Will recession fuel a return to public schools?


Throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District, the recession is prompting middle-class parents to take a look at public middle and high schools they have long disdained. Private schools are just too expensive for many people.

A large number of Jews, whose heritage and culture put a high value on education, are in this economically stressed category. That is why the present and future of the Los Angeles schools is a Jewish issue, one that deserves a place high up on the community’s agenda.

“The number of people who can’t afford private school is increasing,” said Marlene Canter, the Los Angeles school board member who has for two terms represented the Westside and its many Jewish residents and who is about to step down. I met with Canter and her field representative, Paola Santana, for breakfast last week in Westwood to talk about her efforts to persuade Westside residents to send their children to public schools. She represents the Fourth District, which extends from the Palisades and Brentwood to Marina del Rey and includes Mar Vista, Palms, Westwood, Westchester and Venice. It also reaches as far east as Hollywood.

We discussed the current recession’s impact on Jewish families who began abandoning the LAUSD generations ago, when court-ordered desegregation touched off a white exodus from the school system. While this was happening, Los Angeles’ population was changing, and many schools became predominantly Latino. The change is reflected in high schools in Canter’s district.

University High School’s student body is almost 60 percent Latino, 18.6 percent black, 8.9 per cent Asian and 10.3 percent white. At Venice High, Latinos comprise almost 73 percent, whites 11 percent, blacks almost 11 percent and Asians almost 4 percent. Hollywood High School’s students are 77.8 percent Latino, 9.4 percent white, 4.7 percent black and 3.8 percent Asian.

Canter said she starts with the premise that “every child should have an opportunity to get a great public education in a public school.”

You can’t very well make the argument that the schools throughout the Los Angeles district are great schools. The district is huge and covers the Southland’s poorest and toughest neighborhoods. LAUSD’s leadership is unstable and uncertain, smothering initiative with a huge blanket of bureaucracy. The teachers’ union opposes attempts to change work rules that shelter the incompetent. So does the principals’ union. (Yes, unbelievably, they have a union, too).

But there are many talented teachers and principals in the Los Angeles schools. I saw some bad principals, but good ones, too, when I wrote about the schools for the Los Angeles Times more than a decade ago, and I was reminded of the high-quality personnel in September when I met with Los Angeles High School teachers for a column for Truthdig, the web magazine. I was impressed.

In this climate, Canter is stepping up her efforts to urge parents to consider sending their children to middle and high schools in their neighborhoods. There are, she acknowledged, other choices within LAUSD — charter schools and magnets. But charters are often located far from home, and for admission to magnets, parents must navigate through a complicated lottery system based on points. Local schools are making an attempt to improve, and they could be an attractive choice.

What’s more, many public schools aren’t the same monolithic campuses that they once were. There’s been a movement to create small learning centers, offering special programs known as Schools for Advanced Studies, for example, for honors students, or specialized “academies” for kids particularly interested in math, science or performing arts, among others. These schools-within-schools are very popular, creating not only specialized learning centers for the students, but also a sense of community. And they take only a simple application for admission. You can find them in many LAUSD middle and high schools.

Earlier this year, Canter arranged for Ray Cortines, the recently named LAUSD school superintendent who at the time was deputy superintendent, to meet with a group of parents at a Westside Coffee Bean to tout the virtues of University High. Kathy Gonnella, principal of Emerson Middle School, has also hosted a wine and cheese evening for parents. My daughter, mother of two children, went to the latter and came back impressed. Earlier this year, I attended an evening meeting at Webster Middle School, where several principals pitched their Westside middle and high schools.

“What we are doing is breaking down perceptions,” Canter said, attitudes that have been 30 years in the making, dating back to the desegregation controversy.

She said the principals and teachers have to play a big role in bringing about the change. “Principals in private schools spend a lot of time marketing themselves,” she said. But in the past, she said, “our principals have never tried.” The schools, she said, “must open the doors to the parents.”

In addition, she said, the school board must make marketing LAUSD a high priority.

Of course the need to bring back middle-class parents extends far beyond the Jewish community. It is important throughout the district. It is unfair, unjust and simply dead wrong for a parent to be forced to mortgage the family future to send a kid to a private school that may or may not provide the education the child needs. Harvard Westlake is a good school, but graduation from there is not an automatic ticket to the Ivy League.

Los Angeles’ public high schools should be a path to Harvard, UCLA, Berkeley, USC, Cal State Northridge or any other college. As a matter of fact, they already often are. The district is making an effort to improve and has succeeded in many schools.

With more parents considering such an alternative, it is up to the L.A. school district to convince them that it is a good choice.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Panel discusses strategies for dealing with recession


Talking investment strategy might not top everyone’s agenda for a bright Sunday morning, but about 75 local residents gathered at Young Israel of Century City on Dec. 21 to do just that.

The Pico Boulevard synagogue opened its doors to the community for a panel discussion on the economy, its effects on real estate and stocks and what people can do to get by amid the ever-darkening financial forecast.

“We have to help those in crisis, and right now, we’re all in crisis,” said the Orthodox congregation’s Rabbi Elazar Muskin. “A synagogue is not just a place of prayer and learning — it has to be a family that cares for the needs of its members and the community at large.”

As the Jewish community reels from monetary losses, those needs include advice on everything from investing in index funds to choosing an insurance company. All four panelists agreed on at least one thing: Living modestly and without excess is coming back into fashion.

“The days of going to the bank and getting lines of equity are over,” said Jacob Hausman, owner and broker of Los Angeles-based Real Estate Finance Connection. “We have to live within our means again. This is the traditional way, which is sensible, has good traction and is grounded. It’s the way of the future.”

Selwyn Gerber, CPA, economist and investment adviser, also touted a return to traditional financial values. After years of spending freely, he said, U.S. consumers are literally spent.

“We’re at the beginning of the end of an era,” said Gerber, who made a point of referring to the economic downturn as a depression instead of a recession. “This is the beginning of the end of America’s global power…. The days of California being this great place with a booming economy are gone.”

Gerber’s recommendations for living in this “radically new environment” included diversifying investments, avoiding flavor-of-the-month investing (hedge funds, he said, are “a Jackie Mason joke waiting to be told”) and choosing index-based equities and secure bonds.

