No greater shanda

tzedakahIt’s almost difficult to believe the size and scope of the scandal wrought by Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff. I knew the story had a religion angle because I follow the excellent work of religion reporter Brad Greenberg at the Jewish Journal‘s God Blog. I learned early on from him that Madoff is Jewish and worked with a significant number of Jewish investors and charities.

Mainstream outlets have picked up on the story. The Associated Press had a nice lede:

The Hebrew word for charity is “tzedakah.” But it means something more, too: doing the righteous thing.

Many of the investors allegedly swindled by Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff are, like him, Jewish, and for many of them, contributing to Jewish causes is a crucial part of their culture. The effect of their losses on the Jewish philanthropic world is being seen as nothing less than catastrophic.

The story looked at the financial and psychological impact of the Madoff scandal. The article talked about the importance of philanthropy in the Jewish community and which groups would be affected.

The Los Angeles Times also picked up on this angle:

Los Angeles real estate financier Richard Ziman, a member of the [Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles'] board, called Madoff’s alleged crimes astounding.

“There is no greater shanda than stealing from friends, family and those who gave him such trust and confidence,” Ziman said, using a Yiddish term for disgrace. “It makes this country look as though we have allowed the unregulated world of investment to take control.”

Time magazine has an interesting first-person account of how credulous investors were, although there is no religion angle.

But if you find the religious angle to be an integral part of the story — and it is — you simply have to read the Jewish Journal. The staff there are all over the biggest Jewish story of the year.

Try “Stunned local groups start to count losses as list of Madoff’s victims grows,” “Bernie Madoff and the end of the Jews,” “Is Bernie Madoff Jewish? Very. Oy.,” “Madoff’s ‘unspeakable evil’ shocks those who thought they knew him well,” and “What would the sages say about Madoff?

Here’s a sample from the last article, which is about Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s take on the situation. He is rector of American Jewish University and a Conservative Jew.

What he found most troubling, though, was that for decades Madoff had lived and breathed Orthodox Judaism, and yet he apparently didn’t have a problem ripping other Jews off.

“As a religious Jew, how do you see it being OK to daven three times and day and then defraud the Jewish communities of many cities of their funds?” Dorff asked. “If anything, this shows you can’t be a religious Jew simply by observing the laws. Being a religious Jew must entail being moral as well. Beside the fact that it both illegal and immoral to do this to individual investors–to do it to Jewish federations representing the Jewish community is just unconscionable. What happened to Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZe–all Jews are responsible for each other?”

“Piety,” he added, “is not an excuse, let alone a justification, for immorality.”

The religion angles here are fascinating and a great hook for exploring some of the meatier doctrinal issues in Jewish thought. Hopefully reporters won’t focus solely on the financial impact at the expense of the moral discussion.

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  • Jerry

    I would have titled this entry “letter versus spirit”

    this shows you can’t be a religious Jew simply by observing the laws. Being a religious Jew must entail being moral as well.

    That works equally well for any religion. Following the rituals of the religion does not make you more than a superficial adherent. So I do agree totally with the importance of bringing in the moral dimension to the coverage.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Religion is an integral part of the fraud. A con man has to have the trust of his victims, and common religious identity is one way of building trust. There are big religious affinity frauds, like the Baptist Foundation of Arizona, but even small-time crooks like “storm chasers” (unlicensed and unskilled repairmen who roam the country looking to make a quick buck – usually from the elderly – after storms) will often ape the religious identity of their marks. (If they see a King James Bible on the table, they’ll quote “their grandmother’s favoritate verse.)

    I used to work for a nonprofit ethics watchdog, and my scam radar would go off when I encountered charities that were a bit too forward with their religious identity (e.g. offering to pray for me in the middle of a conversation about their financial statements). In most of the country, the dominant religion is Christianity, so these scams usually took on Christian trappings, but any religion will do.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Two things:

    The AP lead cited is incorrect. The Hebrew word Tzedakah translates not as “charity” or doing the “righteous thing.”

    Tzedakah is more accurately translated as “doing justice.” For an observant Jew, helping others is neither a good deed or a personal virtue, as VP Cheney famously (or is that infamously?) once said about conservation/recycling.

    It is a religious obligation, as God demands that we act justly (hence the emphasis on justice among all the Abrahamic religions). So the word has a far stronger meaning than do the terms justice or acting righteously, which imply more choice than obligation.

