Monday, December 22, 2008

Betrayed by Madoff, Yeshiva U. Adds a Lesson

I've started to think about planning my courses for next semester. One of them is an introductory course on Judaism, and I usually include a segment on Jewish ethics. Perhaps this time we should discuss business ethics according to Jewish teachings. Tomorrow's New York Times has an interesting article on the soul-searching going on at Yeshiva University in the wake of the Madoff scandal - Betrayed by Madoff, Yeshiva U. Adds a Lesson.

In Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s philosophy of Jewish law course, students pondered whether Jewish values had been distorted to reward material success.“This overrides everything else,” said Rabbi Blech, who has taught at Yeshiva for 42 years. “It is an opportunity to convey to students that ritual alone is not the sole determinant of our Judaism, that it must be combined with humanity, with ethical behavior, with proper values, and most important of all, with regard to our relationship with other human beings.”....

Rabbi Blech... said he, too, worried that community expectations had steered students away from public-service professions like teaching and toward more lucrative jobs.“In elevating to a level of demiworship people with big bucks, we have been destroying the values of our future generation,” he said. “We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring.”....

Rabbi Blech, for his part, turned to the Ten Commandments, noting that some focus on a person’s relationship with God, others on relationships with fellow human beings. He said that “both tablets are equally important.”

“Just because you eat kosher and observe the Sabbath does not make you good,” he explained. “If you cheat and steal, you cannot claim you are a good Jew.”

Links to articles on impact of Madoff on Jewish community

Minneapolis - Jewish groups reeling over Madoff scheme.

JTA article on Picower foundation and the groups it gave money to. This was a very large foundation - half a billion dollars in assets. In 2007 they gave about $2.5 million to Jewish groups.

Washington, D.C. - Local toll runs high in Madoff collapse.

Palm Beach, Florida, charities damaged by Madoff.

Baltimore - Jewish charities not struck by Madoff collapse.

Article on Boston and the views of Boston Jewish community leaders, in the Boston Globe.

And .... if you're curious to read an anti-Semitic article on Madoff, take a look at James Petras's article in Dissident Voice. His article is cloaked in a lot of Marxist and anti-Israel rhetoric, but is anti-Semitic nonetheless. (To get more of a flavor of his rhetoric, see his article, "Barack Obama: 'America's First Jewish President'"; see also this ADL article that includes a discussion of him). Dissident Voice, by the way, is the journal that has published Daniel McGowan's defense of Ernst Zundel, the convicted Neo-Nazi now sitting in a German jail for Holocaust denial. Update: McGowan has now written his own anti-Semitic take on Madoff for Dissident Voice: The Madoff Victims: Schadenfreude, not Anti-Semitism.

Why Hanukkah Still Matters

Edgar Bronfman has a nice column in the Washington Post on Hanukkah and the meanings it has (and can have) for American Jews -Why Hanukkah Still Matters.

He writes:
But the success and confidence of "assimilated" American Jews is also what makes them capable of creating a new kind of Judaism, one that may grow and thrive with freedom. The interest is there, among both in-married and intermarried families, but the knowledge is lacking. Jewish education must replace the fight against anti-Semitism as the focus of Jewish communal life. American Jews have the opportunity to create a Jewish practice that is based not in fear but in hope. And hope, after all, is the theme that runs so powerfully through both the Maccabees' story of triumph against all odds and the rabbis' story of the lasting power of a single flame.

The first step toward carrying on Judaism is to begin learning. American Jews should not let Christmas define Hanukkah--they should define it for themselves, based on knowledge of its multi-layered texts and traditions. I am convinced that Judaism still has much to offer to the world, with its spirit of questioning, its focus on living ethically, its communal ethos. And there may be a message for the world in the Hanukkah story. If the Maccabees had not been victorious, would monotheism have survived? Would Christianity or Islam ever have come into being? Perhaps the Hanukkah story should be cause for celebration outside the Jewish community as well as within.

It's an interesting question - if the Maccabees had not succeeded, would Judaism have survived as a separate religion? Would Christianity or Islam ever have come into being? I sometimes think about historical nexus points, where a single event would have led to a significant change in the future. (For a much more obscure example - what if King Sennacherib had succeeded in his siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.? It's possible that the kingdom of Judah would have been dissolved into the Assyrian empire, as the northern kingdom of Israel had been - in which case there would have been no Bible and no Judaism either).

