I’ve been reading a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson lately. I recommend him when times get tough.
“People wish to be settled,” Emerson wrote. “It is only as far as they are unsettled that there is any hope for them.”
Well, there is hope for us. A lot of hope — it’s been a very unsettling week.
Any Monday that begins with news that the Los Angeles Times’ parent company is filing for bankruptcy protection, The New York Times is putting its headquarters in hock, General Motors is gong to be run by a government nanny, NBC is going to start cutting its programming hours, unemployment is at record levels and laid-off workers are beginning to protest the fact that Bank of America gets $25 billion and they don’t even get bus fare home — this isn’t the dawn of a new week, but of a new era.
A month ago my Shabbat dinner companion was an investment analyst who pulled all his clients out of the markets in October — October of 2007. He said his company ran sophisticated mathematical models that showed the financial markets were — hmm, what’s the polite word here? — doomed.
“This isn’t the end of the beginning,” he told me. “This is the beginning of the beginning.”
The pain will continue to spread around the world.
“Dubai is going to look like a ghost town,” he said. “It’s overbuilt, there are no buyers and the price of oil is going to go through the floor.”
The image of oil sheiks lighting campfires to keep warm beside their indoor ski slopes comforted me for only an instant. The truth is, their pain and our pain are interconnected, as it is with the fate of those striking Chicago factory workers, the college grads unable to find decent jobs and, of course, our own Jewish community.
“A lot of money has been sucked out of the system,” a lawyer who is active in several Jewish institutions told me Monday. “We’ll make it through this year, but ’09 will be very tough.”
What’s happening in the L.A. Jewish community is, to paraphrase Sam Zell, our ersatz Citizen Kane, a perfect storm.
Endowments invested in the markets are down. As we’ve reported here, some organizations, out raising thousands, saw millions sucked from their endowments overnight.
Donations are trending down among big donors and small. Most institutions receive 80 percent of their donations from 20 percent of their supporters. But it’s the wealthiest among that 20 percent who give the most, and that crust has gotten thinner. Real estate, financial services, and media and entertainment are vulnerable industries now, and Jews are over-represented in all of them.
The Los Angeles Business Journal reported this week that some 300 to 400 Iranian Jewish families face severe financial setbacks or even bankruptcy after real estate ventures run by Ezri Namvar, a leader in the Persian Jewish community, tanked, leaving investors owed an estimated $400 million.
Meanwhile, needs are up. One report out of San Francisco — where the worst of the calamity hasn’t even hit yet — has demand for Jewish Vocational Services up 100 percent. Personnel cutbacks, inevitable as they are, will only strain already stressed service providers more.
Monday night, Larry King had preacher Joel Osteen on CNN to offer spiritual advice to help us through these times. This, too, shall pass, he said. Be the change you want to see in the world.
No offense, but when people are wondering how to keep their homes, that strikes me as useless pap.
(Again Emerson: “I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic…. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word?”)
But then, what do we do? As I walked to my car after Monday’s lunch, the lawyer — who had just spent an hour describing the calamitous state of the community — said, “Hey, don’t worry so much.”
When the money is sucked from a community, what’s left is community. Sure, there is less for now to sustain services it provides, but the bonds of acquaintance, friendship and family abide. When your real estate business skids, when Zell’s L.A. Times defers your buyout payments indefinitely, when a trusted friend loses your millions, there are still friends to go to for support, for commiseration. Stripped of its financial successes, the community Jews have built here is revealed for what it is: bonds among people, not among donors.
“But this is an old custom on the East Side,” wrote Michael Gold in “Jews Without Money,” about growing up impoverished in the Lower Manhattan, “whenever a family is to be evicted, the neighboring mothers put on their shawls and beg from door to door.”
Of course, we are a long way from those dire straits, but the idea that help comes from our neighbors rings true. Relationships with others, with our teachers, with fellow Jews — those relationships are like meat and money in times like these.
We learn geology the morning after the earthquake, Emerson wrote. I suppose we’ll learn the richness of community now that much of its wealth is gone.