    Either way, though, Madoff’s earned a special place in hell.

    Also, Brad Greenberg at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, had the Hebrew wrong when quoting Rabbi Eliot Dorff on the religious responsibility Jews have to one another. (Its correct here because Greenberg fixed it on his blog after it was pointed out to him.)

    His response to his error being pointed out in the comments section of his blog post is that the Hebrew made no sense to him “lacking a Jewish education.”

    Greenberg’s a fine writer and reporter. But he often gets the details of Judaism wrong – as opposed to the habits of LA-style Jewish community life – because he admittedly knows little about what he often writes about. In fact, he describes himself as “a God fearing Christian” and regular churchgoer.

    You can imagine the controversy this has caused among readers of the LA Jewish Journal, and rightly so from my perspective. Greenberg’s learning as he goes. How would that sit with the readership of a Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/whatever publication that held itself out as a serious, well-informed journal?

    My preference is for a journalist to be at least a page ahead of his/her readers.

  • Mollie

    A little hint to commenters. If you want your comment to stay up on this site, try to avoid throwing around the phrase “Jew-hater” about me or others unless you have actual cause.


    And thank you Ira for these additional thoughts and clarifications.

  • Mollie

    Another interesting blog to follow for this is The Fundermentalist ( about Jewish philanthropy. Done by JTA.

  • E.E. Evans

    We had a similar pyramid scheme here in the Philadelphia area about 10-15 years ago–as I recall, the primary victims were evangelical colleges and philanthropists. It took YEARS for some of them to get over the shock, and, frankly, the shame of being taken. It’s fair to ask how and why religious institutions get seduced into being part of these schemes. On the other hand– On NPR I heard a few experts say that they had the sense that Madoff didn’t start off doing what he did –just thought he could game the market a little bit.

  • EV

    I see that Greenberg has posted a new entry on his blog that questions his initial assumption that Madoff is Orthodox. However, Greenberg concludes that the affiliation doesn’t really matter. I beg to differ. As I examine sites obsessed with Jew-hatred (e.g., a traditionalist Catholic db has one poster calling for something too horrid to print), the more observant a Jew is believed to be, the more the crime is attributed to perceived innate Jewish qualities.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Ira, as you can probably imagine, I disagree with your assessment: “Greenberg’s a fine writer and reporter. But he often gets the details of Judaism wrong – as opposed to the habits of LA-style Jewish community life.”

    I’m a diligent reporter and a decent writer. More importantly, I rarely get the details of Judaism wrong. Indeed, I often I spend extra time — consulting colleagues, texts and sources — to make sure I get correct the nuances of a religion that is not my own. The desire to cast another person’s religion in a way that they would say represents their beliefs is a value that most religion reporters hold, and it’s motivated when writing about Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, even Christians. Yes, like with Judaism, there are a lot of Christian traditions in which I have no personal education. Obviously I make mistakes from time to time. All reporters do. And I’m usually quick to admit it and correct it.

    And EV, thanks for that valuable insight.

  • Ira Rifkin


    There’s a difference beween being a religion writer for a general circulation publication – say, the Los Angeles Daily News – where you are expected to write about the spectrum of faith groups, many of which you know little about going in, and writing for a faith-specific journal – regardless of the faith – while learning about that faith as you go.

    What if Sports Illustrated assigned a reporter who knows little about sports to cover Major League Baseball? Sports knowledgeable SI readers would spot the novice writer and wonder if SI’s standards had fallen. Ditto for the WSJ and a writer assigned to covering Wall Street.

    Or a writer who knows little or nothing about religion being assigned by the likes of the Washington Post or Newsweek to write about religion. (Sound familiar? How many GR posts about this have we read?)

    To be clear: The problem is not your personal beliefs. It’s that you’re writing about Judaism (again, as opposed to LA Jewish communal life) for a readership that includes many who are highly literate about the religion of Judaism.

    I know that you know that many in the LA Jewish community – the second largest in the US – are less than pleased with the Jewish Journal for this reason.

    And yes, we all make mistakes. Far better not to make the obvious ones.

  • mkarpas

    Conservative Rabbi Dorf did his own Tzitzis check and deccided that Mr. Madoff lived and breathed Orthodox Judaism. The Rabbi came to this conclusion because he read in the MSM that Mr. Madoff was associated with Yeshiva University.