“You shouldn’t have to think too much about your investments — it should be like watching paint dry,” he said. “The key is to resist the impulse to react” to the stock market’s bumpy path.

But stocks are no safe haven for life insurance, said Richard Horowitz, president of Management Brokers Insurance Agency. He cautioned against buying insurance invested in the stock market and recommended checking the safety of insurance companies through a rating agency before purchasing a policy.

“You want to make sure you don’t outlive your insurance company,” Horowitz said, only half in jest.

On the real estate front, Hausman pointed to traditionally Jewish areas as bright spots in Los Angeles’ otherwise bleak landscape. Neighborhoods like the Pico-Robertson area, he said, won’t suffer as much as other locales because the enclave — with its shuls, schools and kosher restaurants — will always have value for the community.

“There is strong infrastructure in the Jewish community,” Hausman said, adding that falling rents in these neighborhoods offer a window for younger Jewish families to move in. “This is an opportunity for families to move back into the neighborhood, if at one time that wasn’t a choice. That is a silver lining.”

Alan Gindi, president of ABRA Management Inc. and board president of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) Girls High School, said people will need to make sacrifices wherever they can.

“We obviously have no idea how long or how severe our current economic downturn will be,” he said. “In difficult times, we’re much better off securing a small brick house as opposed to building a large house made out of cardboard.”

Is Bernie Madoff Jewish?  Very. Oy.



Bernard Madoff at a 2007 roundtable discussion with Justin Fox, Ailsa Roell, Robert A. Schwartz, Muriel Seibert, and Josh Stampfli.



“It’s all just one big lie.”

With those words Bernard Madoff confessed to senior executives of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities that the $17 billion hedge fund company  he  founded was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.
 
According to Timeonline.com, Madoff is at the center of “the largest investor swindle ever blamed on a single individual.”
 
Madoff was arrested Thursday by Federal agents and charged with securities fraud.  In its complaint the Securities and Exchange Commission said Madoff was at the head of an “ongoing $50 billion swindle.”  He could face 25 years in prison.

The news that broke today on the front pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal reverberated in Jewish communities across the world.

“A lot of Jewish charities had investments with him,” one prominent investor — who said he had no connection to Madoff — told The Jewish Journal. “So did a lot of Jews.”

The collapse of the Madoff business leaves a mess that is yet to be sorted out and whose victims are just coming to the fore.

But what’s already clear is that Madoff used his ties to the Jewish community to garner at least some of his ill-used funds.



UPDATE SUNDAY 1:41 p.m.:

By Sunday the initial casualty reports showed that Madoff’s crimes reached deep into the Los Angeles Jewish community. 

“It has come to our attention that the Jewish Community Foundation [Los Angeles] is included among a number of major institutions as well asindividuals who may have been victimized by an alleged fraud,” wrote Jewish Community Foundation Board Chair Cathy Siegel Weiss and President and CEO Marvin Schotland in a letter sent to board members.

Regretfully, the Foundation was one of those clients. Mr. Madoff was highly regarded and his firm has been one of the most prominent firms on Wall Street for decades. We were shocked to learn of this alleged fraud.

Some $18 million of the Foundation’s Common Investment Pool (currently valued at 11% of its assets) was invested with Madoff, according to the letter.The CIP represents endowments from a variety of long-established Jewish organizations. The Journal is investigating which participants were involved and how much they stand to lose, and whether officials can expect any sort of remediation.

Meanwhile, there are reports that many other local institutions and individuals have been hit by the scandal.  Senior Writer Brad Greenberg and blogger Dean Rotbart are investigating and verifying these reports and will have updates here.



Madoff is a trustee of the Yeshiva University and a long-time philanthropist in Jewish circles.
 
According to Yeshiva University, “Bernard L. Madoff, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees since 1996, was elected chairman of the Board of Directors of Sy Syms School of Business in 2000. Mr. Madoff is chairman of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, one of the nation’s largest third-market dealers in New York Stock Exchange and over-the-counter securities.
A benefactor of the University, Mr. Madoff recently made a major gift to the Sy Syms School.”
 
The first known charity victim, according to JTA, is the The Robert I. Lappin Foundation in Salem, Mass. which gave away about $1.5 million to Jewish causes.
 
After Madoff’s arrest, The Robert I. Lappin Foundation in Salem laid off all of its employees and locked its doors on Friday after its benefactor’s assets were frozen because they were invested with Madoff.

“Mr. Lappin investments were frozen,” the foundation’s executive director of the foundation Deborah Coltin told JTA. “The assets are frozen. We have no money. The foundation cannot access its money.”

Lappin, who was reached by JTA Friday afternoon, said that he lost $8 million – the entirety of his foundation’s money – because it was invested with Madoff. Lappin, who had been involved financially with Madoff since 1991 also took a “significant” hit personally. He said that he knew nothing of Madoff’s fraudulent activities.

The foundation, which gave away about $1.5 million per year to Jewish causes, let go all of its workers, one fulltime employee and six part-time employees.
 
Forbes details the fall of Madoff
 
“Bernard Madoff is a longstanding leader in the financial services industry,” his lawyer Dan Horwitz told reporters outside a downtown Manhattan courtroom where he was charged. “We will fight to get through this unfortunate set of events.”
 
A shaken Madoff stared at the ground as reporters peppered him with questions. He was released after posting a $10 million bond secured by his Manhattan apartment.
 
The SEC filed separate civil charges.
 
“Our complaint alleges a stunning fraud — both in terms of scope and duration,” said Scott Friestad, the SEC’s deputy enforcer. “We are moving quickly and decisively to stop the scheme and protect the remaining assets for investors.”
 
The SEC said it appeared that virtually all of the assets of his hedge fund business were missing.
 
Madoff had long kept the financial statements for his hedge fund business under “lock and key,” according to prosecutors, and was “cryptic” about the firm.
 
And Reuters has the story here:

REUTERS – Edith Honan and Dan Wilchins:
 

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Bernard Madoff, a quiet force on Wall Street for decades, was arrested and charged on Thursday with allegedly running a $50 billion “Ponzi scheme” in what may rank among the biggest fraud cases ever.

