Acting on a tip from rabbinic leaders, police and narcotics investigators have arrested a 50-year-old Brooklyn man they allege is known as the "pot rabbi" among Orthodox youth.
Yitzchak Fried of Midwood, who has been the leader of a controversial congregation in Manhattan’s East Village, was arrested outside the Munkaczer synagogue on 13th Avenue in Borough Park on Tuesday afternoon. He was charged with criminal sale of marijuana, a third-degree felony, and faces 16 months to four years in jail.
"Mr. Fried betrayed his community and endangered the well being of these young men and women," said District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, referring to the yeshiva students. "He will be treated like any other criminal and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Fried, who has made newspaper headlines by advocating marijuana use for medicinal purposes, has been the leader of Congregation B’nei Moshe Yosef Zawichost Vízosmer, known as the Eighth Street Synagogue, which has been engaged in a property dispute among former members of the congregation who want to sell the building. It is unclear whether he is an ordained rabbi. He told The Jewish Week in a 1997 interview that he supports his family as an actor in movies and commercials.
But Avery Mehlman, the chief narcotics prosecutor in Brooklyn, alleged that Fried was "a major supplier of marijuana to young men and women in the community and was dubbed by them the ‘pot rabbi.’ His name has come up through speaking with quite a few individuals."
A woman who answered the phone at Fried’s home declined to comment.
Mehlman said an undercover operative had purchased a total of eight ounces of marijuana from Fried on five occasions for $100 per ounce. An ounce of marijuana is enough to roll more than 100 joints, or cigarettes, said Mehlman. The purchases were arranged through phone calls in which Fried insisted on speaking to the agents in Hebrew, said the prosecutor.
The information that led to his arrest came from "rabbinic leaders in the community who are involved with at-risk youth," said Mehlman.
A Flatbush source who was acquainted with Fried, speaking on condition of anonymity, described him as a "lost soul who needs rachmones [mercy.] He keeps surfacing in different incarnations. He can’t earn a living so he resorts to these things."
Orthodox leaders in Midwood and Borough Park have been grappling with what they term an alarming increase in drug use among yeshiva students and dropouts. Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park will host a major symposium on Orthodox drug abuse on Feb. 27.
Six people have died of drug overdoses in those areas in the past six months, according to Rabbi Joel Dinnerstein, director of Ohr Ki Tov, a treatment center for substance abuse.
Of the fact that rabbinic leaders apparently took the highly unusual step of reporting an Orthodox Jew to secular authorities, Rabbi Dinnerstein said, "Sometimes rabbis have to find unique ways to save lives. Anyone who pushes drugs in this city is working against our goals."
Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind also hailed the arrest. "When it comes to someone selling drugs, every person I have come in contact with says throw him in prison and throw away the key. I don’t think anyone will debate with that," said Hikind.
Marijuana use nationwide has been on the rise. A 1998 survey by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department found a 275 percent increase from 1992 to 1997, and that 9.4 percent of teens surveyed said they smoked pot at least once a month, up from 7.1 percent in 1996.