“This has not been a good year for the Jewish community. It seems like not a day went by without hearing of another scandal involving members of the Orthodox community.” These were the words of welcome offered in an agenda booklet for the Orthodox Union’s (OU) West Coast Torah Convention, titled “Recalibrating Our Moral and Ethical Compass,” held Dec. 24-27 in Los Angeles.
Certainly, revelations of shady dealings by Jews — Orthodox or otherwise — did not really increase so drastically during the past year as the statement suggests, but the perception stems largely from the international shock-waves caused by the unraveling of the Ponzi scheme of Bernard L. Madoff (who is Jewish, but not observant), as well as from several other very public scandals involving members of the Orthodox community.
The purpose of exploring this topic, the booklet suggested, was not to “criticize the transgressions of others,” but rather “to find solutions that will prevent us from embarrassment in the future.”
Held at various venues, from synagogues to homes to OU headquarters, the convention included sessions with titles such as: “Why Are Orthodox Jews Getting in Trouble With the Law and How Do We Fix It?”, “To What Extent is Civil Law Binding?” and “Do Noble Ends Justify Unethical Means?”
Some of the speakers, including the opening night keynote speaker Rabbi Yosie Levine of the Jewish Center in New York, seemed relatively young in contrast to the audience, which — at least at the opening and closing sessions — was composed mostly of elderly people.
Discussions throughout focused repeatedly on how to inculcate in Orthodox youth the values of ethical business behavior, as well as how to deal with donations from tainted sources.
“What defines a Jew?” Rabbi Steven Weil, the new national executive vice president of the OU, asked in a fiery speech at the convention’s final plenary session, held at Young Israel of Century City. “It’s the practical application of our theology,” he responded to his own question. “How we engage in business.”
This is not a new topic for Weil. Two years ago, sermonizing from his pulpit at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, in the wake of the arrests in Los Angeles of eight ultra-Orthodox men indicted for tax fraud and money laundering, Weil famously told his congregation: “You call yourself a tzadik [righteous person]; you’re a liar!”
Returning to the same theme, but with a new twist at the OU conference, Weil told a very attentive and concerned audience of about 150 that the wrongdoing is the responsibility of recipients of ill-gotten funds, as well.
“We have no right to sell our soul. We have no right to put names of donors on yeshivas, names of people who have made their money dishonestly…. When we put the name of such a person on a yeshiva, when this is the koved [honor] that we give, then all the Torah that we teach our children, all the values that we teach our children, we can throw it all out, because bottom line, it’s the money talking.
“The students see those names, and they say to themselves: These are the people we are honoring, no matter how the money was made…. If we accept the money, and we put the names of those people on buildings, that act speaks loud and clear. We send that message to our children.”
Throughout the convention, Weil and others emphasized practical steps to combat illegal and unethical business practices between individuals or with the government. The United States, Weil said, has provided Jews with a “wonderful home,” and he stressed that in financial dealings with the government, including paying taxes, Orthodox Jews must be “snow white, more American than Americans.”
To help, the OU has been offering a series of seminars around the country. “We call it Honest to God,” said Stephen J. Savitsky, OU national president. In addition, the OU’s Web site, ou.org, has video shiurim (lessons) on ethical business practices. Four videos already are online, and, Savitsky said, many more will soon follow.
The shiurim explore the business ethics of “how we market ourselves,” Weil said. “How we pay our taxes, how we deal with wholesale-retail, how we deal with the acquisition of real estate, how we set up structures. Just because something might be legally acceptable — and you can always find an attorney who’ll tell you something is legal — if it doesn’t smell right, we should reject it.”
Savitsky said the topic is both complex and seemingly infinite: “The more forums we have, the more we talk about it, the more it’s going to become a priority for us,” he said. “I know that it gets really hard when you’re trying to make a payroll, and someone is willing to give you a check, so you look the other way.” Just as people nowadays put up signs in stores that say that they pay minimum wage or deal in fair trade, Savitsky said, “Orthodox Jews should also put up a sign that reads: ‘Is the money you’re giving me kosher money?’”
“The paradigm needs to change,” he added, suggesting that people convicted for crimes should come to schools to talk about their misdeeds. “These speakers could come to the schools and say, ‘I’ll tell you what I did wrong and I paid the price, and I think about it every single day, and at night I wonder how I could have done that, and you shouldn’t do it, because it’s going to ruin your life.’”
The speed-bump in instituting some of these steps, Savitsky suggested, is willpower. “What I’m afraid of is that we don’t really see this as an important issue. It’s something we give lip service to, but we’re not really prepared to do something about it.”
“Moses is Moses, but business is business,” Savitsky said. “When it gets to our pocketbooks, we have trouble dealing with it.”