Epic scandal

Best answer to Madoff is to give charity, even if you're not rich.

Madoff  63 (photo credit: )
Madoff 63
(photo credit: )
Not many people have heard of the Yeshaya Horowitz Foundation, which disbursed about $140 million over the past 15 years in Israel. Started by an anonymous donor, it funded basic medical research - advancing theoretical knowledge in science and medicine with no immediate commercial value. Such work, however, often sets the stage for private industry to take over. Horowitz money paid for doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships, and was just now covering the completion of a lab to be jointly operated by Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University. Several weeks ago, when monies supposed to have been routinely deposited failed to materialize, a persistent Horowitz staffer made a series of inquiries which led, astonishingly, to a pithy telephone exchange with the august Bernard L. Madoff, whose firm had been managing the funds bequeathed to the foundation. Lately, noted the staffer, payments have been late in coming, and the November monies haven't arrived at all. "You'll get your money," said Madoff, before abruptly hanging up. Now it appears that the Yeshaya Horowitz Foundation has been wiped out - one of a long list of praiseworthy organizations laid low or mortally wounded by the unspeakable avarice of Madoff and, as of this writing, his unknown co-conspirators. It is the most awful philanthropic scandal in history. Throughout the Jewish world, communal leaders are endeavoring to ascertain which of their prosperous members - precisely those who carry the heaviest philanthropic burden - have been swindled by Madoff. Some federations in Boston, New Jersey, Los Angeles and Greater Washington have, we know, been hard-hit. But the number of charities, not-for-profits and educational institutions whose work, if not their very existence, has been jeopardized is too long to itemize here. They include Yeshiva University, fortunately positioned to weather the storm, and Hadassah, which has lost $90 million and been forced to cancel its 2009 convention in New Orleans. Among those who will pay for Madoff's greed are cancer patients, the aged and Jewish day schoolers. For instance, the Chais Family Foundation's assets of $178 million have been wiped out. Chais had recently allocated $1 million to the ORT educational network. All gone. The Robert I. Lappin Foundation, a major benefactor of Birthright, has been forced to close. Yad Sarah, too, has taken a hit. Obviously, it's not only charities which have been affected. So have leading Israeli insurance and financial services companies. Reports say Phoenix had a $15-million exposure to Madoff; Harel $7.5 million, and Clal $3 million. Outside the Jewish world, the pensions of fire-fighters in Colorado and teachers in South Korea have all been impacted. ALL THIS bad news comes on top of a worldwide economic meltdown that had anyway been threatening the budgets of schools, universities, hospitals and Jewish communal institutions. These were already very dark days. They've just gotten darker. The Jewish world finds itself shaken - by the financial losses caused by the international economic downturn, by the blows inflicted by Madoff, and on top of these, by a profound sense of embarrassment at the perpetrator's openly aligning himself with modern Orthodox Jewry. If we tell ourselves that Muslim terrorism is enabled by a larger collective that tolerates extremism, what do we say about a swindler with such close ties to our community? Was not Jerusalem Post financial columnist Pinchas Landau spot-on when he inquired whether it was Madoff alone who had lost his moral compass? Landau is surely justified in emphasizing the ethical component to Judaism and arguing that too many of us, focused on ritual, have lost sight of its centrality. We must be grateful that in our age of unbridled materialism and moral relativism there are still members of our community who haven't lost their capacity for shame. The Jewish people has engaged from time immemorial in a never-ending struggle to be a light unto the nations. Madoff is a dismal reminder that we still have a long way to go. Our capacity for communal soul-searching is a strength. Let's not shirk it. And let's remind ourselves, too, that US Jews, who comprise 2 percent of the population, donate as if they comprised a quarter of Americans. The best answer to Madoff is for more and more Jews - not just the rich - to give charity.