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.

Today’s Task: Be an Angel


We all have daily to-do lists.

So why shouldn’t God?

That’s the premise of Dr. Ron Wolfson’s new book, “God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007).

“God has a to-do list for you,” the book opens. “You are God’s partner. God needs you to continue the ongoing creation of the world.”

Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and cofounder of Synagogue 3000, taps into the latest best-selling trend: religious self-help. Like Pastor Rick Warren’s 20-million copy bestseller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” (which Wolfson quotes), “God’s To-Do List” anthropomorphizes the Deity with human properties, like Post-It Notes.

Indeed, the 122-page, soft-cover book features outtakes such as “Be Like God,” “Let God Be Your Role Model,” “Do One Small To-Do Every Day.” It’s broken down into chapters, such as Create, Bless, Rest, Call, Comfort, Care, Repair, Wrestle, Give and Forgive, which ostensibly make up the 103 ways to be an angel.

Wolfson’s other books include “The Spirituality of Welcoming,” “How to Transform Your Congregation Into a Sacred Community,” “A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement and Comfort” (all Jewish Lights), and here he uses two seemingly conflicting biblical statements to show how man should operate on earth: “I am but dust and ashes,” (Genesis, 18:27) and “For my sake the world was created,” (Sanhedrin, 37A).

The first is to remind you not to be too proud, that “like all humans, you have little time on this earth, and you will, no question about it, return to dust and ash.”

The second is to remind you, when you’re feeling down, “it makes you feel like the most important person in the world.”

God’s to-do list includes blessing your family, creating new relationships, practicing hearing, inviting newcomers into your neighborhood, performing random acts of kindness, contributing time and money to political organizations, practicing the art of compromise, giving to the needy, forgiving others and yourself — in other words, being a better, more engaged human being. Although Wolfson uses Jewish sources, the book presents “Jewish wisdom for people of all faiths.”

“Everyone has gifts to give and things to do. The world will be a better place because you are in it,” Wolfson writes in the conclusion. “The question is, are you ready to do the to-dos on your God’s to-do list? Are you ready to be an angel?”

Our first annual big list o’ mensches


To its detractors, Los Angeles seems very much like a modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah — besotting civilization with a trash culture of celebrity murder trials, reality TV and movies that trade on violence and superficiality. Even to Angelenos, the city can be trying and sometimes disheartening. Our metropolis seems almost biblically plagued with crawling traffic, battling gangs and stratospheric home prices; with a vast divide between rich and poor, between legal and under-the-table and between cycles of boom and bust — as well as with fires, earthquakes and mudslides. And yet, by the standard that should have saved Sodom — 10 righteous souls (we consider families as one) — Los Angeles’ future shines bright at the dawn of 2006 C.E. For Los Angeles is amply provided with tzadikim — good people who do good work in the community. The men and women featured here — beginning what we intend to make an annual list — are just a sampling of what is worth celebrating in our community.

MENSCHES

Yeladim


 

The Ugly Bug Ball

In Parshat Shemini, we learn which animals are kosher. A young friend of mine asked: Why did God create both kosher and non-kosher animals? The sages of the Talmud ask the same question. They said there is something we can learn from every animal – kosher or not.

For example, the Sages say we can learn honesty and industriousness from an ant. Ants are hardworking, and they are “honest” in that they don’t steal from each other.

King David tried to uncover the meaning behind each animal and he succeeded – but he couldn’t figure out the spider. So, God showed King David how the spider could even save a life. When running for his life from King Saul, David hid in a cave. King Saul and his soldiers were searching everywhere. God sent a spider to spin a web over the opening of the cave in which David was hiding. When the soldiers came to his cave and saw it was covered with a spider’s web, they moved straight past, not realizing that the web was freshly made.

All Creatures Great and Small

Did You Know?

The word for “kindness” in Hebrew is chesed. In the Torah, the Hebrew word for stork is chasida. The rabbis say that the stork was given this name because this bird is very kind and generous with its food and shares with other birds.

1. Where are koala bears from?

a) United States

b) Russia

c) Australia

2. Whales and dolphins are large fish.

a) yes

b) no

c) both

3. What is the largest flying bird alive today?

a) Bald eagle

b) Penguin

c) Condor

d) Albatros

Answers From Last Week

Tell Me a Story: Hamantaschen

 

Yeladim


 

The Fire of Money

In Parshat Ki Tisa, each Israelite is instructed to give a half-shekel to the “temple fund” every year. There is a midrash – a story told by rabbis to teach a lesson – about this portion. Rabbis say that God took a fiery coin from under His heavenly throne, showed it to Moses and said: “Like this shall they give.”

