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The Accidental Lawyer

Barbara Bensoussan

He always wanted to help his brothers, so he became a rabbi and then a military chaplain. Today, Jeff Ifrah advocates in a more complex arena, defending Orthodox Jews accused of federal crimes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Jeff Ifrah never set out to be a lawyer — he regards the chain of events that led him to a legal office overlooking the White House with bemused satisfaction, as if to shake his head and wonder at the strange and marvelous Hand of Hashem. On the other hand, when he took an aptitude test in high school and his results indicated “rabbi or lawyer” as the most appropriate choices, he couldn’t figure out the juxtaposition. “Well, they’re both positions of helping people,” the counselor offered, and that has always been his driving motivation. These days, after stints as a rebbi and army chaplain, Ifrah is still in the helping professions, representing clients (many of them Orthodox Jews) who have been accused of federal crimes. But more than just providing legal counsel, Ifrah is doing his utmost to educate the frum public on how to avoid breaking the law in the first place and thus prevent anguish and chillul Hashem. Born to Moroccan immigrants who settled in Buffalo, New York, Ifrah was an only son amid five sisters. He attended day school there before being sent to mesivta in Toronto. Applying to Yeshiva University via early admission, he skipped out on the last years of high school. “I’m the only lawyer I know who never got a high school diploma,” he says. With all the drive of a first-generation American, Ifrah tore through his studies at YU, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a master’s degree in medieval Jewish history (specializing in Spain, where his family has their roots). But he also enrolled in the semichah program, studying Chullin for two years under Rav Michel Katz as well as learning Sephardic halachos in parallel under Chacham Solomon Gaon; meanwhile, he did a stint as a rebbi in the Talmud Torah of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. During the summers — his free time, as it were — he attended Cardozo law school. It was in law school that he met his wife Barbara, the daughter of a Hungarian Vizhnitz Holocaust survivor and a Canadian mother. “We got married one week after the bar exam,” he says. “We took the bar at the Javits Center and ran straight to Boro Park to pick up the bentshers.”  

 

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