The former chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market is best known as the founder of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, the closely-held market-making firm he launched in 1960. But he also ran a hedge fund that U.S. prosecutors said racked up $50 billion of fraudulent losses.

Madoff told senior employees of his firm on Wednesday that “it’s all just one big lie” and that it was “basically, a giant Ponzi scheme”, with estimated investor losses of about $50 billion, according to the U.S. Attorney’s criminal complaint against him.

A Ponzi scheme is a swindle offering unusually high returns, with early investors paid off with money from later investors.

On Thursday, two agents for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation entered Madoff’s New York apartment.

“There is no innocent explanation,” Madoff said, according to the criminal complaint. He told the agents that it was all his fault, and that he “paid investors with money that wasn’t there”, according to the complaint.

The $50 billion allegedly lost would make the hedge fund one of the biggest frauds in history. When former energy trading giant Enron filed for bankruptcy in 2001, one of the largest at the time, it had $63.4 billion in assets.
U.S. prosecutors charged Madoff, 70, with a single count of securities fraud.

They said he faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $5 million.
The Securities and Exchange Commission filed separate civil charges against Madoff.

“Our complaint alleges a stunning fraud — both in terms of scope and duration,” said Scott Friestad, the SEC’s deputy enforcer. “We are moving quickly and decisively to stop the scheme and protect the remaining assets for investors.”

Dan Horwitz, Madoff’s lawyer, told reporters outside a downtown Manhattan courtroom where he was charged, “Bernard Madoff is a longstanding leader in the financial services industry. We will fight to get through this unfortunate set of events.”

A shaken Madoff stared at the ground as reporters peppered him with questions. He was released after posting a $10 million bond secured by his Manhattan apartment.

Authorities, citing a document filed by Madoff with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Jan. 7, 2008, said Madoff’s investment advisory business served between 11 and 25 clients and had a total of about $17.1 billion in assets under management. Those clients may have included other funds that in turn had many investors.

The SEC said it appeared that virtually all of the assets of his hedge fund business were missing.

CONSISTENT RETURNS

An investor in the hedge fund said it generated consistent returns, which was part of the attraction. Since 2004, annual returns averaged around 8 percent and ranged from 7.3 percent to 9 percent, but last decade returns were typically in the low-double digits, the investor said.

The fund told investors it followed a “split strike conversion” strategy, which entailed owning stock and buying and selling options to limit downside risk, said the investor, who requested anonymity.

Jon Najarian, an acquaintance of Madoff who has traded options for decades, said “Many of us questioned how that strategy could generate those kinds of returns so consistently.”

Najarian, co-founder of optionmonster.com, once tried to buy what was then the Cincinnati Stock Exchange when Madoff was a major seatholder on the exchange. Najarian met with Madoff, who rejected his bid.

“He always seemed to be a straight shooter. I was shocked by this news,” Najarian said.

‘LOCK AND KEY’

Madoff had long kept the financial statements for his hedge fund business under “lock and key,” according to prosecutors, and was “cryptic” about the firm. The hedge fund business was located on a separate floor from the market-making business.

Madoff has been conducting a Ponzi scheme since at least 2005, the U.S. said. Around the first week of December, Madoff told a senior employee that hedge fund clients had requested about $7 billion of their money back, and that he was struggling to pay them.

Investors have been pulling money out of hedge funds, even those performing well, in an effort to reduce risk in their portfolios as the global economy weakens.

The fraud alleged here could further encourage investors to pull money from hedge funds.

“This is a major blow to confidence that is already shattered — anyone on the fence will probably try to take their money out,” said Doug Kass, president of hedge fund Seabreeze Partners Management. Kass noted that investors that put in requests to withdraw their money can subsequently decide to leave it in the fund if they wish.

Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities has more than $700 million in capital, according to its website.

Madoff remains a member of Nasdaq OMX Group Inc’s nominating committee, and his firm is a market maker for about 350 Nasdaq stocks, including Apple, EBay and Dell according to the website.

The website also states that Madoff himself has “a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm’s hallmark.”

In the wake of the scandal, Internet message boards are alive with anti-Semitic vitriol.
 
The web site dealbreaker.com provides a list of Madoff’s victims supplied by CNBC’s  David Faber:

  • Fund of Funds
  • European banks
  • remont Advisers
  • “market confidence”
  • JEWS

The comments on that page reveal the kind of anti-Semitic writing that scandals involving Jewish financiers unleash with clockwork precision.
 
A sampling:

  • LOL Jews!…
  • Looks like a lot of Jews might be converting to Muslim soon….in prison….
  • Now that the JEW has been thrown down the well, is our country free?LETS THROW A BIG PARTY!!!

The message boards at the web site Stormfront, where neo-Nazis go to play, is rife with comments like, “One of satan’s children doing what comes naturally.”

Hey. If it’s small comfort the prosecutor in the case is Jewish, and it was Madoff’s sons who turned their crooked dad in.

Thousands of small Jewish investors who played by the rules and worked and saved are now financially ruined because of this man. For all but your garden variety bigots, one horrifically monstrously putrid apple doesn’t mean squat about the whole tree.

 

Don’t let the stress of ailing economy kill you


Downtown Hospital is just a block from Wall Street. Walking through its beefed-up emergency room recently, I came upon Terry Jung, the hospital’s very thoughtful head triage nurse. She told me that despite the financial crisis and roller-coaster stock market, the number of patients with chest pain or heart attacks was not yet increasing.

“Nothing’s different,” she said. “Except the feeling that something’s about to happen.”

In all likelihood, that “something” is happening to millions of people who are worried about their jobs, retirement plans, the prices of their homes and the ability to keep food on their table should a worst-case scenario play out.

Americans are receiving a daily barrage of gloomy news that could inevitably begin to take its toll. The focus on the front pages of newspapers and on the screens of the nightly network news is of a financial calamity engulfing the planet.

But it starts at home. A neighbor’s house is being foreclosed. Food is more expensive. A friend loses his job. The daily stock market tickers on cable news shows remind people, in real time, how their investments are faring.

