Lessons from the Madoff mess

Lessons from the Madoff mess

Jewish leaders around the country are still trying to gauge the damage caused by the $50 billion securities fraud scheme of Bernard Madoff.
That’s understandable. The alleged damage caused by Madoff, the founder of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (and let’s remember he’s still due his day in court), has already forced two Jewish foundations to close and crippled many more.
And while no Pittsburgh Jewish organization appears to be affected, that doesn’t mean Jewish Pittsburgh is immune from the scandal. Our community does not exist in a vacuum; what hurts the greater Jewish community hurts us as well.
Many Pittsburghers send their kids to Yeshiva University, where Madoff was on the board of trustees. That school reportedly lost $100 million in the scandal. How will that affect financial aid? Course offerings? Admissions? We can’t say, and, so far, Yeshiva isn’t talking much.
Could individuals living in Pittsburgh have invested through Madoff? And if they did, will they now reduce their giving to Jewish charities to make up for their personal losses? Again, it’s too soon to say.
As John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, told JTA, “Already in the context of a very challenging economic environment, this will present another significant difficulty. We don’t know yet the extent of the wreckage.”
Ditto. But we do know some of the lessons that should be learned.
We have been amazed to learn how extensively some organizations and individuals invested through Madoff. Even if he were an honest broker, no one should invest so heavily through one source.
Clearly, investors should have asked more questions: How do your fund managers make investments? With whom? Can they answer all your questions (and do you ask them?) Answers to those questions could have been red flags.
The toughest lesson to learn is that a man with such a mentsch-like reputation in the Jewish world could now be responsible for such financial tsores. But such is the case. We must do due diligence when deciding with whom to leave our money, and our final choice may not always be a landsman.
A word of assurance: Our community is strong, and will somehow weather this storm no matter how rough it gets in the short term. But if we emerge from this no wiser for the experience, then shame on us.