Khaye, the Daughter of Yiftach

I'm in the midst of grading final exams for my Hebrew Scriptures course, and one of the questions that I set the students was an analysis of the story of Yiftach and his daughter, one of the most troubling stories in the Bible, in Judges 11. Yiftach makes a vow to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house if he is victorious in his battle against the Ammonites. He is victorious, and when he comes home, his daughter, who is his only child, runs out dancing with timbrels to greet him. It is she whom he must sacrifice. He does not retract his vow, and the implication at the end of the story is that he sacrificed her, after she spent two months in the hills mourning her virginity with her friends.

There is no moral condemnation of Yiftach in the story, as there is also no moral condemnation of Abraham in Genesis 22 when he prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac. In both cases, God has commanded or permitted the sacrifice of the child. The difference, of course, is that Yiftach actually goes through with it.

The story depicts the daughter of Yiftach as acquiescing in her father's vow. She says, "You have opened your mouth to YHWH - do to me according to what came out of your mouth, since YHWH has wreaked vengeance on your enemies, on the Ammonites." Since God has fulfilled his side of the vow - it was he who brought the Ammonites defeat at the hands of Yiftach - then Yiftach has to fulfill his side of the vow, and bring the sacrifice.

Would she really have acquiesced so calmly? (She is calm - her father is upset, panicked). My students, in their essays, explain her agreement with her father as submission to his will as the patriarch of the family who is due his daughter's obedience. I resist this interpretation - frankly, it seems tragic and sad that a young woman could agree to her own destruction.

So I have written a poem to express my own feelings about this story.

An Only Daughter

“To God Himself she is an only daughter”
an only daughter – bas-yekhide
who sits at God’s right hand,

his sister Khaye, green eyes and black braids*

Who else is an only daughter?
“She was his only daughter; aside from her he had neither son nor daughter”

And what did he say about her?
“Whatever comes, indeed comes, out of the doors of my house to greet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon will be for YHWH and I will raise it up as something raised-up.”

But it was not peace, it was war
He did not return in peace from the sons of Ammon,
He returned in war –
“He struck them from Aroer up to Minnit, twenty cities, as far as Avel-Keramim, a very great blow, and the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel.”
I didn’t hear the old man’s words when he made his vow
He was in the Fortress of Gilead
but our house was in the Land of Good.
I don’t know why he went back there – his brothers used to call him
the Son of the Whore, the Son of the Other Woman
What did he owe them?
But when they called, he came
He still wanted them to give him his true inheritance
So he agreed to that strange scheme
To fight the sons of Ammon
And get what in return?
To be a judge – “his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him”
What did he say when he saw it was his daughter, his only daughter?
“I opened my mouth to YHWH, and I cannot go back”
His name is Opener and indeed he opened the way but could not return on it
She was his troubler who brought him low
I danced out of the house with the drums in my hand
when I heard that Abba was returning
at last, from all the wars
Maybe this time he would stay in the Good Land
He was wearing his armor, with his sword on his hip
He looked at me,
suddenly, his eyes opened wide and he said,
“Alas, my daughter! I opened my mouth to YHWH, and I cannot go back.”
Go back from what? I opened my mouth to ask Abba,
and then I saw the sword in his hand
His eyes weren’t looking at me anymore
But at the tip of that sword
I look back on that scene from a great distance now
It’s almost as if I’m an observer now – the old weary grizzled man, the young girl with the drum in her hand, the men behind him unloading the donkeys
As he spoke, he slid his hand onto the hilt of his sword and pulled it out of the scabbard
then he was standing holding it almost at her throat

I don’t know how I was able to say it, I don’t remember how I was so calm
“Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months and I will go and descend upon the hills, and I will weep for my virginity, I and my friends.”
He looked at the sword in his hand
The men behind him froze, the ropes in their hands falling to the ground
He looked down again at me
I was such a little gir
The sword fell, its tip digging into the ground
Sudden movement –
the men behind him took the load off the donkeys
Opener/Yiftach left the sword in the dust
He walked through the doors of his house
And I?
I went into the hills
I descended into the hills
And I never came back.
Sometimes it is possible to change the ending of the story

But the other girl? That one,
O, she returned to her father’s house, and
he did to her as he had vowed

“My sister Khaye with her eyes of green
A German burned her in Treblinka.”

And the four days of mourning of the daughters of Israel?
the tenth of Tevet, the twenty-seventh of Nissan, the seventeenth of Tammuz, and the ninth of Av

Note: Khaye is a reference to a poem by Binem Heller, "My Sister Khaye," which was written in memory of his sister who died at Treblinka. It was set to music by Chava Alberstein for her recording "The Well," which she did with the Klezmatics.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Foundation That Relied on Madoff Fund Closes

Another foundation is being forced to close its doors due to Madoff's Ponzi scheme - The Picower Foundation. It lost approximately $1 billion. One Jewish group that it gave money to is the Jewish Outreach Institute.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Jewish organizations that lost money with Madoff

Update: For another list, see article in the Forward. The list below has been updated from the Forward article.

