Community near Boston shocked by foundation collapse

Like a sudden death in the family, the news sifted through the Jewish community north of Boston, sparking shock, sadness and regret.

The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, a pillar of the North Shore community and a supporter of many popular programs, joined the mounting list of Jewish casualties of the alleged Bernard Madoff financial scam.

The foundation’s four staff members were terminated Dec. 12 and all programs were suspended.

“It is with a heavy heart that I make this announcement,” Lappin wrote in a letter to his staff. “The Foundation’s programs have touched thousands of lives over many years in our efforts to help keep our children Jewish.”

The foundation’s Web site said that the money used to fund its programming, some $8 million, was invested with Madoff and had been frozen by the federal courts.

“The money needed to fund the programs of the Lappin Foundation is gone,” the statement said.

As Jewish institutions and investors across the country struggle to gauge the damage from the $50 billion Madoff fraud, its impact is being felt more immediately in smaller communities such as the North Shore, a region north of Boston along Massachusetts Bay.

Lappin, 86, was the community’s biggest philanthropist who made his fortune in the vacuum cleaner business. His foundation supports a number of programs aimed at combating what he sees as the dilution of Jewish identity through intermarriage — or, as the foundation’s erstwhile mission statement puts it, “helping to keep our children Jewish.”

The biggest impact is likely to be with the loss of the foundation’s flagship program, Youth to Israel, which offered free, all-expenses-paid summer trips to Israel for local youth — a sort-of youth version of the popular Birthright Israel program. Over its 38-year history, the program has evolved into a rite of passage for North Shore teens.

Rachel Jacobson, the program director, had to set aside her emotions and get to work sending out letters to 97 families telling them that the summer trip was off.

“I have parents who are devastated for their kids and for the program,” Jacobson said. “I think the whole community is in shock, including us.”

Other discontinued programs include Rekindle Shabbat, which provided free Shabbat dinners to local families, and Teachers to Israel, a professional enrichment trip for Hebrew school instructors.

The foundation also sponsored the Great Shofar Blowout, which in 2006 broke the Guinness world record for most shofars blown simultaneously (796).

The Jewish Federation of the North Shore is not expected to suffer directly from the foundation’s collapse. Lappin, who once gave an estimated $500,000 annually to the federation, withdrew his support a few years ago after clashing with the executive director, though he restored some of that support last year.

As the community grapples with the news, some hope is stirring. Several federation leaders met over the weekend to discuss ways to respond, while the North Shore Rabbinic Association has pledged to continue the Introduction to Judaism course that had been paid for by the Lappin Foundation.

Bette Keva, the editor of the Jewish Journal Boston North, contributed to this report.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.