"This has been an Annus Horribilis for the Jewish people," the president of Yeshiva University, Richard Joel, remarked last week, conjuring the Latin phrase used to describe a year filled with absolute misery.
Queen Elizabeth II famously used the phrase in 1992 to describe the British royal family's tabloid fodder, and then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan used it in 2004 to describe a year in which the UN was rocked by scandal involving its Oil-for-Food-Program.
In New York last week, Joel's audience conjured damaging financial headlines, including Bernard Madoff's $65 billion Ponzi scheme and the arrest of rabbis involved in a money-laundering ring that also implicated a man accused of organ trafficking.
Speaking at a conference on Jewish values, Joel's comment struck an ironic chord.
Organized by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, best known for his book Kosher Sex and for ministering to Michael Jackson, the conference was a launching point for This World: The Jewish Values Network, Boteach's new effort to export Jewish values to the rest of the world via the mass media.
"We have a message to the non-Jewish world, but we never share it," he told a room full of participants, who piled into a shuttered conference room at the UJA-Federation of New York.
The conference attracted some heavy hitters: Joel and Michael Steinhardt spoke during the opening plenum, followed by sessions featuring Rabbis Joseph Telushkin and Jacob J. Schacter. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz spoke about Jewish enlightenment; Dennis Prager discussed righteous actions and Alan Dershowitz was scheduled to lead a panel discussion about meritocracy.
For Boteach, who has been working for years to disseminate Jewish values, the 2008 election of US President Barack Obama diminished the role of values-based voters, leaving a void for the Jewish community to fill, he said.
"This is the time for the Jewish community to share its values with the rest of the world," he said.
Having crystallized seven core values of Judaism - destiny, redemption, enlightenment, action, meritocracy, struggle and sacred time and place - he urged participants to help him turn those values into a program of action.
Why should Christian Evangelical preacher Joel Osteen do a better job at bringing Jewish values to the mainstream, he asked.
Striking a familiar chord, he said promoting Jewish values would ensure Jewish continuity.
"We have to show that we have broad appeal," he said.
Jewish continuity, of course, is what has occupied Jewish communal organizations for years, amid declining synagogue attendance and rising rates of intermarriage.
"I became invested in Jewish values as a way of trying to understand how to bring the non-Orthodox cohort of Jews back to Judaism. That has, in one sense, been my life's work for the past 15 years," Steinhardt told the crowd.
He shared his own "Jewish" values, including the struggle with spirituality; living in the present; ethnic consciousness; Israel; creativity, and an echo of Old Testament morality.
"Most Jews are proud of being Jewish, but we don't know why," he remarked. "For most kids, Jewishness is a big black box. We don't know what's inside, but we sure are proud of it."
Steinhardt - lamenting the failures in educating non-Orthodox Jews - said he's met students on the Birthright program who are "Jewish ignoramuses."
Jews give 15 percent of their money to non-Jewish causes, he said.
That "says we're not so Jewish anymore. My concern is to make us Jewish again," he said.
Education is key, he said.
"If we don't do better with [young people], we are just going to be an insignificant group, even more than we are now."
Joel responded with his own call to action: for the Jewish community to turn to its story, heritage and Torah.
"The first thing I want is students to know who
they are, their story," Joel said. "[They] are the future of the Jewish people."
How many times daily do observant Jews pray, Steinhardt asked.
"One would think those who pray, believe in halacha, would be more ethical," he said. "But then one has to ask the questions, why does that not seem to be the case?" "Certainly after Madoff, I think there was a lot of introspection," Boteach told The Jerusalem Post, though he added that he personally did not care to focus on the Ponzi schemer.
"It's not the big scandals that worry me. Those guys are aberrations," he said.
Instead, he said he worried about ostentatious
displays at bar mitzva parties and families focused only on making money.
"The fact is that Jewish families aren't as strong," he added. "A lot of people are looking around and saying, 'I don't want to raise kids in this materialization.'"
Participants agreed, despite the juxtaposition of a conference on Jewish values that took place on the heels of some major scandals.
"I think Americans are hungry for spirituality," said one attendee, Chaim Miller, who is editor of Kol Menachem, a series of books and tractates incorporating the teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
"We just need to get away from our persecution complex."
Miller acknowledged the crimes of the past year, but said, "We can't be bogged down. We have to plow forward with the good."
Even Joel touted the virtues of moving on.
"I had the great benefit of having the sociopath of the generation as a member of my board of trustees," he said, referring to Madoff.
"We don't wait for the miracles," Joel said. "You take responsibility."