What can we learn from the image of a fiery coin? The rabbis say that fire can be destructive if misused, but can be very useful and beneficial if used properly. And so it is with money. Perhaps money is – or can be – the “root of all evil,” but it can also be used for charity and acts of kindness.

Back Words

Solve the clues. The second answer is the first answer written backwards!

Give money

– – –

A high-pitch bark

– – –

A Yiddle Riddle

Turn the following description into two words.

A scratchy inflammation in the middle of your body.

Now, put the two together to get one Hebrew word and one big prize!

Being Jewish in America

Written by a fifth grade,

Emek Hebrew Academy

It is difficult sometimes to be one of a small number of Jews in America and in L.A., especially around Christmastime, when a lot of stores are sporting trees, lights, etc. Yet, somehow, my family manages to celebrate Shabbat, keep kosher and go to a Jewish school. There are lots of churches in L.A., but there are also a lot of shuls and Jewish organizations that make it easier and more fun to be a Jewish American!

 

The Greatest Good


The most exciting weeknight in our house is Thursday; our family eats a hasty dinner and I rush off, two or three children in tow, to Tomchei Shabbos. Every week, my children join me in packing and delivering “Shabbat packages” brought to those members of our community who need a little help just to “make Shabbat” — grape juice, challah, chicken, eggs, etc. Tomchei Shabbos delivers to more than 200 families every week, through the volunteer work of more than 50 people, young and old.

Every Thursday evening, as we are leaving the warehouse with our freshly packed boxes, each one of my children goes up to say thank you to Steve Berger, the tireless coordinator of Tomchei Shabbos. At each home where we stop to deliver, when the recipient comes out to greet us (as they always do) my children again say thank you — to the recipient of our Shabbat package.

They understand this powerful lesson: The greatest kindness you can do for someone is to make him/her feel worthwhile and to give him/her an avenue to make a difference. When these little children gather milk, challot, produce, etc. together to help pack a box, they feel at their best, because they understand that they are making a difference in someone else’s Shabbat, in someone else’s life. To invite someone to contribute — in an area where he or she is capable — is the greatest kindness you can bestow.

It seems that this is the gist of Moses’ oddly worded invitation to his father-in-law:

And Moses said to Hovav…. “We are journeying to the place about which Hashem said, I will give it you; come with us, and we will do you good; for Hashem has spoken good concerning Israel.”

And he said to him, “I will not go; but I will depart to my own land, and to my kindred.”

And he said, “Leave us not, I pray you; for you know how we are to camp in the wilderness, and you may be to us instead of eyes. And it shall be, if you go with us, it shall be, that whatever goodness Hashem shall do to us, the same will we do to you” (Numbers 10:29-32).

This conversation between Moses and his Midianite father-in-law took place at the foot of Sinai, just as the Israelites were about to depart on their triumphant march into Eretz Yisrael. Moses, in a statement of utter generosity, offers Hovav a place among the people, that he may benefit from the great goodness with which God blessed His people.

Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, z”l, once commented on this invitation:

“It was not an invitation that a son-in-law extended to his father-in-law. It was not an invitation extended by an individual to another human being to share the good things in life. It was more than that. It was an invitation extended by Moses, as a representative of Israel to all converts of all generations…. There is enough chesed [lovingkindness], goodness and happiness in the Torah to be transmitted to others and to be shared by others.”

What is this great goodness? What was the beneficence that Moses was offering to Hovav? Indeed, what is the generosity extended by the Torah to all of mankind?

Oddly enough, Moses does not offer Hovav land or a position of honor among the people; he asks him to “be our eyes in the desert” — to help lead the people through the wilderness, which he knows so well. What sort of beneficence is this on Moses’ part?

This is the same lesson as that all of the wonderful Tomchei packers and drivers know: There is no greater goodness than asking someone to contribute to the betterment of society and to the welfare of his fellow man.

In an age where deeds are vendible and kind acts are considered commodities, we would do well to listen to Moses’ invitation:

“And it shall be, if you go with us, it shall be, that whatever goodness Hashem shall do to us, the same will we do to you.”

For those who wish to contribute their time and/or energy to Tomchei Shabbos, call (323) 931-0224.


Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom is the associate director of Project Next Step.