A survey by the American Psychological Association indicated that financial concerns “topped the list of stressors for at least 80 percent of those surveyed,” according to a recent front-page story in USA Today. More than half reported the most common symptoms of stress being anger, fatigue and an inability to sleep. Close to half responded by overeating or eating poorly, a trend that will definitely lead to killer diseases that include heart attacks and strokes.

And if the economic woes continue? Well, our collective national health could just follow our economy into the depths.

The Last Crash

In the 1980s, concerns about the failing economy after the 1987 crash led to so much stress that urgent-care centers sprang up around Wall Street. With the economic rebound of the 1990s, many of these centers closed.

Tales of traders suddenly throwing themselves out of windows on Wall Street in the wake of the 1929 crash that was the precursor to the Great Depression were largely myths, as John Kenneth Galbraith noted in his 1955 account. But millions did turn to drinking and smoking in greater numbers, which led to heart attacks, strokes, bleeding ulcers and clinical depression.

Stress is cumulative; it wears down the body and leads to disease down the line.

Research based on 17 years of Pennsylvania unemployment records concluded that workers affected by mass layoffs at a plant were 15 percent more likely to die of any cause over the next two decades.

Though stress in society at large is impossible to measure, we’re already seeing anecdotal evidence suggesting that angst is spreading. In New York, calls to the Hopeline network for people with depression or suicidal thoughts increased 75 percent in the 11 months ending in July. According to UnitedHealth Group, the largest U.S. health insurer, hospital admissions for psychiatric services are up 10 percent this year over last year. Medical illness is sure to follow.

Harvey Brenner, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, projects that an increase of 1 percentage point in a nation’s unemployment rate could cause as many as 47,000 more deaths — including 1,200 more suicides and 26,000 additional heart attacks — over the ensuing two years.

The Biology of Stress

Stress is creeping; it damages the body’s organs just as alcohol and cigarettes do. Cumulative stress is a well-documented cause of depression, suicide, heart disease, stroke, predisposition to infection and certain kinds of cancer. The body builds up the vessel-constricting, heart thumping hormones noradrenaline, adrenaline and the steroid cortisol. The problems cascade from there throughout the body.

What To Do?

The best advice is often the simplest: Eat healthy food, sleep right and avoid obsessing on the doom and gloom. Do yoga, meditate or exercise regularly to combat the growing stress.

A new study from Utah researchers shows that touch, in the form of massage, hugging and kissing, decreases stress hormones, increases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, and lowers blood pressure.

I am all for more touching and hugging, but people who feel a disaster is looming generally are resistant to altering their increasing unstable lives. A sleepless Wall Street trader or even a Nebraska farmer is too concerned about his or her bank account to consider health.

But for each one of us, awareness is a vital weapon, and we must consider that there is still time for us to take the same kind of common sense approach to health — eat right, exercise, sleep, manage stress — that might have saved our economy from this crisis in the first place.

As the father of stress research, Hans Selye, once wrote, “It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”

This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, is the author of ”False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.”

Pinched pocketbooks no bar to party planning


Pinched Pocketbooks NoBar to Party Planning

Have tough economic times forced you to scale back your child’s bar or bat mitzvah party plans? With your 401(k) down, is the ice sculpture out? Is your resetting ARM making you reconsider that 18-piece orchestra?

If so, you can still have one of the best bar or bat mitzvah parties ever.

Paul, who lives in the northern Sierras and preferred not to use his last name, was pleased with the modest bar mitzvah party he and his wife hosted last month for their son.

“We had a Kiddush at our little synagogue immediately after the bar mitzvah and a catered dinner for about 75 people at the lodge building at our town’s public park,” he said.

Paul spent about $40 per person, including food and “midrange” wines. After dinner, guests were invited back to the house, including many out-of-town relatives and friends, for more time to visit and socialize. The kids had their own fun, and music was provided via a Bose iPod dock.

This modest party wasn’t prompted as much by economic pressure as it was by being turned off by what Paul and his wife considered “large, garish bar and bat mitzvah parties” they had attended on which “embarrassing” amounts of money were spent.

“We frankly think it is shameful and a violation of both the tenets of Judaism and good taste to throw a huge and lavish bar or bat mitzvah party,” Paul said.

Paul’s hardly alone. When Rob Frankel and his wife planned their daughter’s bat mitzvah, they were so turned off by their synagogue’s onerous rules (including vetting the parents’ speeches) and insistence on using an expensive caterer, that later they did their son’s bar mitzvah totally on their own, from using a “rent-a-rabbi” to teach their son and provide a rental Torah scroll and bimah.

“The whole year’s training and day of service cost less than a year of temple membership dues,” Frankel recalled.

The Frankels also saved money by creating their own save-the-date postcards, invitations, tribute videos and thank-you cards.

Rabbi Steven Leder, senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and author of “More Money Than God,” encourages all parents planning bar and bat mitzvah parties to keep the focus on Judaism and on the child. When he meets with parents, he asks them to make two lists: one of values they consider Jewish and another of values they associate with bar/bat mitzvah parties.

The lists are starkly different. While the Jewish values list often includes sacred music, spirituality and community, the list of values associated with the bar mitzvah parties can include sexuality, gross excess, drinking and narcissism.

Leder has found this exercise very useful.

After discussing the values gap between the bar mitzvah service and the typical bar mitzvah party, “parents feel they have permission to embrace a more child-appropriate event and one with more Jewish content,” he said.

He recommends that a Saturday night party begin with a Havdalah ceremony and that parents should be more discerning about the music played at the event. He also encourages that some money be donated to MAZON-A Jewish Response to Hunger. One creative mom at the synagogue, tired of seeing party favors that went to waste, began doing mitzvah projects at parties, such as having kids make stuffed animals, which are then donated to a children’s hospital.

Leder also keeps parties held at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in line by insisting on no hard liquor, no amplified music outside and no inappropriate décor or themes, such as Halloween.

“We’re trying to avoid glaring contradictions to Jewish values,” he noted. “Besides, kid-friendly parties automatically save money.”

