon the concept of income for both tax and social program purposes. The burden falls upon the taxpayer/beneficiary to prove that a particular deposit or paid expense is not truly income. In the event of an investigation, authorities typically will examine all applicable expenses, including tuition, and will demand written records for everything from work and business logs, to loan repayment agreements. Mr. Waxler reiterated the importance of meticulous record keeping.
Rabbi Avi Schnall, Director of Agudath Israel’s New Jersey office, informed the audience that in the weeks ahead there will be additional resources made available to community members to ask questions related to their personal situations. This will include the opportunity for community members to hold brief consultations with noted professionals, who have committed to help the community on a pro bono basis. It was announced that appointment requests for professional consultations can be made via text message, at 732-806-5516; please specify the area of expertise you are looking for.
Rabbi Schnall then moderated the key highlight of the symposium, a panel of professionals that answered various frequently asked questions. The panel consisted of Mr. Harris; Mr. Shea (Abe) Roth CPA, Founder of Roth and Company; Mr. Waxler CPA; and Mr. Menachem (Mark) Berkowitz, LNHA, COO of CHEMED Health Center. The panel discussed income criteria and reporting requirements for various programs, as well as topics such as tuition, barter, deductions, rental income, seasonal businesses, new businesses and profit and loss reports. The most important advice offered was that each personal situation, and each program’s regulations, are different. A knowledgeable professional must be consulted.
Throughout the hall, attendees listened intently and took notes, and assessed how the details discussed relate to their personal family situations. Every individual learned lots of pertinent information and, perhaps more importantly, clarified the questions they need to ask. By the time the event was over, organizers, and the LRRC in particular, already fielded hundreds of requests for follow up questions and professional consultations. Additional details about these resources will be publicized.
The symposium and the follow-up it encouraged are an incredible Kiddush Hashem. “This is a testament to what kind of community we are – honest and sincere,” Rabbi Schnall observes. “We will continue working together to provide valuable information and resources through the continuing ‘Community Conversations Series.’”