The The New York Times has a list of Bernard Madoff's clients who have lost truly stunning amounts of money. They include some iconic Jewish organizations. Information below is from the NYT article and several others (see this Forward article). It is a truly grim story of betrayal of personal and institutional trust. There is a particularly horrifying detail from a story in the New York Jewish Week -
One private investor here said he was still in disbelief that all of his money was gone after he had entrusted it to a man who “over the years was a pillar of the community.”
“The whole story is so bizarre that it surpasses understanding,” he said. “I have known him for 20 years. Our relationship was close enough that when he was raising money for a cause because a family member was ill, I made a contribution and he hugged and kissed me. Knowing that relationship, it is impossible he could do this to me and all the other organizations and people he did it to. ... How a human being could turn that way on fellow human beings and charities and organizations that he respected and admired, I can’t fathom.”
In an article from the Forward, a statement on the impact on the Jewish community:
Mark Rosenblum, director of the Jewish Studies Center at Queens College said: “This is a much more Draconian hit on American Jewish philanthropy than the generalized credit crunch has been. This one man has demonstrated a capacity to radically impact American Jewish philanthropy and, even more important, elements of American civil society.”
Here's the list:

American Friends of Yad Sarah $1.5 million
American Jewish Congress (more than 2/3 of its endowment was invested with Madoff - he was treasurer of the board)
American Technion Society - $72 million
L. Bravmann Foundation $5 million
Chais Family Foundation (had assets of $178 million in May 2007)
Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun $3.5 million
Eisenberg Family Foundation $5.1 million (in 2006, donated $950,000 to Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey)
Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity $15.2 million
Forward Foundation $355,000
Hadassah $90 million (this is truly awful!)
Hillel Foundation $20,000 (thank God it's not more!)
Jewish Federation of Greater Washington $10 million
Jewish Foundation of Greater Los Angeles $6.4 million
Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation $18 million
Jewish Community Centers Association of North America $7 million
Jewish Funds for Justice $3.9 million
Charles and Mary Kaplan Foundation (Rockville, MD) $29.2 million
U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg's foundation - $12.8 million
Julian J. Levitt Foundation $6 million
Madoff Family Foundation $19.1 million
Maimonides School $5 million.
North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System $5.7 million
Ramaz School $6 million
Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation $7 million
SAR Academy $1.2 million
Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation $145 million (has given money to Brandeis)
Technion-Israel Institute of Technology $6 million
Yeshiva University $100 to $125 million (Madoff also served as the board treasurer)
Mortimer Zuckerman Trust $30 million

Total known thus far: approximately $814 million

Other Jewish groups mentioned in articles that are tied to Madoff which may have lost money -

Kav Lachayim (received money from Madoff Family Foundation)
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Gurwin Jewish Geriatric Center
Wunderkinder Foundation (Steven Spielberg) - has funded the Chabad charity Children of Chernobyl (in 2006, 70% of its dividend income and interest was handled by Madoff)
Lautenberg Foundation has given to the United Jewish Appeal of MetroWest ($352,000 in 2006)
American Committee for Weitzmann Institute (Chais Foundation donated money $1.4 million to them)
Hillel: Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (received $300,000 from Chais)
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (money received from Chais)
The Shapiro Family Foundation has given to Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, Jewish Home for the Aged in Palm Beach, and the Anti-Defamation League
Fifth Avenue Synagogue
State of Israel Bonds

An interesting article from Business Week on the Madoff scandal.

This is, of course, only a small part of the $50 billion that is reported to be lost in the Ponzi scheme, including billions of dollars invested by banks, hedge funds, and rich individuals.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Miniature Home

When I was a girl, I had a dollhouse full of tiny furniture that I had bought at the local five and dime, Erwin's. My mother built it for me. The dollhouse itself has long since disappeared, but I kept the furniture in a box, and when I moved to my current house, I set up the furniture as tiny rooms along a shelf. I love miniature things.



Living Room

Dining Room



Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sukkah in the snow and cardinal on the sukkah

My blog format has been changed today because I learned how to add a photo to the header. I took this one today - it shows my backyard in snow, complete with my sukkah, which I've left up, having given up on putting it and taking it down again after Sukkot. I like the look of the sukkah in the snow.

The photo below was taken this summer, showing our local cardinal perched on one of the sukkah's beams.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Bill Ayers in his own words

For those who can stand it, read Bill Ayers' apologia today in the New York Times.

For cogent analyses, see David Adler and Hilzoy.