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Mass. Community Reeling from Foundation Collapse

Like a sudden death in the family, the news sifted through the Jewish community north of Boston, sparking shock, sadness and regret.

The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, a pillar of the North Shore community and a supporter of popular programming like the Youth to Israel program, joined the mounting list of Jewish casualties of the still-unfolding Bernard Madoff financial scam.

The foundation’s four staff members were terminated early Dec. 12 and all programs were suspended.

“It is with a heavy heart that I make this announcement,” Lappin wrote in a letter to his staff. “The Foundations’ programs have touched thousands of lives over many years in our efforts to help keep our children Jewish.”

The foundation’s Web site said that the money used to fund its programming, some $8 million, was invested with Madoff and had been frozen by the federal courts.

“The money needed to fund the programs of the Lappin Foundation is gone,” the statement said.

As Jewish institutions and investors across the country struggle to gauge the damage from the $50 billion Madoff fraud, its impact is being felt more immediately in smaller communities like the North Shore.

Lappin, 86, was the community’s biggest philanthropist, and the collapse of his $8 million foundation is having both a material and a psychological impact.

“It’s devastating,” said Arthur Epstein, another major supporter of local Jewish charities. “It’s one of those things that could pull people closer together. But some of the programs he ran, I don’t think we’re going to get them back.”

Lappin made his fortune in the vacuum cleaner business and now manages his investments and foundation from a former sea captain’s residence near the waterfront in Salem, Mass., and from his winter home at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla. His foundation supports a number of programs aimed at combating what he sees as the dilution of Jewish identity through intermarriage — or, as the foundation’s erstwhile mission statement puts it, “helping to keep our children Jewish.”

Among the discontinued programs are Rekindle Shabbat, which provided free Shabbat dinners to local families, and Teachers to Israel, a professional enrichment trip for Hebrew school instructors.

The foundation also sponsored the Great Shofar Blowout, which in 2006 broke the Guiness world record for most shofars blown simultaneously — 796 blowers showed up at Phillips Beach in Swampscott, Mass. Lappin had hoped the Blowout, which started in 2001, would spark a yearly competition among Jewish communities.

But the biggest impact is likely to be with the loss of the foundation’s flagship program, Youth to Israel, which offered free, all-expenses-paid summer trips to Israel for local youth — a sort of youth version of the popular Birthright Israel program for those aged 18 to 26. Over its 38-year history, the program has evolved into a rite of passage for North Shore teens.

Rachel Jacobson, the program director, had to set aside her emotions and get to work sending out letters to 97 families telling them that the summer trip was off.

“I have parents who are devastated for their kids and for the program,” Jacobson said. “I think the whole community is in shock, including us.”

Jerry Somers, a North Shore community leader and board member of the Jim Joseph Foundation, recently helped secure $1 million to fund programs for a new teen outreach program, the North Shore Teen Initiative, for the next three years.

“I think that our program and the Youth to Israel program seriously complemented each other,” Somers told JTA. “And that’s a portion of what the community would enjoy that is going to be negatively impacted, depending on how the community responds.”

The local federation is not expected to suffer directly from the foundation’s collapse. Lappin, who once gave an estimated $500,000 annually to the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, withdrew his support a few years ago after clashing with the executive director, though he restored some of that support last year.

“I’m shocked and saddened,” said the federation’s executive director, Liz Donnenfeld. “I’m incredibly saddened for Bob Lappin and the entire staff of the foundation. This comes as a terrible shock to all of us. Whatever we can do, our doors are open to them.”

As the community grapples with the news, some hope is stirring. Several federation leaders met this weekend to discuss ways to respond, while the North Shore Rabbinic Association has pledged to continue the Introduction to Judaism course that had been paid for by the Lappin Foundation.

Baruch HaLevi, the head of the rabbinic association and religious leader of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, said the rabbis will meet with Lappin Foundation’s executive director, Deborah Coltin, next week to talk about ways the temples and synagogues can potentially help continue some programs.

“They did such great works, I would not like to see everything lost,” said HaLevi, who likened the news of the foundation’s collapse to a death in the family. “The foundation had its hands in so many different lives. It’s a sad day for the North Shore.”

(Jewish Journal Boston North editor Bette Keva contributed to this report. Full Journal coverage of the Lappin Foundation is available at www.jewishjournal.org.)

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