Commentary: Madoff exposes the real failings of the Jewish world


Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin weighs in on the Madoff scandal, arguing that the lesson to be learned may be that Jewish outreach hasn’t worked.

Here is the key excerpt:

The long-term threat for Jewish philanthropy, then, isn’t Bernard Madoff but rather the overall threat facing the larger Jewish community in the United States—what came to be known, nearly two decades ago, as the “continuity crisis.”  When the 1990 National Jewish Population Study reported alarming rates of intermarriage, numbers that offered the terrifying prospect of the eventual withering away of the Jewish population in the United States, a debate began in the organized Jewish world about how to address the approaching demographic disaster.

Should Jewish organizations attempt greater outreach to increasingly secular members of the community, even or especially to those who have intermarried, to help maintain bonds of kinship and prevent their becoming just another ingredient in the multi-ethnic American soup? Or should efforts focus on reinforcing the core Jewish population, to give it succor and strength, and to keep its people and children within the fold?

Those who argue that the Jewish future can only be secured by ensuring the continued existence and flourishing of practicing, believing, involved Jews —Jews who will take it as a mission and a duty to sustain the community over the generations—have promoted greater support for Jewish education through day schools, Jewish camping, and fostering a connection to Israel through the invaluable Taglit-Birthright trips to Israel for every young American Jew who applies. Most Jewish federations and the philanthropic world in general pay lip service to these matters, but in practice have failed to make them the priority.

The results of the past two decades suggest that the outreach model is a failure; individual Jewish federations and most communal organizations have seen declines in fundraising, and what data there are indicate that these efforts have done little to renew the commitment of Jews on the margins to the community or its future. Indeed, one of the reasons that generous Jews have been so determined to bypass the larger Jewish communal organizations may well be that those organizations have been so ineffectual in addressing the concerns of committed members of the community who have wanted to use their wealth to ensure a specifically Jewish future in the United States and in Israel. The consensus-driven culture of Jewish philanthropy has, predictably, failed to make a decisive choice with respect to the future of American Jewry.

The combined crises of 2008—the financial collapse and the Madoff scandal—will certainly exacerbate this dilemma and perhaps even sharpen the debate over the allocation of dollars. But the devastating losses created by Madoff pale when set beside the more pressing concern of demographic decline and the possibility that the decline in the number of people who are interested in Jewish causes will only accelerate over time unless something is done to arrest it.

The inability of the apparatus of Jewish philanthropy to find the will to focus its existing resources on the threat posed by rising levels of assimilation dwarfs the worries generated by financial scandals, even those as serious as that of Madoff.


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