Chicago's rabbis, teachers stress Jewish morality amid gov't and financial scandals

Chicago Jews felt the effects of both the Blagojevich and Madoff scandals.

Bernard Madoff 248 88  (photo credit: AP)
Bernard Madoff 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
As rabbi of Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, one of the Chicago area's largest reform congregations, Peter Knobel tries to apply Jewish teachings to current events. So when Bernie Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme and Gov. Rod Blagojevich's pay-to-play scandal both hit the press last month, Knobel had no shortage of issues to talk about. "Nationwide and in private conversations, there is deep concern about a systemic corruption in our society," Knobel said. "What's affected so many of us deeply about the Madoff scandal is that he harmed institutions in the [Jewish] community." While both the Blagojevich and Madoff scandals have seen front-page coverage worldwide, Chicago Jews have felt the effects of both, the former because Blagojevich is their governor and the latter because Madoff donated to or took the investments of many prominent Jewish organizations. Knobel, however, said that the Madoff affair has struck more of a chord with Chicago's Jews. "Madoff's corruption seems to be kind of a general culture of greed that has brought down our whole economy," Knobel, who is also helping unemployed congregants find work, said. "The Blagojevich piece is deeply disappointing for those of us who thought he was going to be a different leader but we've become cynical about certain kinds of politics and feel that effect less." Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, who leads North Suburban Beth El in Highland Park, a Chicago-area conservative synagogue with 1,100 families, has also addressed the two scandals in classes he has taught. He said, however, that speaking about these events in his weekly sermon would be difficult because they both necessitate dialogue. "A sermon isn't necessarily the best place to discuss some of the issues," Kurtz, who usually focuses on the weekly Torah portion when speaking in synagogue, said. "You can't do the same kind of teaching from the pulpit that you can do in the classroom, where you have sources and a give and take." Knobel has also not addressed the scandals from the pulpit because of the war in Gaza, but has written about them and spoken with his congregants regarding their consequences. "What I've tried to emphasize in talking about this is that while Judaism is positive about wealth, wealth in and of itself is not the measure of a person," he said. "It's how they utilize their resources and help to create a better community." The two scandals have also raised questions in Chicago's Jewish day schools. Leslie Yamshon, a social studies teacher at Sager Solomon Schechter Middle School in Northbrook has spoken with her seventh- and eighth-grade classes about the ethics of Blagojevich's actions, and plans to discuss the Madoff scandal with her students soon. "From the time they're born, Jews have and are taught this inner sense of morality," she said. "When they see that things are not just, it just doesn't feel right." Although Yamshon's classes are not Jewish by definition, she feels comfortable discussing issues, especially ethical ones, with her classes from a Jewish perspective. "Our country was based on Judeo-Christian ethics and values. The Declaration of Independence has got God talk in it," she said. "If I was in a secular school I don't think it would be different. I would say the same thing." But though these events have brought certain issues of morality to the fore of the Chicago Jewish community's discussions, Knobel says that even after they pass from the headlines, he will still focus on news of the day. "I have largely over the last 40 years focused on what's happening in the world," he said. "That's always been the thrust of my teaching: what does the Torah, the prophets, the rabbis have to say to help us deal with what's going on in the world?"