Life after Madoff

What do you do when your savings are pillaged? Move to a kibbutz!

By HAVIVA NER-DAVID
January 25, 2010 13:53

 
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It was around this time last year that my husband, Jacob, and I heard that we had lost a significant chunk of our liquidity to Bernie Madoff. Our money was invested with Ezra Merkin in his fund, which we understood to be a conservative fund. With six kids and both of us in independent professions, it seemed like a good idea to put our savings with him, since we would earn more than if it was in the bank, but would still not be taking any big risks with our money. Our assumption was that he was acting ethically and doing what he told his clients he was doing - investing in a variety of safe investments. In reality, he was giving all of the money in his fund to Madoff.

Thank God, we own our Jerusalem home, so we knew we had a roof over our heads. But this was an especially big blow, because our main source of income is my husband's business, which is venture capital and entrepreneurial activity. With the implosion of the financial markets, he had to close down several of his companies and plans for growth were pushed off, since this was no time to try to raise large sums of money for start-up Israeli hi-tech companies.

I am a rabbi, teacher and writer. I run marriage and wedding preparation seminars for engaged couples, counsel couples and individuals on spiritual and religious matters and teach, especially on matters related to gender and Judaism. I write books and articles. But none of this will support a family of eight in Jerusalem.

And then came the straw that broke the camel's back. I was away for Hanukka last year, officiating at a wedding in the US. I returned on a Thursday night, and the next evening, while we were in synagogue, our house was robbed. All of our computers, cellphones and video/DVD players and screens were taken. It was difficult not to take this as a message of sorts. Or a challenge. An opportunity. An invitation to make some changes in our lives.

Before the Madoff scandal was discovered, we had heard about a kibbutz in Lower Galilee that was becoming privatized and looking for new member families. Hanaton was founded in the 1980s by a group of Masorti movement activists. It had its ups and downs and was then in an all-time low, with only six member families left. If they did not find 18 new family units to be absorbed into the community and complete the privatization process, thus taking the kibbutz out of bankruptcy, it would be handed over to the kibbutz movement and most likely a secular kibbutz would have been built in its place.

But if 18 new family units did join, they would be given the chance to try and revive it as a privatized kibbutz, which is very much like a planned or cooperative community. A group was already forming. We met those who had already joined, and it seemed the idea was to build a liberal-minded, egalitarian, pluralistic community (still with connections to the Masorti movement). This idea appealed to us. Both of us have been involved in a variety of start-up projects, ranging from community projects to businesses. We enjoy that exciting, invigorating process of building something new.

We had been talking about leaving the city for years. When we moved here almost 15 years ago, we were fulfilling a dream to live in Jerusalem, the Holy City. To be in walking distance from the Western Wall. To be part of the vibrant and varied religious life. And we were quite active. We helped start and build various communities in southern Jerusalem. For instance, I was one of the founders of Shira Hadasha, the famous Orthodox "partner" minyan in the German Colony. And I was an active member of Women of the Wall even before we officially moved to Israel.



Jacob's investment fund is called Jerusalem Capital. He devoted many years toward encouraging and supporting hi-tech companies in Jerusalem. He was one of the three entrepreneurs who donated their time toward setting up wireless Internet in Jerusalem's public spaces, like on Rehov Emek Refaim in the German Colony and Rehov Ben-Yehuda in the city center, as well as many other civic projects.

Despite our great love for Jerusalem and the huge amounts of energy we had invested in the city and our communities, we felt it was time to try living somewhere else. Somewhere rural, where we could have regular contact with nature and not have to lock our door to go over to a neighbor's. Somewhere with open spaces. The frontier.

And despite our unstable financial situation, we still had our savings. We felt this was a good investment. Because Hanaton was in bankruptcy, the price was right. This seemed like our chance to actualize a new dream we had developed since our aliya: to move to the North and spread some of that liberal religious spirit up there.

My plan was to bring my work as a rabbi up north. Another rabbi who joined the kibbutz with our group had been hired by the Masorti movement to revive the educational center located on the kibbutz. In fact, he was the one who initiated the revival, since he felt that the educational center could flourish only in the midst of a flourishing Masorti-minded community. He was also looking for people with innovative ideas for educational programming and was excited for me to do my seminars and work with couples out of the center, in addition to other life cycle programming.

Moreover, I planned to breathe life back into the kibbutz mikve, which, with the secular population in the neighborhood adjoining the kibbutz and the older six remaining member families, was hardly in use anymore. My plan was to turn the mikve into a vibrant spiritual and ritual center, with healing retreats, educational seminars and private ritual immersions to mark life transitions and milestones (in addition to the traditional uses for monthly immersions for family purity, preparation for the High Holy Days, weddings, etc.).

