As if scripted into exaggeration by Hollywood writers, the saga of Bernie “Ponzi” Madoff has thrown the Jewish communal world into unprecedented turmoil. We are just beginning to hear the big fiscal numbers and sit in anxious dread watching the “smaller” human numbers unfold – jobs lost, organizations folded, life savings erased, and lives decimated. One week into the fallout from Madoff’s arrest on charges of fraud and the apparent loss of $50 billion of others’ money – a large chunk of it from the Jewish non-profit world – several lessons have already risen to the surface.
1. Backroom old boys’ style business is over. We have heard so many Jewish communal leaders of a younger generation exasperatedly decry: “Show us the values, if you want us in this community!” Whereas the backroom business deals, mind-numbing analgesics of “trust me,” and the triumph of financial profit over values were the norm for so many decades, a younger voice is painfully awakening and claiming the need for a new order in our community. While Bernie Madoff may have acted on and displayed his own set of values, it is time to listen to a younger generation which is saying, “Let’s instead value ethics and transparency.”
2. Talking is good. There is more communication, commiseration, brainstorming, support and witnessing happening than ever in the Jewish community. Bernie Madoff has humbled this community, and in a way, re-humanized it. It often does take incredibly inhuman behavior to bring out our humanity.
3. The role of money is changing. A new understanding of what role money can play in our lives, how much it shapes our sense of confidence and power, and how much it can mis-motivate is taking shape. The rattle sound of a full piggy bank is quite different than the sound of an almost empty one. And that sound is waking our community up. Money is about to mean something different, and that will change how our community works.
4. Yet again, we shine in crisis. (Oy.) We have not broken this terrible cycle of being a community that shines best when beset by woes. We must figure out ways to be creative, mutually supportive, present and outwardly values-based, even when it is not a time of crisis.