Chai’le Ingber, a Los Angeles-based party planner, says that times are changing when it comes to money and party planning. She acknowledges that while most people able to hire a planner aren’t the ones feeling the pinch as much as some others, she has found lately that some are choosing to scale back, so as not to flaunt their wealth at a time when so many others are hurting or are earmarking some money that would have gone to the party to tzedakah instead.

Ingber recommends that anyone who can host a party at home do so.

“There’s always something so special about a home party, when friends have helped out. Leave out the hall and the band if you can. You’ll cut major expenses, while creating a beautiful, homey event,” she said.

Inger even overheard her daughter, who recently completed her bat mitzvah circuit year, agree with friends that the most fun parties they had attended were home-based, because they were not done to impress adults but were geared to what the girl wanted.

Other ideas to save money include using a school auditorium or nonhotel venue.

“With a little creativity and twist you can transform even plain rooms into a themed room,” Ingber said.

After choosing a theme or colors with your child, inexpensive crafts and flowers can be found in a variety of stores downtown. And paper plates and plastic cutlery can still add color while saving money.

“The truth is, community pressure to create a certain kind of party can be intense, but it’s not the $500 cake that makes the party; it’s the hosts and the child who welcome you into their home or the hall who make it special. If the hosts are stiff and stressed, it’s worthless,” Ingber said.

Aaron Cooper, psychologist and author of “I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy,” hopes that more parents begin to see the upside of financial adversity in the form of valuable lessons learned and resilience developed.

Too many bar and bat mitzvah parties, he notes, have been marked by the worshipful emphasis on the child that colors so much contemporary parenting, yet spirituality and a sense of meaning are two of the ingredients essential for happy lives.

“What do we want the outstanding memory to be when our son or daughter looks back from middle age to their bar or bat mitzvah event? If a pinched pocketbook helps parents re-think this question, it’s the kids who will reap the dividends someday,” he said.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.”


Cut Costs, Not the Fun

Want to keep your costs low without alienating your family, friends and fellow congregants? Consider these tips from the proud survivor of a bar mitzvah party.

  • Buy a planner notebook and organize everything yourself, instead of hiring a party planner.
  • Skip the banquet hall and rent a neighborhood or community clubhouse, large room at an activity center or school assembly hall.
  • Cater through your favorite restaurant, instead of using a restaurant or banquet hall that only has package deals or would be more costly. If you get a package deal somewhere, read the fine print: There are invariably all kinds of strange charges, such as corkage fees, cake-cutting fees, charges for valet service and security.
  • Make your own centerpieces, adding a few balloons on top, with confetti sprinkled around the base. Decorate simply — sometimes too much really looks like too much.
  • Design and print your own invitations, RSVP cards and placecards. Today’s online paper businesses and PC applications make this easier and more beautiful than you could have imagined five years ago.
  • If your synagogue allows it, have your friends make the desserts and/or oneg sweets instead of buying them from a bakery. Get all of your beverages — alcoholic and no-alcoholic — on your own from a place like Costco, Trader Joe’s or BevMo.
  • Have your dinner for the out-of-towners in a Chinese or Italian restaurant that serves family-style platters — this cuts way down on the cost of individual meals.
  • Have a luncheon instead of a bar mitzvah dinner because lunch typically costs less. Alternately, forgo one really huge celebration and have two little ones — a casual oneg luncheon and then a kids-only party in the evening.
  • Interview and hire a photographer who will give you the disc with all of your photos, and you can make the album yourself online, with the help of a service like Flickr.com. It’s a very easy process once you learn how. Making the album yourself costs about one-half to one-third of the traditional proofs-and-album route.

— Denise Koek, Contributing Writer

Alan shrugged


What went wrong?

Greed is only part of it. Yes, the people who sold subprime loans to unqualified buyers were concerned about their cut, not about ARMs spiking and home prices falling. Yes, the Wall Street wizards who sliced and diced collateralized debt obligations were greedy for big paydays and living large.

But invoking greed actually explains little, no more than invoking lust or envy or any other human urge. The mystery isn’t why people are greedy; it’s how greed gets the better of them.

At a private fundraiser in Houston, when he thought there was no risk of being recorded, George W. Bush offered this explanation for our troubles: “There’s no question about it, Wall Street got drunk—that’s one of the reasons I asked you to turn off the TV cameras—it got drunk and now it’s got a hangover. The question is how long will it [take to] sober up and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments.”

There is no reason to question President Bush’s credentials for knowing a drunk when he sees one. But Bush, though he says he can’t remember a day from prep school to his 40th birthday when he didn’t have a drink, also insists that he has never been an alcoholic. He just drank “too much.” When he stopped, he didn’t acknowledge that he had a disease; what was wrong, it seems, was just typical youthful irresponsibility and a too-protracted youth.

So Wall Street’s problem, in the president’s mind, is not a systemic pathology, not an illness that comes on the same chromosome as the profit motive. Instead, it’s the behavior of a frat boy on a bender, the reckless phase of a good-time Charlie rather than the symptom of profound disease.

Bros will be bros; greed, like stuff, just happens.

A quite different explanation comes from a man to whom Bush gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and who is the intellectual parent of this collapse: “>speech at Georgetown University earlier this month, he attributed it to “lack of trust in the validity of accounting records of banks and other financial institutions” in the past year. Trust! Who knew?

So it’s not competitive markets and “Atlas Shrugged”-style enlightened self-interest that makes economies work. It’s “reputation and the trust it fosters.” Wealth creation, Greenspan says, requires trusting the people with whom we trade. The better your reputation, the more I trust you, the more able I am to take risks and accumulate more capital. When people “let concerns for reputation slip” the way they have in recent years, when counterparties are “not always truthful,” lenders are hesitant to lend, and credit freezes up.

But even an apostle of free markets like Ronald Reagan said, though in a different context, “Trust, but verify.” For years, credit-rating agencies like“>words of Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz, “performed the alchemy that converted securities from F-rated to A-rated” with no apparent damage to their reputations.

For years, the sterling reputations of Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch served as a substitute for transparency. For years, federal efforts to monitor the trustworthiness of big banks were fought tooth and nail by the same Alan Greenspan who nevertheless says that trust is everything.

James Madison warned us in Federalist No. 51 that men are not angels. Lincoln, while appealing to “the better angels of our nature,” nevertheless acknowledged our darker inclinations.

