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Sept. 11 Funds Administrator Needed Wisdom of Solomon, Patience of a Rabbi

November 7, 2003
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“I vastly underestimated the degree of emotion that would be exhibited by these families,” the special master of the victims’ compensation fund for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks told JTA. “I just kept listening, and over a period of time, came to grips with the emotional horror exhibited by these survivors.” Congress gave Feinberg little to go on when he became special master in 2001 — how much a victim earned was one consideration, and so were collateral sources of income like life insurance. But in the end, paying families for the loss of their loved one was a tough chore one made even harder when some family members accused him of demeaning the memory of their relative.

He sought guidance, at times from Jewish texts at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school in New York.

“This was not a designed research process,” he said in an interview. “It was an effort for me to try and come to grips with how you value life.”

The texts weren’t too helpful, Feinberg repeatedly told an audience in Washington last week at an event sponsored by JTS — but eventually he found guidance in Leviticus 27:2-7.

“Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When a man explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply,” the passage begins.

It describes how to allocate contributions to a place of worship: Men aged 20 to 60 years should give 50 silver shekels, women of those ages should give 30 shekels. Younger and older men and women give less.

The passage helped Feinberg explain to victims that he is not calculating the value of their loved one’s life, only what they likely would have earned through their lifetime.

“God does not suggest us to determine the value, the objective worth, of human beings,” he told the audience. “We turn to God alone, I guess through Leviticus, to determine our self worth, our potential to blossom and our ability to flourish, which is endless.”

Feinberg seems, at times, frustrated by his burden. He said he wonders why Congress chose not to distribute money evenly to all victims; at other times during an interview with JTA, he said he understood why that would not have worked.

“In American society, very few problems deem all life as the same,” Feinberg said in his speech, noting that Social Security is distributed based on people’s salaries.

Establishing the first compensation program in the country’s history may have helped circumvent lawsuits, Feinberg said, but it also raised questions. Are victims of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center worthier of federal dollars than those who died in the 1993 attack, or the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City?

“This problem of a free society carving out for special treatment a discrete group of beneficiaries is very challenging and problematic,” he told the audience. “Can we discern equitably and morally that a special group of victims gets compensated by the public and not other people?”

In the end, the average award for the families of men and women who died in the attacks is $1.7 million. Compensation for physical injuries range from $500 for a broken finger to $7.8 million for a man with third-degree burns over 87 percent of his body.

Victims and their heirs have until late December — two years from the fund’s creation — to submit requests, and Feinberg anticipates an onslaught of new claims in the next two months.

There have been unforeseen issues along the way. With so few of the young victims having wills, families have squabbled over the money. Fiancees have sought compensation from the fund despite not being legally married to the victim. Same-sex partners of victims have done the same.

“I am not Solomon, or anything like Solomon,” he said in his speech. “I try to work it out the way a rabbi would work it out and say, ‘Let’s be reasonable,'”

Feinberg said that as a Jew, his burden has been eased by empathy for personal hardships.

“It’s easier for me to sympathize with the plight of families because of my religious background,” he said, citing Judaism’s respect for the individual and its belief system that addresses the need to be compensated.

The compensation fund is expected to shut its doors in June, and Feinberg said he plans a long vacation, followed by a return to his work as an attorney and mediator. But he said he will walk away with a tremendous amount of satisfaction for what he has accomplished, and what he has learned.

“Don’t look for a universal answer to the value of life,” he told the audience. “You will never get that.”

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