LAKEWOOD — Struggling families are entitled to apply for public assistance benefits. But everyone has to follow the law.

Those are the lessons that a religious leader says the community has learned five months after 26 residents of the township's Orthodox Jewish community were arrested on state and federal charges of defrauding welfare programs.

Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, a member of the Lakewood Vaad — a local Orthodox Jewish council serving as a bridge to other government agencies — said since the arrests, residents now have a greater awareness about the pitfalls welfare programs. There's also been a greater effort to make sure that people who are applying for the programs are filing the proper paperwork and making sure that they qualify.

Weisberg said that seeing their friends and neighbors arrested has scared people from applying to programs that they are entitled to. He said in a community where there are people of "extremely limited means," to not apply for programs they need for fear of legal issues "would be a tragedy."

Lakewood has one of the state's highest concentrations of people on public assistance.  Out of the 43,571 children in Lakewood, 21,600 of them receive government benefits, according to a U.S. Census estimate from 2015.

Following the high-profile arrests, the state announced an amnesty program to encourage people who may have wrongly applied for benefits to come forward and avoid criminal convictions. State officials held  a meeting at Toms River High School North to educate the community about the program, but got a much smaller turnout than they had hoped for.

A spokesperson for the state Comptroller's Office said information on the amnesty program will not be available until after the deadline to apply passes on Dec. 12.

Weisberg said he has heard of a "modest response" to the amnesty program. He attributed the smaller turnout of about three dozen people to the way it was organized and presented.

"The timing, the topic, the location, all of that was off and I don't look at that as any indication that people weren't interested," he said. "People, even if they have legitimate questions, are not interested in showing up in a school auditorium with cameras outside. It was just a bad setting for that particular program."

Nevertheless, Weisberg said he has seen a "heightened awareness and heightened interest and people really want to do the right thing."

Weisberg also said the arrests and the legal process has not torn the community apart.

"From a legal viewpoint, we look at everybody as being totally innocent until proven otherwise," he said. "From a religious viewpoint, people that have made mistakes, they got themselves into trouble. Our attitude is you correct your mistakes and move on and prove yourself and move on."

Weisberg said he would like to see the day come when the legal process has run its course and people are able to get the help they need.

"People that are entitled to it should certainly participate in these programs. People that have questions about whether they are entitled, should, especially now, be very careful that they're very forthright and they're very open and honest in their applications," he said. "Hopefully moving forward this will be behind us."

According to the Asbury Park Press, at least 10 people have also applied for pretrial intervention, according to the Press. Prosecutors have sent several cases before a grand jury for possible indictments.

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