Anyone who’s been anywhere near a big investment bank knows that the gentlemen who run them have more in common with Hollywood buccaneers and Washington barracudas than they do with the Marquess of Queensbury. Maybe on Planet Fountainhead the economy runs on trust, but on this one, reputations aren’t warrants of integrity, they’re commodities marketed by the branding industry and burnished by the business journalism business.

Bill Moyers,

Could economic slump — which means less giving — kill Jewish community innovation?


The past decade has seen a groundswell of innovative Jewish nonprofits — from the birth of a Jewish pop culture magazine, Heeb, to the creation of a slew of trailblazing Jewish social service organizations, to an array of projects that allow Jews to express their Judaism through ways other than the prayer book.

But as these initiatives reach adolescence and eye expansion, the spiraling economy and financial crisis threatens to stunt their growth and thwart the next generation of startups from even getting off the ground.

Story after story has been written about fears that the economic downturn will hurt philanthropy. The thinking goes that when people feel economically unstable, the first thing they do is cut their discretionary spending — and charity, no matter the moral or biblical obligation, is still viewed by most as discretionary spending.

Until recently, most of the concern had been based on speculation; charities had been holding out hope that they would be able to avoid significant cutbacks. But, according to a survey taken in late September by the private wealth research firm, Prince & Associates, the cuts have arrived.

According to Forbes magazine, Prince spoke to 439 high-net-worth families, with 73 percent of respondents saying they had been significantly hurt by the economic downturn. Fifty-one percent said they planned on giving less next year than they did this past year — and only 16 percent said they planned on giving more.

The concern about such trends was detectable recently at the Manhattan launch party for the 2008 edition of “Slingshot,” an annual guidebook to innovative Jewish organizations put out by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation. The leaders of several of the most well-regarded and established innovative Jewish projects expressed concern, saying they are expecting to feel the pinch.

“Most recently, we are starting to hear, ‘We love what you do. We think that it is really, really great. And because of the economy, we are not going to fund any new projects this year. We are going to fund the things that we already fund.’ And that is only over the past few weeks,” said Aaron Bisman, who runs JDub, the nonprofit Jewish record label that produced Matisyahu’s first album. “I had heard it was maybe going to be a possibility, but we are really starting to hear that as a definitive answer.”

JDub, the product of two incubators of Jewish startups, Bikkurim and the Joshua Venture, is widely regarded as one of the most successful young Jewish projects to get off the ground in recent years. For the last five years, Bisman’s budget has increased as funders have taken notice of the group and JDub’s record sales have started to bring in additional income.

Early this summer, Bisman was talking about expansion. Those plans were based on being able to tap into new revenue streams, attract new donors and entice foundations to become new investors.

But by late September, Bisman was talking cutbacks — in both programming and staff.

Bisman’s experience reflects what most philanthropy experts see on the horizon. Philanthropists may not completely shut their coffers, but new grants — the lifeblood of young organizations — are going to be the first to get cut because, like any investment in any startup, they are risky proposals that may not pay dividends.

“Everybody is looking to this as a real event that they are dealing with, and especially for groups that are young and startup and in a growth phase, it is challenging,” said Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, the cofounder of Kehilat Hadar, an egalitarian, traditional-style minyan in New York that is a model for the independent minyan movement.

Hadar has yet to lose any grants, but Kaunfer has been told to brace for next year.

That is when the real crunch could come, especially for those who rely on funding from endowed foundations. Those foundations are required by law to give away 5 percent of their assets each year, based on the assets from the previous fiscal year. As the market drops, that 5 percent shrinks, leaving less for foundations to give away.

To put it in perspective, the Washington Post reported that the Community Foundation for the National Capital Area, one of the area’s largest grant makers and comparable in size to the Koret Foundation, the Pritzker Foundation and the Mandel Fund, lost about $40 million between July and September. The fund had approximately $330 million in assets at last reporting.

Back in 2006, Hadar was able to raise enough funds to launch an egalitarian yeshiva. Kaunfer said he’s unsure if the founders could have pulled it off in the current climate.

“Today would be a very hard day to start an organization and raise the soft dollars,” Kaunfer said.

Such projects — especially those focused on building Jewish identity — could be facing an even greater challenge in the coming months if they need to compete with social service agencies that are getting squeezed on both ends as they face greater demand for services and shrinking revenue streams.

But a bad economy does not need to be the death knell for Jewish innovation.

Those who run new organizations that have established a foothold for themselves and are looking to grow, like JDub, have won recognition in the Jewish organizational mainstream. Their leaders have become regular speakers at federation events and at the federations’ annual conference, the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.

At last year’s GA in Nashville, organizers dedicated a plenary session to young Jewish innovators and gave them a chance to address several thousand federation lay and professional leaders. Though they will have to work hard to secure funding, many of them have at least one foot firmly in the door.

And most of the newer operations have an advantage over established organizations: They tend to operate on relatively small budgets of under $2 million and so are not yet in need of megagrants.

There may even be hope for those looking to start nonprofits, as the Joshua Venture — the incubator that helped launch this movement, but then went on hiatus in 2006 — has announced on its Web site that it is now seeking new applicants.

Nina Bruder, who runs the UJC-funded incubator Bikkurim, said she is hopeful.

“When the economy is bad, the need for basic human services goes up and the funding for basic human services goes down,” she said. “In the circles that are concerned about that, there is going to be a big push about [the fact] that basic subsistence needs are going to have to be met.”

“But I think there is a whole other part of the funding community that doesn’t focus on that and still has an attention for other kinds of creative cultural and special needs areas,” Bruder went on. “I think we are going to have to wait and see what happens.”

This article was adapted from Jacob Berkman’s blog on the nonprofit sector, which can be found at www.fundermentalist.com.

Wall Street, Main Street, Jew Street


I like to believe that as a 21st century American Jew, I’m no more paranoid than necessary.

But if I hear one more politician extol the virtues of “small towns,” I am fixing up a hiding place in my attic.

If I hear one more pundit bash Wall Street and grow misty over Main Street, I will check airfares out of the country.

