The little foundation that could

How one Jewish charity found the Madoff scam's 'silver lining'.

Bernard Madoff 248 88  (photo credit: AP)
Bernard Madoff 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
On December 11, Bernard Madoff was arrested for one of the most massive securities frauds in history. The next day, a small charity that was the backbone of the Jewish community on Massachusetts' North Shore was the first Jewish institution to publicly announce it was shutting its doors and firing its seven staff members, after its $8 million endowment was wiped out by Madoff. But that was not the end for the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation. In a way, it was a whole new beginning. As news of the Lappin Foundation's closure reverberated throughout America's Jewish communities - though small, it was widely seen as a harbinger for what was to come - the community it had served for so long came to the rescue. Spectacularly. Within two days of closing, an all-volunteer grassroots fund-raising campaign was launched to save the foundation's signature program, "Youth to Israel," a birthright-like free trip to Israel that preceded birthright by some three decades. Together with an immediate anonymous gift of some $100,000, the foundation was able to raise most of the $500,000 price tag to fund the free trip for the dozens of Jewish youngsters on the waiting list. Lappin himself, a retired businessman, has also come through to help the foundation's programs and employees survive the Madoff blow. He contributed $150,000 for foundation programs, $60,000 and office space for foundation operations, and fully $5 million to restore the lost retirement funds his former employees had invested, alongside the foundation's own endowment, in Madoff-run funds. Now back on its feet with three part-time employees working a total of up to 40 hours per week, the foundation has discovered that hard times can be inspirational. "The outpouring of financial support for our Youth to Israel program and expressions of emotional support from the community have inspired us to keep going," said the foundation's executive director Debbie Coltin. "We know that our programs make a difference in the lives of thousands of Jewish children, and the programs truly help parents to raise their children Jewish by enhancing their Jewish pride and instilling in them a sense of responsibility for our Jewish family." In fact, said Coltin, the tough times ultimately proven to be a boon to the foundation's efforts to spread its programming ideas and best practices throughout the Jewish community. "The silver lining to all of this is that the foundation is receiving national and international attention as a result of being victimized by Bernard Madoff," Coltin said. "Our previous attempts at sharing our incredible success via the Jewish media have been negligible," but no longer. Coltin wants the foundation to use the attention to show the Jewish world what the charity has learned in 16 years of Jewish programming. The Lappin Foundation prides itself on innovation in its efforts "to keep our children Jewish." It had been sending teenagers on free trips to Israel long before anyone had conceived of the birthright idea. It runs free introductory courses on Judaism for intermarried couples, and free courses for potential converts. "This is a defining moment for Jewish philanthropy, an opportunity to re-direct Jewish money," Coltin said. "Let's face it - if we do not take care of our Jewish family, no one else is going to do it for us. If Jewish philanthropists would collectively commit 10 percent of their philanthropic giving to Jewish programs that are effectively keeping our children Jewish, then we will not have to worry about Jewish continuity. "For example," she continued, "for less than $6,000 per person, in communities all across America, every Jewish teen could have a life-changing Israel experience, one that incorporates Jewish education, Jewish identity-building, tikkun olam, leadership, and community building. Such a program is the most cost-effective tool for building Jewish identity in the least amount of time during the most critical phase of a young Jewish adult's life." Before Madoff cut their plans short, the foundation had expanded its Israel trips to include Jewish educators. This program, "Teachers to Israel," was the inspiration for a study currently under way in the Prime Minister's Office to launch a "birthright for teachers" project funded partially by Israel. That idea should not die because of Madoff, Coltin believes. "Hundreds, even thousands, of Jewish children are influenced by one Jewish educator," she said. "The quality of Jewish education across the board, from preschool to supplemental religious school to day school to post-b'nai mitzva programs would be greatly improved if an Israel experience was required of every educator." With a successful recovery under way, what does Coltin feel about the great swindler who caused so much damage to Jewish life? "He is where he should be," she said of his jailing this month. "This is about all I have energy to offer regarding Madoff. "Beating ourselves up over what happened is counterproductive," Coltin concluded. "Channeling our feelings and money into continuing the good work of the foundation is the only thing to do."