Thursday, February 26, 2009

Three Jews

One of the things I often talk about here is Chilul HaShem. Very few things bother me as much as this. And although I have said as recently as earlier today that the more religious one is - the greater the Chilul HaShem, the fact is that when any high profile Jew does something wrong, it is always a Chilul HaShem. Just by the fact that it is a Jew doing it. And when the fallout is very high it is a huge Chilul HaShem indeed.

This was the case with investment banker Bernard Madoff. He is not observant. But his identity as a Jew is not hidden. And the fact that he had positions in religious institutions exacerbated the Chilul HaShem. The magnitude of the fraud he committed was unprecedented in the extreme. For those just getting off a spaceship from Mars, here the scoop. He defrauded his clients to the tune of 50 billion dollars. That’s 50 times $1000, 000,000.00. That’s a lot of zeros.

That most of his victims were Jews – some of them religious; some of them charitable foundations - does not mitigate the Chilul HaShem. He destroyed lives. Entire fortunes earned over a lifetime of hard work were lost. The Chilul HaShem was massive - Frum or not. He took their money on a pretext of investing it for a high return - and stole all of it. He did not invest a dime. He provided his ‘investors’ with phony financial statements about the ‘profits’ they were earning. Occasional requested payouts were made from the money new investors were constantly throwing at him. People were begging him to invest their money.

Unfortunately when a Jew is caught doing something like this – especially in this economy - it perpetuates the anti-Semitic stereotype of the money grubbing Jew who will cheat and steal from honest hardworking citizens so as to amass his own fortune. That is an exact description of Bernie Madoff.

But the stereotype is false. Not every Jew is like Bernie Madoff. For every Bernie Madoff there is a Leonard Abess (pictured above).

Leonard who?

I don’t know how many reading this saw the President’s address to congress last Tuesday. One of the highlights was his introduction of Mr. Abess to congress and to the nation. He is a Jewish banker too. But he is the antithesis of Bernie Madoff. I don’t know how religious he is but Mr. Abess is a proud and active Jew. He is a board member of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and the Anti-Defamation League.

Here is an excerpt from a JTA article. It is mostly an actual quote from the President’s address:

"I have also learned that hope is found in unlikely places; that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary," Obama said in the first of a number of references to the upper reaches of the Capitol, where a president's chosen "heroes" sit with the first lady.

"I think of Leonard Abess, a bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him," Obama said, as Abess barely contained his emotions. "He didn't tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, 'I knew some of these people since I was 7 years old. It didn't feel right getting the money myself.'"

This my friends is what is known as a Kiddush HaShem. I can’t think of too many people would give away 60 million dollars of their own money to their employees and former emloyees. And he is not the first Jew to make this kind of Kiddush HaShem.

There another one, an Orthodox Jew by the name of Aaron Feuerstein – who is of similar character. He was profiled on the TV News Magazine Show 60 Minutes back in March of 2002 which can be seen below. It is truly inspiring to watch.

Here is what Wikipedia says about him:

When the Malden Mills factory burnt down on December 11, 1995, Feuerstein decided not only to use his insurance money to rebuild it, but to also pay the salaries of all the now-unemployed workers while it was being rebuilt. Feuerstein spent millions keeping all 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 6 months. By going against common CEO business practices, especially at a time when most companies were downsizing and moving overseas, he achieved a small degree of fame.

Feuerstein claimed that he couldn't have taken another course of action due to his study of the
Talmud and the lessons he learnt there:

"I have a responsibility to the worker, both blue-collar and white-collar. I have an equal responsibility to the community. It would have been unconscionable to put 3,000 people on the streets and deliver a deathblow to the cities of Lawrence and Methuen. Maybe on paper our company is worthless to Wall Street, but I can tell you it's worth more." — (
Parade Magazine, 1996)

It’s good to know that there are Leonard Abesses and Aaron Feuersteins out there –two inspiring Jews - to counter the Bernie Madoffs of the world. Because it is they and not Madoff that exemplify what Jewish ethics are all about.