So we joined. And thank God, because that meant that less of our savings went to Madoff, since we joined before the scandal broke. But when we joined Hanaton, we figured we would not actually move there for at least a few years. Our six children range in age from 16 to two, and we knew our older kids would put up a fight. But most importantly, none of the houses would fit our large family. So our intention was to knock down the old house on the plot we purchased and build a larger one in its place. But this would take time, especially since the house we purchased was being occupied by a group of squatters who were refusing to leave. A legal battle was under way to oust them.

But when we heard that Merkin and Madoff had squandered away the savings we were counting on living on while Jacob was building up his current start-ups - the idea of moving as soon as possible seemed like a much more practical option than staying in our 300-square-meter newly renovated house in Baka which could be rented out for a nice sum to help with our monthly expenses. So we looked into houses to rent in the area and found one less than half the size of our Jerusalem house but with enough rooms, more or less, to fit us all. (And of course, renting that house costs a fraction of what we earn from renting out our Jerusalem home.) So we went full-speed-ahead into organizing our move to Kibbutz Hanaton at the end of the school year.

ONE YEAR LATER, we have been living on Hanaton for the past six months. The mikve is bustling with activity, and I have more retreats and seminars in the works; Jacob works from home a few days a week and commutes to Tel Aviv/Herzliya the other work days. And perhaps most importantly for me, I am blessed with the opportunity to take quiet, long morning walks in the fields with our dog, listening to my own thoughts and the sounds of nature around me. And sometimes Jacob or the kids even join me, which is an added treat.

I was born with a degenerating muscular disorder, a form of muscular dystrophy, that has grown worse over the years. In the past five years it has started to affect my mobility, as the disease has spread to the muscles in my lower legs and feet. But with the help of a wonderful invention called a dictus that attaches to my ugly yet light and comfortable Earth Shoes and helps me walk (as long as my upper leg muscles are not effected), I am able to walk at my own slow pace. For this reason, since my walking became impaired, I have dreamed about living in a place with easy access to nature before it is too late. I thank God each day when I head out for my walk that I had the courage to make this move, even if just for this reason alone.

While no transitions are "easy," this one proved to be smooth for our family. There have been a huge number of changes in all of our lives in a relatively short time. But the changes feel right for now. Moving from a 300-sq.m., beautifully furnished house in a bustling city to a 160-sq.m. house, eclectically furnished, in a community that did not even have a convenience store when we moved here (although one did open a few months ago) has stretched us all in a variety of ways. There have been tears of loss, frustration and anger. But there have also been moments of closeness and opportunities for growth that we could not have experienced in the familiar comfort zone we had created for ourselves in Baka.

When we started this adventure, I thought of it as a lesson in tzimtzum (contraction), getting rid of excess and getting down to the essentials. This is a kabbalistic term based on the idea that when God created the world, He had to contract to make room for the world. Packing up the home we had lived in for 13 years felt like one huge Pessah cleaning. It was just what I needed emotionally at the time. I felt the message I was receiving from the series of financial losses we suffered in such a short time was that the financially carefree life we experienced was nice when we had it; money gives a sense of security and comfort, and I would be lying if I did not admit that it was unsettling to have this buffer pulled out from under us.

But as Jacob expressed as soon as we received news of the Madoff scandal: "It is only money. We are blessed with so much more that money can't buy." This may sound like a cliché, but coming from Jacob, who was the one who expended the time, effort, energy, gumption and brain power to earn that money Madoff cruelly stole, this was a sincere and inspiring message and reminded me once again of why I married him almost 20 years ago. Losing that money certainly helped me put my life in perspective and reminded me of what is essential and what is not. It was sad to pack up the house we gutted and completely renovated with much love and careful thought and say good-bye to friends and a place with many memories and emotional attachments, but it was also freeing and humbling to "clean house," strip our lives down to the essentials and move on to a new chapter.

Thank God we are young, adaptable and resourceful. And thank God we were able to look at these events as a wake-up call, an opportunity to set off on a new journey, an open door rather than a dead end.

Life on Kibbutz Hanaton is not simple. There is a huge amount of work to do to revive a community that had fallen apart. And the transition is still fresh; the children still need special attention. Plus, no matter where you live, there are challenges and difficulties. We have no illusions that we were leaving Jerusalem for a paradise in Galilee. Hanaton is far from paradise. But it is green and lovely, and we feel invested already in this tiny community of eclectic people who all chose to take this chance and dare to dream.

The writer is the founding director of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage and Shmaya: A Ritual and Educational Mikve at Kibbutz Hanaton. She is the author of Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, This is the first in a series of columns she will write on her life in Galilee.

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