    Reading the MSM, I came the opposite conclusion. Had Mr. Madoff been Orthodox, that fact would have been trupeted all over media. Remeber Jack Abraomoff

    Mr. Madoof is not an Orthodox Jew. He is an Ethnic Jew who would be most comforatble in a Conservative synagogue, if he ever attended synagogue

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    You make a fair point, Ira, though I would argue that I know a lot more about the fine details of Judaism than my grandmother does about baseball.

    But, unless you have knowledge I don’t, you are wrong that “many in the LA Jewish community … are less than pleased with the Jewish Journal for this reason.”

    Most people in the community, religious and non, have been grateful for the work I have done during the past 20 months. Only once, little more than a year ago, was my employment actually attracting negative attention. It was from one individual and I blogged about it then:

    “It strikes many as a bit odd—indeed, The Forward interviewed me about it for a Q&A this summer—but, as a journalist would expect, most of the people I interact with are more concerned with the relevancy and accuracy of my reporting than with where I pray. For a few others, my employment has been an itchy scab.”

    Indeed, many in LA referred to the Jewish Journal as the “Jewish” Journal long before I arrived. In fact, the Purim satirical cover that was published a month before I joined the staff was called The “Jewish” Journal.

    The Journal, as far as I know, has never had pretenses of being a religiously Jewish paper, though we do have a weekly Torah portion. We are a newspaper for the Jewish reader.

  • Ira Rifkin


    Actually, you’re blog refers to a “flurry of comments” attacking the JJ for hiring you. That language indicates that way more than one person was unhappy.

    And if you’re not presenting yourself as, on some level, an expert on Judaism, why call your blog the God Blog? How about Community Blog instead?

    I have nothing personal against you and feel it is best to stop my end of this public conversation now. You may respond and have the last word, if you like.

    Chanuka Sameach v’Chag HaMolad Sameach v’Shanah Tovah!

  • Mollie


    I read the God Blog because it’s a great resource for religion news. It would seem weird to call it the Community Blog since it’s not.

  • amy klein

    I’m a former reporter with the Jewish Journal, and it seems these are ad hominem against Brad. I DO have a fairly literate Jewish background (how’s 13 years of religious education) and have occasionally gotten things wrong. Moreover, many people said they hated me, and accused me of not knowing anything about Judaism all the time, which was funny because I probably knew more than they did. Which leads to the bottom line: Jews always attack people who don’t agree with them – first going for the jugular of not being Jewish enough (or at all) when someone falls out of line with the “correct” opinion.

  • Dave

    Amy, any sentence that begins with “Jews always…” is at least indulging in stereotype and carries a whiff of bigotry.

  • Esther Kustanowitz

    I would agree with some of what Amy observes as the “m.o.” for Jews — demographically speaking, we’re generally highly educated and opinionated. The culture of challenging others is embedded not only in Biblical stories (Abraham arguing with God) but in Talmudic texts. For instance, how do you light the Hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah)? Right to left, or left to right? Starting with 1 candle, building to 8, or with 8, counting down to 1? While Ashkenazi custom dictates 1 building to 8, adding candles from the lighter’s right and lighting the newest candle first, there are other opinions too. Two Jews, three opinions, goes the phrase, and it’s not viewed as an embarrassment that this is so.

    The nuance between respectfully disagreeing and attacking people is often a shade of barely discernible gray (even if, perhaps, it shouldn’t be). But Jews in any area of public life often get it the worst. Either they’re too Jewish or not Jewish enough, or not Jewish the way the reader would like them to be.

    As I’m not Brad’s wife or supervisor, I can’t speak to every moment of his investigative journalistic process. But I have to say he’s remarkably well-versed considering his background, and not all reporters have the Jewish background of, say, Amy Klein or myself.

    And even we occasionally make mistakes, but even if we don’t, as long as there’s a byline, there’s someone for detractors to point to and say, “what a hack.” Believe me, I’ve been the purported “hack” in question, even when it’s an opinion piece. That’s right, to some people, even my opinion is wrong. And may even make me “no better than Hitler,” according to some critics. But that’s another story. And now, off to comb my dictator mustache.

  • Dave

    Esther, I agree with the nuances you bring to this discussion, but “always” and “attack” leave no room for nuances.

    I’m quite aware of the stinging vocabulary that can come up in disagreements between Jews, both over politics and between branches of Judaism. But blanket statements that recognize no exceptions say something about the speaker.