By Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein
Sunday, December 28th 2008, 4:00 AM
December is always tough on Jewish parents. Like their Christian counterparts preparing for Christmas, many can only shake their heads as they watch the spiritual component of the Chanukah holiday eroded by waves of crass commercialism. Religiously observant or not, Chanukah is a time that Jews work to affirm their ties to their history, their common future and each other. But the Chanukah candles glow dimmer this year with the realization that one of our own seems to have pulled off the greatest heist in history.
This year, the trust Jews have for each other, the sense of belonging to a larger family, has been violated. Bernie Madoff preyed on fellow Jews, parlaying the religious and cultural bond into a license to operate without controls or accountability. Fortunes were wiped out, charitable institutions shuttered or imperiled, with the worst suffering yet to hit our poor, as the beneficiaries of the social service agencies funded by large charities will be turned away at the door. As a result, this Chanukah our fears aren't focused on ancient hatred but on contemporary scapegoating - on bigots from the extreme right and far-left who are gleefully using the Madoff debacle to stoke increasingly toxic anti-Semitism.
Jews are hardly the only, or even the best, targets of in-group scams. As reported in The Wall Street Journal in September 2006, the Securities and Exchange Commission warned of "affinity fraud," the ability of charlatans to get people who naturally trust their own kind to open their pocketbooks and accounts. It pointed to campaigns within ethnic communities like Korean-Americans and Armenian-Americans, and religious ones, like black and Baptist churches.
But the Madoff scandal hits the Jewish community where it hurts in two ways: First we will have to deal with astronomical losses in the midst of a severe economic meltdown. Beyond that is the real sense of guilt. For a strong component of Jewish communal DNA is not only to take care of our own, but to both take pride in an individual's achievement and feel the shame when a leader violates our core values.
And to that end, we are lucky this holiday to be able to appeal to the example of generous, loving Jewish lives alongside that of the greedy, scheming Madoff.
The paths chosen by Bernie Madoff and Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, the beloved martyred directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Mumbai, couldn't have been more different. Madoff allegedly cheated his own to enhance his own reputation and to line his pockets. The Holtzbergs gave to strangers and expected nothing in return. Both made large promises and commitments. Madoff delivered treachery; the Holtzbergs delivered support that others thought impossible. Both achieved recognition. Madoff will be reviled; the Holtzbergs remembered with awe.
Moshe Holtzberg, the orphaned child of Gavriel and Rivkah, will never again meet his parents in this world. But he will have the benefit of unending pride in what they gave him. Madoff's children, who turned him in to the authorities, will have to go to great lengths to distance themselves from him and his legacy.
For every disappointment in the value of the Jewish global family, there are many counterexamples of the good it can achieve - the airlifting of 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel; her absorption of 2 million refugees from Russia; the dramatic rescue of hijacked travelers in Entebbe. For every Madoff, there are a thousand people who donated to the charities he denuded.
The challenge this Chanukah is to update the markers on the opposite paths of greed and compassion and take solace in the lesson of the holiday: Remember the good when things are bleakest. The candles we kindle will continue to shed light and bring hope beyond expectation.
Rabbi Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Adlerstein is the center's director of interfaith affairs.
Errol Louis returns on Thursday.