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Joel keeps mood light, but addresses Madoff mess at Y.U. dinner Sunday

YU president RIchard Joel, right, gave Haskel Lookstein, center, an honorary degree Sunday. Photo courtesy YU.

As news was filtering down that its endowment took a serious hit due to its investment with Bernard Madoff, Yeshiva University held its 84th annual Hanukkah banquet Sunday night at the posh Waldorff Astoria hotel in Manhattan.

The dinner was preceded by its annual Academic Convocation at which the Modern Orthodox university awarded several honorary degrees and doctoral degrees, including one to New York Governor David Paterson and another to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the religious leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and the principal of the Ramaz Day School.

Y.U. has yet to issue an official announcement about hard it was hit by the fraudulent hedge fund run by Madoff, who served as treasurer of the univeristy’s board of trustees and chairman of its Sy Syms School of Business until he resigned last week amid news of the scandal. But the rumor swirling around the banquet was that the university’s endowment had lost $107 million, or about 10% of its total value.

That would be a significant hit for the school that in July told the Fundermentalist that it was embarking upon a $1 billion fundraising campaign.

But beyond the endowment, members of Y.U.’s board of trustees also appear to be significantly hurt.

According to research of 990 forms conducted by a fund raiser I know, at least four members of Y.U.’s board had significant charitable dollars invested with Madoff, either directly or through J. Ezra Merkin’s Ascot Partners, a hedge fund which lost all of its $1.8 billion in assets after puttting them in Madoff’s hands:

  • Ludwig Bravmann’s foundation had $5 million of its $20 million invested with Ascot as of June 2007.
  • Warren Eisenberg’s foundation had $5 million of its $100 million invested with Madoff as of June 2007.
  • Emanuel Gruss’s foundation had an unknown portion of its  $33 million invested with Ascot as of March 2007.
  • Elie Wiesel’s Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity apparently had all of its $40 million invested with Madoff.

Sunday, Y.U.’s president Richard Joel tried to keep the mood light — as is his M.O. — cracking jokes frequently as he introduced honories.

But he did very briefly address Y.U.’s financial situation.

“In light of the events of the last four days, we are looking into the ramifications. We want to ensure that Yeshiva University remains the gold standard,” he said. “This university is strong. Its finances remain strong.”

He then joked, “I have also just made a deal with the governor, so don’t worry."

Paterson, who received an honorary doctorate of laws from Y.U., met with reporters after the convocation for a brief press conference and said that the Madoff case is further evidence that the hedge fund market needs more regulation.

Lookstein is also a significant character in the Madoff story, as Orthodox communal insiders say that Ramaz may have lost as much as $6 million of its endowment.

There had been a rumor swirling Sunday that Ramaz had lost its entire endowment, but Lookstein vehementaly denied that in an interview with the Fundermentalist at the Y.U. dinner.

The event drew 753 attendees, who paid at least $750 a plate, and Madoff was certainly the elephant in the room.

Y.U. was scheduled to have an annual board meeting Monday afternoon, so more details could be forthcoming soon.

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