“We grow good people in small towns,” vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin said in her acceptance speech at the Republican convention. The crowd went wild with applause.

Sen. Barack Obama told a Florida audience last month, “[Sen. John McCain] wants to run health care like they’ve been running Wall Street. Well, senator, I know some folks on Main Street who aren’t going to think that’s such a good idea.”

First the presidential election and now the financial crisis have given rise to rhetorical nativism. It is open season on the big city. In their bid for those elusive independent, middle-class voters, McCain and Obama and their seconds, Sen. Joe Biden and Palin, are fanning the myth that the real America resides in some shining Mayberry on a hill. If only those nasty money changers and culture vultures in the seething cities below would just let them sow their wheat and do their books and raise their children up good.

These tropes are not new to America; they are older than Shylock. The Jews make up the city: corrupt, scheming, complicated; while the common folk, the good people, occupy the farms and villages. The Jews lord over the metropolises, making easy money off the hard labor of others.

There’s an overlooked and ultimately sympathetic 1934 movie, “The House of Rothschild,” which perfectly captures the previous centuries of anti-Semitic caricature.

The film opens in 1750 on Frankfort’s “Jew Street,” as Mayer Amschel, founder of the Rothschild line, scurries to hide his precious guilden from the cruel tax collector.

“They keep us in chains!” he tells his boys. “They won’t let us learn a trade! They won’t let us own land. So make money. Money is the only weapon the Jew has to defend himself with.”

This stereotype and its accompanying rhetoric only ramps up in times of economic crisis. During the Great Depression, anti-Semitism was most virulent not in the cities where Jews lived but in the Farm Belt and Far West, where the image of “the Jew” lived.

Now the Anti-Defamation League reports “a dramatic upsurge in the number of anti-Semitic statements being posted to Internet discussion boards devoted to finance and the economy.”

Scan those Web sites and you quickly see what the candidates themselves likely don’t even realize: For the bigots and haters, Wall Street is code, the city is code, Hollywood — a staple enemy in the culture wars — is code. They’re code for “Jew.”

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, when Palin said, “We grow good people in small towns,” she was quoting the late Westbrook Pegler, a notorious anti-Semitic columnist who called Jews “geese,” because “they hiss when they talk, gulp down everything before them and foul everything in their wake.”

Our candidates and our talking heads should be ashamed or, at least, careful. Because not only are such black-and-white dichotomies dangerous, they’re dumb.

Wall Street is not solely to blame for what’s happened — Main Street was a willing and gluttonous partner. And people on Main Street kept voting into office leaders who spouted pure pablum about “government getting out of the way” and deregulation and took their eyes off the market chicanery.

Main Street and Wall Street are inextricably bound up and always have been. Credit is as important to the economy as corn.

“Why is it everyone always talks about protecting the family farmer?” Rep. Barney Frank once told me. “What about the family shoemaker? What about the family banker?”

And those stump-speech paeans to small towns? Please.

First of all, most Americans live in cities, suburbs and exurbs. Cities aren’t cruel, shapeless Gothams and Gommorahs, they are historic centers of creativity and capital, beacons of hope and opportunity. New York is the symbol of American achievement — the terrorists on Sept. 11 didn’t go after Wasilla or some Home Depot in Delaware. Los Angeles — if it can get its act together — is the city of the 21st century, where Hollywood shapes the world’s current imagination and future reality. Ingenuity, productivity and creativity gushes out from America’s cities.

Last Sunday, I attended a fundraiser for Friends of the Los Angeles River. They closed off the Sixth Street Bridge downtown and filled it with a buffet, dinner tables and a dance floor. Maybe 300 people showed up to support a waterway whose restoration will knit together all sorts of economically and ethnically diverse communities. I stood on the bridge watching the sun set behind the rail yards, behind the downtown skyscrapers and the distant hills, and I saw in that instant how Los Angeles is a great city made up of small towns: We call them neighborhoods.

I live in one of those small towns, and so do you. I like that Wall Street, when it works well, provides the wherewithal for my Main Street to grow and compete.

So I’m not going to pack my bags yet, but I sure know where I’d run to if need be. Because no matter how much they hate Wall Street and how much they fume over Hollywood, they always say they love Israel.

I guess that’s where the good Jews live.

Will Wall Street crisis spur anti-Semitism?


NEW YORK (JTA)—In the world according to the comedy writers at “Saturday Night Live,” the pyramid of complicity in the current financial crisis runs like this:

On the bottom are poor and minority homeowners victimized by predatory lending. Next come condo-flipping yuppies out for a quick buck. They’re followed by rapacious bankers who cashed out before the economy crumbled. And on top are billionaire financiers who pocketed the government bailout and quickly moved it offshore.

In the SNL imagination, the top two categories seemingly are populated by Jews.

In a skit broadcast Saturday night, barely a day after Congress authorized a massive bailout of the ailing financial industry, the jokesters at SNL conjured a post-vote news conference in Washington featuring these four categories of characters.

Playing the part of the rapacious bankers were ” title=”Main Street, Wall Street, Jew Street”>Main Street, Wall Street, Jew Street



Daniel Cohen, who works in investment banking at JPMorgan Chase, said he has neither seen nor heard anything worth getting worked up about regarding fears that anti-Semitism could be a consequence of the financial crisis.

“I don’t think it’s ever crossed my mind, to be honest,” Cohen said.

While global crises of all stripes historically have drawn out fringe elements eager to scapegoat Jews, the prominence of Jews in the financial industry—and the conspicuously Jewish names adorning many of the nation’s top investment banks—have given the conspiracy theorists an unusually rich trove of ammunition and many Jews a cause for anxiety.

“As we witnessed after 9/11, whenever there is trouble or uncertainty in the economy or world events, Jews become the scapegoats, and ugly anti-Semitic canards are given new life,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Last week, the ADL reported a “dramatic surge” in anti-Semitic Internet postings related to the economy. The group said the Internet chatter is not limited to neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites, but has spread to mainstream Web sites such as Yahoo! and AOL, where “hundreds” of anti-Semitic messages have flooded financial discussion boards.

Bill Cunningham, a popular conservative radio host, told JTA he had received two or three calls in the past few weeks from listeners who mentioned Jewish control of the banking system.

