Madoff’s Redemption


If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Argentinian rabbi rides to the rescue


As a child, Rabbi Daniel (Dany) Mehlman was a congregant at Beit El, the Buenos Aires shul founded and headed by the charismatic and courageous Marshall Meyer, an American rabbi who lived in Argentina for 25 years.

Meyer was a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and carried on the humanistic teachings of his mentor.

Today, Mehlman is trying to continue that same tradition.

Mehlman studied for a year at Meyer’s rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires in the 1970s, then left Argentina soon after the military junta took power. He lived in Israel for many years, studying and working. But it wasn’t until he was in his late 30s — living in the United States, married and a father — that he went back to formal rabbinical studies.

“I was one of the older applicants to the seminary,” Mehlman said. “At the end of my entrance interview with a panel of rabbis, I was asked to give a closing statement. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I told a story about my father, of blessed memory, with whom I was very close.”

“When I was about 5, he was cheated by a business partner,” he continued. “I heard him talk about it, and I said to him, ‘So we’ve lost everything.’ And he immediately said, ‘No. No. We have not lost everything. We still have each other, and we have our friends.'”

Mehlman told the panel that this incident has been a guide to what’s important to him: “I guess they must have liked that story, because I was accepted into the seminary, and at the age of 43 I became a rabbi.”

At present, Mehlman is the rabbi at K’hilat Ha’Aloneem in Ojai and part-time rabbi at Beth Shalom of Whittier. In addition, he teaches at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and teaches an introduction to Judaism course in Spanish at the University of Judaism.

Humanistic Service Entices the Secular


At Temple Adat Chaverim in the San Fernando Valley, the High Holiday services make no reference to a supernatural God. Adat Chaverim — and members of a sister group in Los Angeles — will join some 40,000 secular Jews throughout the world in Humanistic services.

“A Humanistic Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur emancipates us from the beliefs and rites of those who prostrate themselves before an all-powerful deity,” Adat Chaverim reader Joe Steinberg will say when explaining the meaning of the observance to the congregation. “They offer self-forgiveness and the occasion to restate our belief in personal and human responsibility for our lives, our behavior and our destiny. For us, the High Holidays are not a punishment or a threat, but an opportunity to gain ongoing insights into our being.”

The numbers of Humanistic Judaism are small — especially given the millions of Jews in the world who identify themselves as nonreligious — but Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine of Detroit, who founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969, remains optimistic.

He notes, for one, that Sivan Malkin Haas, the first Israeli to complete the five-year rabbinical course at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, is returning to Jerusalem to lead the Humanistic congregation in the Jewish State.

In North America, some 40 Humanistic “communities” will observe the High Holidays, mostly guided by madrichim (trained lay leaders). Only in eight cities — New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and the Miami area — will ordained Humanistic rabbis be available to conduct the services.

At Adat Chaverim, the Valley Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, the resident madrich is Steinberg, who organized the group with three other people two years ago.

“Now we have 53 members,” Steinberg said, “and we rent space from a Methodist church in Tarzana. The next step is to get our own storefront place.”

Adat Chaverim broke away from the older Los Angeles chapter, partially to shorten driving distances, but mainly because “we wanted more music and ritual,” Steinberg said.

A vigorous 82, Steinberg worries about the aging membership of Adat Chaverim, a general concern among many Humanistic communities, as among Jewish organizations and synagogues in general. To attract younger families, Steinberg doubles as director of the congregation’s Children’s Jewish Cultural School. Its goal, notes a brochure, is to teach children “the real history of a real people in all its diversity” and to allow them “to develop their own convictions honestly on the basis of knowledge.”

Attorney Shirley Monson serves as treasurer of the Los Angeles Society for Humanistic Judaism, with some 60 members.

Her grandfather was Orthodox, her parents Conservative and Monson attended a Reform temple, “until I grew out of it and became a Humanistic Jew,” she said. “I also didn’t want my kids to get a [religious] education they didn’t believe in.”

As a secular woman, Monson rarely encounters antagonism when meeting members of more conventional Jewish denominations. But occasionally, when the conversation turns to religion and she mentions that she doesn’t pray to God, “they’ll treat me like I had leprosy” Monson said.

A third center of secular Judaism in the Los Angeles area is The Sholem Community, which consists of 120 families and operates a Sunday school, from kindergarten through ninth grade, for 75 students. The center’s credo is encapsulated in the words, “To the best of our abilities, we are the authors and publishers of our Book of Life.”

Hershl Hartman, Sholem’s vegvayser, Yiddish for guide, recalled that the first secular Yom Kippur was celebrated in Los Angeles in 1973. In preparation for the upcoming High Holidays, Hartman said, “Some traditions change, so we don’t sacrifice a young bull, a ram and seven lambs. Some traditions don’t change, so we blow the shofar.”

It is difficult to ascertain the number and percentage of secular Jews in the United States, with Wine putting the figure at a high of 47 percent.

The 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey by the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York, cited 1.7 million self-identified Jews who described their households as atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist, or having no religion.

Whatever the precise number, given the large pool of like-minded Jews, why is membership in the Society of Humanistic Jews, and similar groups in 11 other countries, so low?

According to Wine, some 15,000 to 20,000 North American Jews are “fully connected” to the Society, up from 10,000 a decade ago, while an additional 20,000 attend lectures and other activities, or get married under Humanistic auspices.

Wine believes that the future growth of his movement is linked directly to the number of trained rabbis it can produce, saying that Humanistic congregations led by rabbis, rather than lay leaders, are expanding and attracting young families.

Currently, there are six candidates studying in the rabbinical program, but, “If I had 50 rabbis to send out, the movement would grow rapidly,” Wine said.

He is convinced that secular Jews must get together and organize, especially in the face of the growing fervor of religious fundamentalists.

“Unless we are organized, we have no voice,” Wine observed. “And ours is a voice that needs to be heard.”

For information on the Society for Humanistic Judaism,visit www.shj.org .