The Bear-Market Blessing

a guest post by Rabbi Stewart Weiss:

As the story goes, several years ago a down-and-out man approached Albert Reichman – he of the billionaire philanthropist brothers – and asked him for a loan of $1,000. “All right,” said Reichman, “I am prepared to loan you the money. But when will you pay it back?” The man looked at Reichman and thought for a moment, then replied, with a straight face, “I’ll tell you what, Mr. Reichman. When you’ll need the thousand, call me!” Considering the latest news, it just may be time to make that call.

The Madoff (“with my money”) scandal is the latest tremor to shake the financial world, part of a triple whammy that has lambasted the American economy. First, the dollar plunged to record lows against world currencies, including the shekel; then the economic tsunami hit, washing away vast sums of money invested in stocks and real estate; and now this latest revelation that billions of Jewish dollars invested with Madoff’s firm have disappeared into thin air.

Hundreds of individual Jewish philanthropists and communal charities and foundations have been hit hard. These include J. Ezra Merkin, who may have lost in excess of $1 billion; Yeshiva University, which lost $110 million; Hadassah, which lost $90 million; the Elie Wiesel Foundation, which lost $40 million; the Los Angeles Jewish federation, the American Jewish Congress, Yad Sarah and on and on.

While Madoff is free on bail and has been fitted with a monitoring ankle bracelet, many of the rich and famous may be looking into pawning their own tennis bracelets.

Out in the Jewish professional world, fund-raisers and executives are wringing their hands, wondering where next year’s budgets will come from, even as Jewish schools contemplate cutting scholarships and soup kitchens go on a diet.

But there may be a silver lining behind this dark cloud. Perhaps we will now be forced to perform major tzedaka triage and take a long, hard look at where our hard-earned charity money is going.

Perhaps the latest crisis will force the Jewish communal bureaucracy to trim the fat from its payroll, cut the waste and slim down. Maybe duplication of efforts will be drastically reduced, so that a hundred different charities won’t fight for the same dollars to accomplish the same exact goals. Just as car pools cut down on gas consumption, combining several programs into one can make Jewish communal life more cost-efficient and more productive.

And hopefully, we – the people who prop up all these hundreds of institutions that daily bombard our mail and in-boxes with passionate pleas for help – will carefully scrutinize the would-be recipients of our cash and be a whole lot more selective than we’ve been in the past. Maybe we will start asking some tough questions and demanding verifiable answers before we open our wallets.

One such question is how much of this money goes to the actual need – be it food, education or social services – and how much is eaten up by salaries, overhead and “infrastructure.” You would be amazed – and appalled – to learn that some of the most well-known charitable institutions make a gigantic splash with part of the money they raise, while using a substantial percentage for salaries, travel, perks and fancy offices.

Sometimes, the chicanery reaches epic proportions. For example, the United Jewish Communities – one of the primary fund-raising organizations in the Jewish world – raised, by its own admission, more than $330 million for “victims of terror.” Noble, indeed. The only problem is that less than 10 percent of those funds ever found their way into the homes of actual terror victims, the rest being spirited away to dozens of other programs or down the massive black holes of budget deficits. The same scenario is sadly played out by Holocaust organizations, who sit on billions of dollars while survivors go hungry, scrounging to pay for food, heating and medicine in their old age.

Another question we should be asking: Is the charity independently audited, and is it’s budget open for public inspection? If you have nothing to hide, then tell us how much money you took in and what you used it for. Trust is a fine thing when the money rivers are flowing, but when they start to dry up, we should activate the talmudic adage, “Trust, but check!”

In a world caught up in the diminishing resources syndrome, we all have to stop wasting and overindulging, and start down-sizing and conserving our assets. That means walking, not driving, whenever possible; taking shorter showers; getting used to eating left-over cholent and other Shabbat delicacies well into the week (or donating it to admirable charities like Table to Table); getting by with eight pairs of shoes instead of 80; and printing less and recycling more (I dread the upcoming elections where millions of pages of paper will be wasted in campaign ads produced by our recycled politicians).

And we also have to be selective about whom we support with our contributions. The best thing we can do is give personally to those in need, to be sure they receive our funds. If not, we should support those institutions of which we have firsthand knowledge, and can observe in action. If you have ever been to a Nefesh B’Nefesh arrival ceremony for olim, or helped serve at a food kitchen, or handed gift packages to IDF combat soldiers or volunteered at facilities for the handicapped, then you would have no qualms or quandaries about where to write your check. “Dedicated gifting” – earmarking your donation for a specific cause and then checking to be sure it got there – is the best way to get the biggest bang for your bucks.

Jewish wisdom tells us that “competition between scholars” increases wisdom and is a good thing. If the current monetary meltdown causes Jewish charities to compete for our support by streamlining their operations, proving their worthiness and doing the most good for the least expenditures, this crisis will have been a blessing in disguise.

Rabbi Weiss is the director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana