Thursday, December 18th, 2008...3:24 pm

Pillar of the community and criminal

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Beginning on Sunday night, most Jewish families around the world will gather together and begin celebrating Hanuka, by lighting candles in remembrance of the ancient miracle of the cruse of oil that should have burned for one day, but instead lasted for eight days and nights.  

The popularity of Hanuka in North America, especially in the post-World War II period, can be attributed in large part to its proximity to Christmas – the fourth day of Hanuka this year falls on Christmas Day.

The dominant society marks the Christmas holiday with an orgy of spending and gift giving that has become the engine of the nation’s retail economy. Not to feel left out of the festivities, Jewish families observe the minor holiday, which has its roots in the liberation of the Temple from Syrian occupiers, by giving gifts to their children each night.

In reality, the Baby Boom generation in America has had a pretty easy time of it, in terms of affluence and freedom in the social and political spheres. The immigrant and first generation of Jews born in America faced significantly more overt anti-Semitism. There were real barriers of prejudice, especially in Minnesota, that made attainment of the American dream more difficult for our parents and grandparents.

Shaped by the experience of the Great Depression, our parents and grandparents did not take affluence for granted. They scrimped and saved to help their children gain an education and prosper.

Now we are digesting the news that many families in our community have been brought low by the criminal scheme of a person regarded as a pillar of the community. Bernard Madoff, the former chairman of the NASDAQ Stock Exchange, had been fishing in local waters for more than two decades, luring investors into his crooked pyramid scheme. It now appears that local Jewish investors have lost several hundred million dollars; the harm from this fraud will affect our local Jewish charities, schools, synagogues and agencies. This is a devastating blow coming on top of the global economic recession.

Some have suggested that anti-Semites will gloat about a scandal in which a Jew victimized other Jews. However, anti-Semites really don’t need any fodder for their irrational bigotry. The anti-Semites likely will always be with us, rooting around in the garbage can of history.

In Minnesota, we’ve seen news accounts of the Tom Petters affair. He has gone from respected businessman to accused criminal, based on allegations that he engineered a large-scale investment fraud. However, he appears to be an underachiever in the fraud department, in comparison to what we know of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

In another facet of the Madoff scam, we should resist the temptation to think that some rich and greedy people got their comeuppance. First, as mentioned before, the loss of these family fortunes will hurt local agencies that provide vital social services in the community. Individual financial losses will harm already hard-pressed Jewish groups. Second, although Madoff presented his fund as being exclusively for big investors, some families in the Jewish community put much smaller amounts ($50,000) in his care. So, some modest retirement accounts have been wiped out along with the billions invested by major banks, and the many millions invested by families and foundations around the country.

In the Hanuka spirit of miracles and light, we will all need to tap our reserves of human solidarity to get one another through what look like difficult days ahead. This is a moment for unity among Jews and for reaching out to those suffering in the greater community.

We wish all of our readers a happy Hanuka.

– Mordecai Specktor

From the American Jewish World, Dec. 19, 2008

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