A Jewish World Without Denominations


A new president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) was inaugurated in a moving ceremony held Oct. 13 in the ornate Plum Street Temple in downtown Cincinnati. Rabbi David Ellenson, a native of Newport News, Va., and a long-time resident of Los Angeles, spoke from the pulpit of this classic Moorish-style temple about the unique challenges of leading an American rabbinical seminary into the 21st century.

On one level, Ellenson seems to be an odd choice to lead the Reform rabbinical seminary. He is more a scholar than an administrator or fundraiser, more a teacher than a pulpit rabbi. But even more significantly, Ellenson defies denominational classification: born and raised in an Orthodox home, he has written extensively on Modern Orthodoxy, with particular interest in the role of halachic response in shaping its contours. Along with his wife, Jackie, who is also a rabbi, he spent many years in Los Angeles as a pillar of the Library Minyan of Conservative Temple Beth Am. And for nearly three decades, he has been a professor at the Reform HUC-JIR.

The audience assembled at the Plum Street Temple was unperturbed by Ellenson’s denominational eclecticism. Rather, they took ample note of the new president’s erudition, as well as his legendary kindness and compassion. A smaller number of cognoscenti also marveled at the historical journey of the Reform movement in the United States.

To illustrate the point, a brief digression to culinary history is in order. In 1883, the first class of rabbinical ordinees graduated from the HUC-JIR. The festive ceremony that marked the occasion, the first ordination of any rabbinical seminary in the United States, was held in the same Plum Street, or Bene Yeshurun, Temple.

Following the ceremony, a gala dinner was held that drew representatives from more than 100 synagogues across the country. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the 8-year-old Union of American Hebrew Congregations and president of its HUC-JIR, had hoped to forge a broad congregational association that would unite all of American Judaism under one roof, and indeed, more than half of the nation’s 200-odd synagogues were on board.

That dream ended with dinner. The meal commenced with half-shell clams, proceeded to soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad, as well as a number of kosher meats, before concluding with an ice cream dessert. Unprepared for such an "innovative menu," the more traditional rabbis abruptly fled from what has come to be known in the annals of American Jewish history as the "Treifa Banquet." The unintended legacy was the hardening of ideological divisions into denominational wings as we know them.

Nearly 120 years later, the invited guests of Ellenson’s inauguration party were treated to a thoroughly kosher dinner under strict rabbinical supervision. These two meals — the Treifa and the Kosher Banquets — stand as intriguing markers of the significant shifts that Reform — and American — Judaism have undergone.

Before the Treifa Banquet, the denominational boundaries of an emerging American Jewry were hardly visible. During the next century, these boundaries became reinforced as the four main denominations each built seminaries, synagogues, congregational organizations, youth movements and schools to embody their respective messages.

But today, these borders seem to be eroding. Ellenson symbolizes that erosion in his own varied Jewish biography. So, too, does the fact that his institution recently awarded honorary doctorates to Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, chancellor of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former chancellor of the Orthodox-sponsored Bar-Ilan University. For many decades, it would have been unimaginable that an Orthodox rabbi like Rackman would have accepted a doctorate from HUC-JIR. But having reached more than four score and 10 years, Rackman is so distinguished, wise and courageous as to deliberately and openly rise above denominational differences.

His example suggests that there may well be more that unites than separates the various constituents of American Judaism. This is particularly true when we observe that American Jewry may be shrinking at a marked clip, at least according to the recent National Jewish Population Survey. This is also true when we notice the growing trend toward increased observance in all of the denominations, including the Reform movement. The Kosher Banquet of 2002 is but one link in a chain of growing traditionalism that defines American Jewish religious identity in the new century.

For some, this development is cause for joy. And yet, we must also recall that drift and alienation from organized Jewish life continue, in part because denominational packaging no longer appeals to a growing number of hungry, spiritual consumers.

The intriguing transformations of the Reform movement, as symbolized by the presidency of Ellenson, should prompt a probing debate about the role and relevance of denominations in American Judaism of the 21st century. So, too, should the current struggles to chart a coherent course for American Orthodoxy — as reflected in the difficulty in finding a successor to Yeshiva University’s long-time president, Rabbi Norman Lamm, who has skillfully mediated the demands of being a college president and rosh yeshiva. In fact, all the American Jewish denominations must now ask themselves whether their considerable, but ultimately limited, resources are better utilized in preserving their own institutions or joining forces to confront the challenging days ahead.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism. David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history at UCLA.