Madoff scandal is an affront on many levels

As if the economy had not undergone enough shocks, last week we learned of the alleged mega-thievery of Wall Street investor Bernard Madoff. The ripple effects of his $50 billion rip-off will be felt for years to come.

It would be hard to imagine a greater assault on Jewish philanthropy than that caused by the Madoff affair. That a prominent member of the Jewish community allegedly authored this scandal only adds to the pain.

According to news reports, not only were the life savings of countless individuals wiped out, but also many Jewish agencies, endowments and charities were left in dire financial straits. Some institutions have shut down, and others may follow.

Thankfully, Bay Area Jewish institutions — including the three local Jewish federations — appear to have emerged relatively unscathed.

If the charges against him are true, then Bernard Madoff is an arch-criminal. As bad as those charges are, he also delivered a body blow to the image of Jews around the world. Some observers have noted how Madoff fits all too neatly into anti-Semitic stereotypes: the greedy Jewish financier stealing, almost literally, from the needy.

It will take time for investigators to unravel the full extent of Madoff’s alleged crimes. We are confident they will do their jobs. Ultimately justice will prevail.

Meanwhile, the scandal provides the Jewish community an opportunity to reflect. Easy as it is to turn Madoff into a cartoon villain, we must remember he could not have pulled off his grand deceit without partners, witting or unwitting.

The questions must be asked: Where was the SEC all these years? Where were Madoff’s auditors, and how could they have missed the trouble signs? Where was the due diligence incumbent upon investors? Why were so many in the Jewish community so easily snookered?

Difficult as the process may be, we must now collectively probe our own complicity in this calamity. We as a community were apparently taken in by the lure of easy profits, lulled by the illusion of perpetual prosperity. It’s easy to put on blinders when the quarterly statements have happy faces stamped all over them.

We Jews are justifiably proud of our community’s financial might. But recent events show it can all disappear in a flash. In the end, bulging coffers do not define us. Our actions, and the manner in which we treat each other and our neighbors, define us.

Let us remember that as we light the first Chanukah candles this Sunday, Dec. 21 — the longest night of the year.