Reviewed by Toby Bulman Katz
Scott Rothstein was a very successful Florida attorney. His law firm, RRA, employed seventy lawyers. He made generous donations to political candidates—on both sides of the aisle. He bought multi-million-dollar mansions, expensive cars, planes and boats. He was a philanthropist too, giving millions to Jewish charities and other worthy causes.
In actuality, Rothstein was very generous—with other people’s money. He was a con man, an operator, a thief on a gigantic scale. His “business” was a giant Ponzi scheme. When it all came crashing down, his name was all over the news for weeks. Another name mentioned in the news was the whistle-blower—Alan Sakowitz.
Sakowitz was the one who caught on to what Rothstein was doing and called the FBI on him, so he was a natural candidate to write a book about the case. He could have written a juicy, sensational book—Rothstein was a man of large and immoral appetites—and it would have been a best-seller.
However, Sakowitz did not want to write that kind of a book. The fact that Rothstein was so publicly Jewish created a huge chillul Hashem (he was not observant, but gave to many Jewish causes). Sakowitz wanted to counter that with a kiddush Hashem. He looked around and noticed the many good, generous, kindly, humble men and women of his Orthodox community in North Miami Beach. He wanted people to know that Rothstein was not a typical Jew, and that “typical” Jews live by the Torah principles of honesty in business, idealism, charity and kindness.
In actuality, Rothstein was very generous—with other people’s money. He was a con man, an operator, a thief on a gigantic scale.
The idea that Sakowitz came up with was truly inspired. He wrote a book in which each chapter begins by telling part of the Rothstein story, and ends with a story about the Orthodox residents of his own neighborhood. He aptly titled his book Miles Away . . . Worlds Apart. Scott Rothstein lived in a fabulously wealthy area just a few miles away—and yes, worlds apart—from Alan’s modest Orthodox neighborhood, which is also my neighborhood. (Full disclosure: I am proud to have Alan and his wife Leah as my friends.)
For example, Sakowitz writes about the expensive cars Rothstein accumulated, including a shiny red Lamborghini. He contrasts that car with another red car—a beat-up old van. A man of modest means in North Miami Beach kept a van he didn’t use, paying for registration and insurance, solely for the purpose of lending it to visitors who come to Miami for medical treatment.
The way Sakowitz got wise to Rothstein’s nefarious activities is itself a fascinating story. He was invited to invest in one of Rothstein’s fantastically profitable legal ventures. In reality, only the early investors made money, as in any Ponzi scheme. Rothstein’s true business was creating phony documents and selling shares in non-existent legal settlements.
Sakowitz smelled a rat. Some readers might remember a detective show called Columbo in which a murder was always committed at the beginning of the show; the killer was usually a wealthy and important person. Lieutenant Columbo, a seemingly plain, rumpled, not-very-intelligent man, would ask deceptively naïve questions. After a casual conversation, Columbo would turn to leave. At the last minute he would turn back and say, “Oh, just one more thing . . .” And he would invariably reel in his prey with small bits of overlooked evidence and little details that he had picked up on.
Reading Sakowitz’s account of how he came to realize that Rothstein was a con artist—and how he reeled him in with simple and naïve questions about his legal documents—I kept laughing and thinking of Columbo. “Way to go, Alan!” I would cheer as he described what he had done. These were the same documents that had fooled so many wealthy and successful businessmen, but just when Rothstein thought he had another dupe, Sakowitz would notice something odd. (“Oh, Scottie, just one more thing . . . ”)
When Sakowitz realized that Rothstein had stolen millions and was still seeking new victims, he was in a quandary. He consulted a major posek to ask if he could turn in a fellow Jew. The answer was an unequivocal “yes”—he had a halachic obligation to turn Rothstein in and save others from being victimized.
His next question was, whom should he tell? Rothstein had the police and government officials in his back pocket. An employee of Rothstein’s who perhaps “knew too much” had been murdered; the crime was never solved. Sakowitz agonized over this question and finally called the FBI. However, nothing further happened for several more weeks—until the headlines one day screamed that the FBI was swarming all over Rothstein’s law firm. During those weeks, Sakowitz was in constant fear for his own life. He wondered whether he should go into hiding with his wife and kids. Not until Rothstein was finally arrested did Sakowitz breathe easy. (Rothstein is now serving a fifty-year prison term.)
Alan Sakowitz is a proud Orthodox Jew who is an attorney himself. It bothers him that people consider the members of his profession to be unethical, and he wants to change that. It bothers him even more when people have a negative impression of his fellow Jews, and that was what motivated him to collect stories of Jewish humanity, decency and goodness. While Sakowitz is not a professional writer, he speaks from the heart, in plain prose that can bring one to tears. The life of Alan Sakowitz, a good family man who seldom misses minyan and who puts aside time every day for Torah learning, could not serve as a greater contrast to Rothstein’s depraved life.
In most cases, Sakowitz was able to persuade the people he wrote about to let him use their real names. He wanted readers to know that these stories were not fabricated or embellished. I know many of the people he mentions, but prior to reading this book I had never given a thought to what a community of modest heroes we have.
We tend too often to focus on the petty quarrels and the many human failings of our neighbors and friends. Sakowitz’s charming and inspiring book reminds us how much there is to admire in our communities as well.
Toby Bulman Katz is an educator and a writer. She lives with her husband and children in North Miami Beach.
To hear an interview with author Alan Sakowitz, visit http://www.ou.org/life/inspiration/uncovering-one-of-greatest-frauds-of-all-time-selflessness-next-door-alan-sakowitz-stephen-savitsky/