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Monday, December 29, 2008

Making money at any price

Our community idolizes people with money. Their names are on our buildings; they get the most aliyas in shul; they are feted at large communal banquets. Our kids are watching. They see that rabbis, social workers and teachers struggling to get by while Wall Street traders have their names in bright lights.

It took Gavi and Rivka Holtzberg being murdered by terrorists in Mumbai for Chabad emissaries to finally get the recognition they deserve as heroes of the Jewish people. The same is true of Israeli soldiers, who seem to come back into the American Jewish consciousness only when Israel is at war with Hamas in Gaza. The rest of the time we go back to what truly matters - that our kids get into Harvard.

IF WE have learned one thing from the Bernard Madoff scandal, it's that the Jewish community is in need of new heroes. No longer can we look up only to those who are billionaires, even if they are significant philanthropists. If we continue to highlight money men as Jewish role models, then we create the conditions for more Jews to cut corners to make a buck at any cost so that they receive the recognition of their peers.

Our community must stand first and foremost for godly values. Everything else is secondary.

From the age of 16 I wanted to be a rabbi, and shortly after my 22nd birthday, I had the honor of becoming the Rebbe's emissary at Oxford University. My wife and I worked our guts out to build Jewish life at the university, which meant spending about half my time fund-raising, about the norm for the average Chabad emissary. After a few years, my students graduated and went on to lucrative careers. They had none of the money problems I did. Some of them may have worked a quarter as hard but got paid 10 times as much, especially if they went to work on Wall Street.

IT DIDN'T seem fair. As Chabad emissaries, where was our security? I watched many of my rabbinic colleagues borrowing money just to pay for their childrens' weddings, and this after a lifetime of hard work. Where was the justice?

But what sustained me in communal work was the fact that in Chabad the models at the top of the communal ladder were not the money men but the shluchim. To be an emissary of the Rebbe is seen as life's highest honor (although even in Chabad these days the money men are beginning to assume a preeminence that they didn't enjoy before).

We see the same model in the settler movement in Israel. The heroes are those who sacrifice by living in dangerous areas where they face incessant terror attack. Yes, settler yeshivot and institutions are assisted by millionaire philanthropists, but it is still the settlers themselves who are the role models of the movement. This is why both Chabad and the settler groups continue to attract strong pools of talent rather than losing their most gifted souls to technology startups or making yerida to make more money in America. It all comes down to whom you hold up as heroes.

LOOK, I'M not naïve. I understand that money makes the world go round. Without cash, the shuls can't open, the schools would close and Jews would be returned to the impoverished life we suffered for centuries.

But there has to be a balance. Surely we can elevate those who work for the communal good for little financial reward to positions of glory in our community so our children get the message that righteousness rather than wealth is what Jews most respect. Can anyone reading this article name five famous contemporary Jewish thinkers? Can you name any lawyers celebrated for defending Israel other than Alan Dershowitz? Can you name 10 famous Jewish educators?

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe died, I wrote an article about his life on the plane back from his funeral. I called it "The colossus and me" and began by mentioning that what I first noticed about the Rebbe were the holes in his shoes. Here was a man utterly divorced from materialism, even though he was one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century. The same would be said of people like the Dalai Lama. Wouldn't you be surprised if you heard that the robe he was wearing was Dolce and Gabbana? The fact is, saintly individuals don't care much for things. Those who do are possessed of an inner emptiness. They stuff every Rolex watch and Chanel suit into the black hole of their existence in the hope of filling up the chasm in their lives. But since these things are ultimately valueless, it can only create a shopaholic addiction that is neither satisfying nor fulfilling.

WHAT I am saying is that our community's obsession with material wealth bespeaks a spiritual crisis that can only be resolved by returning to our core spiritual commitments of family, community and tradition. We need to attend more classes and fewer shopping malls. We need to tell our kids that it's more important to us that they act righteously than succeed professionally. And we need to recommit ourselves to our families, putting the bedroom before the boardroom and the family dining table before the office desk.

After the Holocaust, many in the Jewish community concluded that money is the best guarantor of continuity and security. If we were wealthy, we could lobby for Israel and build vital communal institutions that would lead to a rebirth.

This notion was only partially correct, because without emphasizing to our children that the Jewish people stand for tradition, ethics and a holy way of life, we stood the risk of being corrupted by wealth and coming to see money as the end rather than the means.

Once you remove morality from the picture, everything is lost. Once we produce billionaires without values, there is no telling where their greed will stop. So you can wake up one morning and discover that everything you lived for - membership in the most expensive country club, access to the most exclusive investment vehicle - has vanished in a puff of hot air. Both figuratively and literally.

The writer is the founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network. In January he will publish his new book The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets to Rediscovering Desire and Reigniting Passion for Life (HarperOne). www.shmuley.com

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