Op-Ed: Community can reshape future marred by Madoff


NEW YORK (JTA) — Bernard Madoff almost stole the future.

He stole the financial future of many decent, philanthropic individuals. He stole the future of some organizations that have been forced to shut their doors. He stole the future of bright, eager students dependent on financial aid from universities whose financial future Madoff also stole. (All this is in addition to the serious damage he inflicted upon the Jewish community.)

When Madoff stole millions from my organization, the American Technion Society, he lifted some of the glow off the future of science, technology and medicine. It’s as if he had blundered on to the Technion campus and proceeded to wreck the laboratories where the future was being forged. And moved destructively into classrooms, scattering the students and professors. And stomped through the campus, where he laid waste to the library and synagogue, the student dormitories and theater, the fitness center and cafeteria, damaging the people and facilities that are at the center of Israel’s future.

How, I continue to wonder, is it possible for a single individual to perpetrate so much evil, to destroy so much? Could we have done anything to stop him, to curtail the damage?

By now I have given up on finding rational answers. While there is always some element of trust and human judgment involved in retaining financial managers, and while processes can be tightened, nothing can guarantee safety from a massive, well-planned fraud like this one.

Now it is time for the Jewish community to move past these unanswerable questions. Despite the considerable damage he inflicted, Madoff failed to steal our future. He left it damaged surely, but our strong foundation is still standing, certainly more than enough to serve as the basis for a swift and sure comeback. And we are in a place to reshape the future.

Jewish parents used to encourage their children’s learning by repeating the age-old truism that no one can ever take away your education. Now I say that no one, not even a hundred Bernard Madoffs, can steal the Jewish community’s future because no one can injure the confidence in our ability to shape and reshape that future.

I am greatly encouraged by early proof of this thinking. Already a number of our supporters have — on their own — called to make large, unscheduled gifts. This is likely the case in other organizations and institutions. When I ask what prompted their unsolicited decision, their words echo my thoughts: We must move beyond this and forward; we must take back the future; we must ensure that Israel has what it needs to not only survive but thrive.

These conversations leave me wondering: If one awful individual can wreak such havoc, how much power does one committed, brilliant, energetic individual have to undo the damage? Or a dozen? Or hundreds of thousands? In fact, we could do so much more; we could change the world!

We have, in fact, already done so. Jewish history, our mere presence in the world today, is itself a miracle, not only of survival but of astounding achievements against what surely must have looked like insurmountable odds. This latest affair, by comparison, is merely a blip, well below those many defining moments in our history. Bernard Madoff almost stole the future. Now it is up to all of us to restore it.

In May, a hundred or more of us will be on the Technion campus for our annual mission. During those days we will be rushed and sometimes tired. But we know from past missions that we won’t mind and no one will complain because we’ll be busy dedicating new buildings, expanded dormitories, impressive laboratories. We’ll be listening to professors and students explain the research and the studies they conduct with our support. We’ll visit them in their homes and dorms, and share their meals and not care when we get to sleep.

We’ll be seeing the future unfold before our eyes, and we’ll know that it’s theirs, ours and the world’s, too.

(Melvyn H. Bloom is the executive vice president of the American Technion Society.)

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