People in need of assistance have approached me over the past 18 months in numbers I have not seen before in my service as a rabbi. The economic downturn, which is still very much our reality, has rendered many a giver of tzedakah (charity) a new recipient and has made the circumstances faced by many existing recipients all the more desperate.
Many people still blessed with sufficient means to assist those in need have stepped forward, seeking to learn where and how they might contribute their funds to make the most important and needed difference. While such dedication is nothing short of inspirational, needs exceed available means to assist and Jewish institutions and organizations struggle to manage expenses to remain solvent.
The economic downturn is not the only financial challenge faced by the Jewish community. Bernard Madoff did such broad and deep damage to Jewish institutions, and to numerous committed philanthropists who support them, that the generation emerging in the Jewish community might come to be known in the future as the post-Madoff generation. Our era might be defined by its challenge to sustain the Jewish present as much as by its call to ensure the Jewish future — an unexpected departure from the financial hurdles of recent generations and one entirely unpredicted fewer than two years ago.
But challenges and even crises often present important opportunities. This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, may well include an important message for each of us in the Jewish community to understand and respond to the opportunities amid the challenges presented by Madoff’s betrayal of his own people.
As Moses led the Israelites in their journey toward the Promised Land, and after God’s revelation at Mount Sinai, the Torah teaches us that God instructed Moses to solicit voluntary gifts from the Israelites, with their decision to participate remaining voluntary and their degree of generosity a matter of personal choice. The purpose of this “campaign” was to enable the entire community to work together to build a Tabernacle, a central locus for God’s presence among the people: “They shall build for me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
The particular phrasing of the instruction to construct the Tabernacle offers some important insights and charges, as important for us in the post-Madoff era as they were for our ancestors living in relative austerity while journeying to freedom and purpose in the Promised Land.
Per the commentary in Avot D’Rabi Natan, one of the earliest compilations of rabbinic literature, “Great is work, for even The Holy One of Blessing did not abide among Israel until they worked.” It wasn’t enough that a Tabernacle be made to exist; it was vital that a collective undertaking — a broad-based, voluntary commitment — be assumed by the Jewish people, each as he was moved, to build not only a symbolic locus for God’s presence, but, thereby, a community worthy of God’s presence and one that could therefore enjoy God’s presence throughout.
The charge to assume a voluntary, collective endeavor whose success depends upon everyone working together is as important today as it was in the desert. The call to each and every one of us to consider carefully the consequences of our own commitment and financial generosity — or the lack thereof — echoes through time to eras such as our own today. The obvious insight of the verse itself, that our earnest invitation to God to reside in a space we build together among us, is a reminder that any Jewish achievement in any era can endure only to the extent that it involves and engages a sizeable proportion of the community, which is committed and dedicated to give more as it is needed.
The grand opportunity in the post-Madoff era is to make the Jewish community and the welfare of the Jewish people, here and abroad, the primary beneficiary of our personal and communal commitment and generosity. In our era, we can no longer afford to see a mere 10 percent of all Jewish philanthropy allocated to assisting other Jews and supporting Jewish organizations and institutions that serve Jews primarily. Due to near catastrophic loss of funds thanks to Madoff, a constant percentage will mean a severe decrease in vital services and necessary subsidies provided by Jewish schools, synagogues, pro-Israel organizations, Jewish welfare service organizations and international Jewish relief efforts.
If we rise to the occasion, the Madoff challenge can serve as an important opportunity for us to recalibrate our priorities and remind ourselves that we need everyone, in every way, to maintain the Jewish present, let alone ensure the Jewish future.
If we all choose to contribute together, to sustain it together and to build it together, the Jewish present will inspire an even greater Jewish future — just as it did so long ago in the desert.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay (nertamid.com), an inclusive Conservative synagogue in Rancho Palos Verdes.