Madoff fallout leaves L.A. Jewish institutions reeling

While the three Jewish federations in the Bay Area issued statements this week that they escaped the Bernard Madoff meltdown largely if not entirely unscathed, Southern California Jewish institutions and individuals suffered major losses in the alleged securities fraud.

In Los Angeles, the growing list of victims from the scandal reads like a who’s who of L.A. Jewish communal life, including the Jewish Community Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Free Loan Association and Beit T’Shuvah.

Private foundations such as Steven Spielberg’s Wunder-kinder Foundation and individual investors such as DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg also have lost untold amounts of money.

For at least one Encino-based foundation, the Madoff mess has proven

catastrophic. The Chais Family Foundation, which had donated

$12.5 million annually to Jewish causes in Israel and the former Soviet Union, suffered such a substantial loss that it closed its doors over the weekend.

Besides his foundation, Stanley Chais, a long-time Beverly Hills philanthropist, said he and his family have lost “a huge amount of money” as well.

Overall losses might be far greater than anyone realizes.

“It is going to take months to unravel this,” said Gary A. Tobin, president of the S.F.-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research. “But the fallout will last decades.”

For now, Jewish communal leaders are assessing the losses in their endowments.

The Los Angeles Jewish Community Foundation, which manages the endowments of some of the biggest Jewish social service agencies in town, had

$18 million of its common-investment pool in Madoff’s fund. The JCF pool, which was diversified across several investment advisers and listed assets of $238.6 million seven weeks ago,

handled the endowments of the federation, JFS, Jewish Free Loan and a handful of other local nonprofits. At that point, the Madoff investment had grown to $25.5 million — the balance on that portion is now zero.

“The guy had a reputation in the community that was absolutely first class,” said Lorin Fife, who will become chair of the Los Angeles-based JCF next month. “I don’t think anybody had the faintest clue or hint that something like this was coming down the pipe. Unfortunately we are in the company of some very, very high-end and sophisticated investors with outstanding reputations in the investment community that have been victimized by this individual and whoever was involved with him in perpetrating this fraud.”

The federation appears to have been the hardest hit by the loss in that common-investment pool, suffering a $6.4 million hit.

The news caught up to Stanley Gold, chairman of the L.A. federation, in London late last week. “Before I decide exactly what to do, I need to have the facts,” Gold said in a letter. “There may be all kinds of opportunities to recover from institutions or insurance companies, but I don’t want to get the cart before the horse.

“The loss, while unprecedented in the foundation’s 54-year history, does not threaten the foundation’s stability, its existing commitments or its ability to maintain its leading role in the Los Angeles philanthropic community,” said the letter, distributed via BusinessWire.

JCF has retained legal counsel and is “aggressively pursuing every possible recovery and remedy,” the letter said.

However, an article in the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 15 suggested that investors are unlikely to get any money back, and that those who cashed out profits from Madoff’s fund may have to give some back.

In assessing the long-range damage done by the scandal, Tobin said, “One of Madoff’s chief victims may be the sense of trust he betrayed. With trust comes confidence and stability, and Jewish philanthropies can’t operate without all three.

“This is like finding out that somebody who is very important in the family is a felon,” Tobin said. “So it is going to shake confidence in people.”

Still, the Jewish community generally excels during times of crisis, and many of the affected nonprofits said this week that the losses to their endowment would not lead to a reduction in their services.

Brad A. Greenberg of the L.A. Jewish Journal, JTA and contributed to this report.