An orthodox rabbi who refused to testify before a federal grand jury, saying his religious beliefs prohibit informing on fellow Jews, was ordered jailed Friday by a District Court judge for contempt of court.
Moshe Zigelman, a 64-year-old Hasidic rabbi, was ordered to report Wednesday to a federal detention center in Brooklyn. Until he chooses to testify, he will remain behind bars up to a maximum of 18 months, according to federal prosecutors
Zigelman has previously pleaded guilty and served a prison sentence for his role in a tax-evasion scheme by his Brooklyn-based orthodox sect, Spinka. After his release, he was subpoenaed to testify before a Los Angeles grand jury continuing its probe into the scheme.
Citing an ancient Jewish principle, Zigelman refused to testify, telling a federal judge forcefully during a contempt hearing through a Yiddish interpreter: "Because the transgression of mesira is so dire, my mind won't change until I die."
In December, in an order that was sealed because grand jury matters are confidential, U.S. District Court Judge Margaret M. Morrow held the rabbi in civil contempt.
Zigelman's attorneys, who have maintained that no amount of earthly sanctions will compel the rabbi to change his steadfast beliefs and that his 1st Amendment right to religious freedom was being violated, appealed unsuccessfully to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The rabbi had asked that he be allowed to enter custody after observing Passover, in April. Prosecutors objected, saying March will mark one year since Zigelman was first called to testify and additional delays will require extensions to the grand jury's term of service.
Morrow ordered him to surrender to the prison March 21.
"The government doesn't want to be in a position of remanding somebody into custody, what the government is trying to seek is to have truthful testimony in court proceedings," Asst. U.S. Atty. Daniel O'Brien said Friday. "All people who are percipient witnesses to facts that are relevant to criminal matters have a duty to testify when called to do so before a grand jury."
An attorney for the rabbi could not be reached for comment.