CNN Senior National Editor
To understand reaction in the Jewish community to the growing scandal around investor Bernie Madoff, it helps to know a few words of Yiddish.
Yiddish was the language of Jews in Eastern Europe, with a rich history in literature, theater and music, until that community was decimated in the Holocaust. Today Yiddish is most common in communities of Orthodox Jews.
But for most American Jews it harkens back to previous generations and life in the old country, spoken more by "alta kockers,"
though "bubbie" (grandmother) and "zaide" (grandfather) probably don't appreciate being referred to as geezers.
Madoff was a "macher" (a big shot, a mover-and-shaker) among machers.
Madoff also is – allegedly – a "gonif" (thief, embezzler). A few folks have used Yiddish words regarding parentage and body parts, but we'll skip those.
The Jewish community is "farklemt" (depressed, distraught, grieving), but it goes beyond that.
The whole thing is a "shandah" (disgrace). For those concerned with image, it's a shandah for the "goyim" (non-Jews, in front of whom Jewish community looks bad).
"Catastrophe" and "devastation" are English words being used.
"It's an atomic bomb in the world of Jewish philanthropy," Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, an organization that advises wealthy Jewish donors, told the Forward, a newspaper that reports on Jewish affairs. "There's going to be fallout from this for years."
In the United States, at least one charity has closed. "It's devastating," Arthur Epstein, a major supporter of local Jewish charities, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, referring to the loss of the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation near Boston and the programs it supported.
An American university professor e-mailed me from Jerusalem that the Madoff case is all that's being discussed in the philanthropic world in Israel, where there is fear that more than 50 organizations that Madoff supported or that invested in his firm may shut down before "Shabbat," the Sabbath that begins at sunset Friday.
That fear in the Jewish community extends from the Los Angeles to Boca Raton and Palm Beach, from New York City to Washington, D.C., to Boston and points elsewhere around the globe.
With losses ranging from tens of thousands to tens of millions of dollars, the casualties include national Jewish organizations; local Jewish federations, which support programs throughout their communities; charities and foundations supporting a range of causes; hospitals and schools, from elementary through university. Published reports say that one school, Yeshiva Univ., may have lost as much as $100 million.
Untold numbers of children, students, teachers and researchers, the needy and the disabled, retirees of modest means and some of wealth will suffer anonymously.
Some victims of the alleged swindle have well-known names: Spielberg, Wiesel, Lautenberg, Zuckerman.
Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, which studies Jewish philanthropy, told the Forward, "The Jewish philanthropic world depends on personal relationships and personal solicitations. Many Jewish philanthropies are dependent on high-end donors in very close social and economic networks, and this guy is right in middle of them."
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Bradley Burston recognized that at least one segment of society would find advantage in the situation.
"For the true anti-Semite, Christmas came early this year," Burston wrote. "Rich beyond human comprehension, he handles fortunes for others, buying and selling in a trading empire that skirts investment banks and other possible sources of regulation. He redefines avarice, knowingly and personally bilking charities and retirees in the most classic of con games. Even better, for those obsessed with the idea that Jews control finance, entertainment and the media, is the idea that Madoff's greed was uncontrollable enough that he targeted fellow Jews, even Holocaust survivors, some of them his own friends, as well as Israeli companies who insured Jews, including Holocaust survivors. The beauty part, for the anti-Semite: Madoff's machinations, which could have been put to use for the sake of humanity, have directly harmed Jewish welfare and charity institutions."
Now that is a shandah.
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