LAKEWOOD — They were warned.

Two years ago, before state and federal authorities arrested 14 people this week on charges of scamming welfare benefits, prosecutors held a public meeting to warn township residents about avoiding this type of crime.

Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of the Lakewood Vaad, a local orthodox Jewish council serving as a bridge to other government agencies, said close to a thousand people attended a meeting in 2015 with representatives of the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office.

"They wanted to alert the community that they've come across certain issues that are of concern for us and just want everyone to be extremely careful when you're dealing with these programs," Weisberg said. "If information is misrepresented or fraudulent or something like that, there are penalties to it."

Weisberg said in the years since that meeting, leaders in the community have continued to reinforce the message.

"We knew for a while that there were issues out there, and as far as the community leadership has gone, we've always encouraged people that [...] whatever programs they're getting involved with, they should certainly be honest and forthright and transparent and all of that."

Authorities have not explained why they had focused on Lakewood, a municipality known for its large concentration of orthodox Jewish residents.

But years later, an investigation involving a multitude of state and federal agencies resulted in the high-profile arrests Monday of four couples, including a rabbi, and the arrests on Wednesday of three couples on charges that they collected Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies and other benefits. Two of the couples who collected these benefits had earned millions of dollars in annual income, the U.S. Attorney's Office said Monday.

Law enforcement officials say even more people may face charges.

While more than a dozen people have been arrested on various charges, Weisberg said in a population of 50,000, that is a small number of people who allegedly have not followed the laws in a "generally law-abiding community."

The rabbi said that while the legal issues will be handled in a court of law, the court of public opinion is another matter that community leaders have to address.

"Don't talk about 'they' or 'them' or 'those people.' That is offensive. That is hate speech and that's what really concerns us really, that the genie is out of the bottle and it's extremely difficult to control."

In a time of social media, Weisberg said the news of the past week "is a catalyst for people that are basically haters, anti-Semitic, have other chips on their shoulders. They come out of the woodwork in all kinds of forms and just blast the whole Jewish community."

While not specifically discussing the recent arrests, Weisberg said, "If there are individuals that fell short then we need to deal with that, but painting the community as being immoral is unforgivable."

"I'm not justifying or apologizing for any wrongdoing," he added. If there are people that did take advantage of the system, we certainly feel it was shameful and they shouldn't have done it."

Weisberg said government bureaucracy also plays a role in issues the community is facing when it comes to government benefits.

"I only have the highest praise for the Ocean County Board of Social Services and other agencies involved," he said. "Given the resources that they have and the responsibilities that they have, they don't have the staff or the training to go into very intricate questions from thousands of people with all kinds of complicated financial situations."

Weisberg said the Vaad gets "bombarded" with questions they are not able to answer, and finding the right answers can be a challenge even from professionals in the field.

As one of the fastest growing cities in the state, Weisberg said the community is "appreciative" of the support and the programs provided by the local and federal government.

"We don't look at them as the enemy, we look at them as our partners and our friends," he said. "That being said, there's still the issue of complying with the rules and regulations. If we take it as a given that they're overly complicated, we sort of have to put our heads together in a partnership between government and community agencies and community leadership. How do we make sure the right information gets out there to make sure that people do it the first time the right way it's all supposed to be done?"

One of Weisberg's biggest concerns is that people who need the programs will be scared off from applying for them out of fear they could also face legal consequences even when they go through the appropriate application process.

"If they don't apply for these programs and they don't do the things they need to do in terms of prevention, or in terms of getting quick medical help when the situation develops because they don't have the money to pay for it and they're scared to go into a certain program, that would be a disaster."

With law enforcement agencies continuing their investigations, and more arrests possible, Weisberg said he was hopeful people will be more careful to avoid legal troubles going forward.

"I think it's going to be a big help in terms of getting the message out that people need to be careful," he said. "The point is that they need to do it and really double check and triple check that everything they're doing is accurate, and it's compliant to whatever the rules and regulations are."

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