“I’ve been on the radio 25 years,” said Cunningham, who is nationally syndicated. “I had not heard that until this money crisis began.”

While such sentiments occasionally find public platforms, the locus of anti-Jewish agitation—and its most articulate and virulent expression—is found on known anti-Semitic and white supremacist Web sites such as the Vanguard News Network and Overthrow.com, a Web site published by the American National Socialist Workers Party.

Writers on these sites lay responsibility for the crisis squarely at the feet of Jewish bankers and Zionists. They allege that Jewish government officials, notably U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Rep. Barney Frank, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, supported a congressional bailout to help their co-religionists on Wall Street. A Frank character also was featured on the “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Some posts also have taken aim at Congress for taking off over Rosh Hashanah, which fell last week amid marathon negotiations on the bailout. The bill eventually was passed late last Friday.

“Look at how they are portraying these people who are staying up late in the capitol to pass this 700 billion dollar bailout,” wrote one commenter on a forum of the Vanguard News Network. “They’re makin it look like they’re ‘workin hard’, ‘takin action’, ‘reaching a solution’ … Yeah, they are probably sittin around eating crumpets while the Jews are driving away with truck loads of hundred dollar bills.”

Another commenter on the site wrote that “jew monsters” are seeking to bankrupt the entire planet.

“It’s really more like vampires sucking a corpse dry,” wrote the commenter, identified on the site as Sgruber. “Jews are destroyers. They aren’t after their own long-range advantage. Long-range they want the earth plunged into a Dark Ages of endless poverty. This is why the jews must be killed. They are rats eating the grain and the brain of the world.”

Unlike the white supremacist sites, most of the anti-Jewish sentiment on well-trafficked mainstream Web sites are confined to mostly unmoderated message areas hosted by Yahoo! and Google. Many are replete with spelling and grammatical errors, and are heavy on name calling.

The ADL praised such sites for doing their best to delete anti-Semitic messages, though it cautioned that due to the volume and the free-for-all-nature of the Internet, comprehensive policing is nearly impossible.

Deborah Lauter, who heads the ADL’s civil rights division, said that Yahoo! saw a significant decrease in anti-Semitic material following the release of the ADL report on Oct. 3.

“While we can’t know for certain the exact reason for the decrease, we suspect it is due to action by Yahoo rather than any increased restraint by Finance Message Board members,” Lauter wrote in an e-mail to JTA. “New problematic posts are almost non-existent and the majority problematic material posted since early September has been deleted.”

 

Gotcha? You betcha!


John McCain and Sara Palin have been complaining that there’s too much “gotcha journalism” going around.

If only.

When they say “gotcha journalism,” what they’re really trying to do, of course, is to demonize journalism itself — to de-legitimize asking tough questions, and following up with more tough questions when the answers are mealy-mouth evasions, and holding politicians accountable when they inadvertently emit a truth.

McCain says gotcha journalism is reporting that Palin, at a public event, told a voter her thoughts about attacking terrorist targets in Pakistan — which inconveniently is the same view that McCain is excoriating Obama for holding.

The McCain camp cried gotcha journalism when Charles Gibson asked Palin whether she agrees with the Bush Doctrine, and when Katie Couric asked her what Supreme Court cases she disagrees with, and when Gwen Ifill asked her about the powers of the vice president. But I didn’t hear Republicans complain about gotcha journalism when debate moderator George Stephanopoulos twice asked Obama, “Does Reverend Wright love America as much as you do?”

If gotcha journalism means asking presidential candidates which of their dreams will have to be deferred because of the $700 billion bailout, as a frustrated Jim Lehrer did again and again, then maybe we need more of that kind of questioning, not less.

We certainly could have used more gotcha journalism during the decade leading up to the worst economic debacle since the Great Depression.

In 1999, when the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed, letting commercial banks go into the investment banking and insurance businesses, the country would have been a lot better off if the mainstream media had paid gotcha attention to the downside of deregulation, instead of being obsessed by the mythical Y2K bug.

In 2000, when Senator Phil Gramm slipped a measure forbidding the SEC and the CFTC from regulating credit default swaps into the omnibus spending bill, imagine if the press had blown the whistle on that lobbyist-owned legislator taking advantage of the final moments of a lame-duck session of Congress instead of focusing single-mindedly on the hanging chads story.

In 2003, when Alan Greenspan told global investors that he was going to keep the Fed Funds rate at an unappetizing one percent, thus opening the global floodgates to the mortgage backed securities industry, just think what might have happened if the surge in no-income-no-asset mortgages had been covered as intensely as the goings-on at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

In 2006, when the size of the global collateralized debt obligation market approached $2 trillion, with Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and Wachovia becoming the top CDO underwriters, consider how investigative journalism might have revealed the fatal vulnerability of those houses to toxic assets when the housing bubble would inevitably burst, rather than spending its energies falsely convicting the Duke lacrosse team of rape.

In 2007, when the subprime mortgage fiasco hit, think how things might have played out differently at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac if cable news had spent as much time covering the liquidity crisis as it did the death of Anna Nicole Smith.

In 2008, when SEC chairman Chris Cox told the Senate Banking Committee that he wanted no increased authority and no increased budget to oversee conflict-of-interest riddled credit rating agencies like Moody’s, what if the consequences of Cox’s emergency ban on naked short-selling – bizarrely lasting only one month and affecting only 19 companies — had been pursued as aggressively as the first photos of the Brangelina twins?

We could have used a whole lot more gotcha journalism about Wall Street and banking deregulation than most people regularly encountered over the past decade. And we would have been better served as citizens if terms like “naked short selling” and “mark-to-market” and the rest of the gobbledygook now haunting us had long ago become part of the minimum daily dose of financial literacy delivered to us by the news media.

The exceptions to this journalistic inability to know what’s important, and to explain what’s difficult, are worth celebrating. Chief among them are public radio programs like “>Planet Money, and public radio reporters like “>Adam Davidson.

There’s no better way for a lay person to understand the current crisis than by listening to two episodes of This American Life – ““>Another Frightening Show About the Economy,” which aired last weekend. And while you’re at it, check out the ““>two