Thursday, October 1, 2009

More on Hadassah

I've been engaged in an interesting and constructive dialogue with a couple of Hadassah folk over the past couple of days, regarding my Kol Nidre comments related to the organzation. Here is an e-mail received from Rhonna Rogol:

Dear Rabbi Hammerman,

Though I fully understand both the import and importance of your Kol Nidrei sermon, I was surprised both at the singling out of Hadassah and with parts of your remarks concerning Hadassah. Obviously, it was the Sheryl Weinstein connection that was you saw as differentiating Hadassah from the many organizations that were hurt by Madoff in terms of the responsibility for atonement, but it is arguable whether the statement that she "was" Hadassah, for example, gives an accurate impression of what I understand the decision-making process to have been at the time.

Nor am I sure betray was the right word to use in the suggested apology, inasmuch as even Sheryl W. herself was betrayed and the then Hadassah leaders undoubtedly felt (as did all those other well meaning decision-makers of Jewish organizations that invested with Madoff) that were doing a really good thing for their respective organizations. I need to look up betray in the dictionary, but I think the commonly understood meaning would apply only to Madoff himself.

Which leads me to my most important observation. Putting on my lawyer's hat for a second (and also let me clarify that everything I'm writing to you is from my personal vantage point and as a member of Hadassah and not in any official way as Advisor to the Stamford chapter or region executive board member), I think the problem with the suggested apology that you have written for Hadassah --and the part that I think is potentially most subject to objection by people involved the organization-- is that it implies an element of intent in terms of investing with a known bad actor. Not only is there no evidence to support that interpretation of the events, but it would constitute criminal behavior.
Was there some negligent behavior? In law, the negligence standard would be what a reasonable man knew or should have known. Not enough investigation or suspicion of Madoff? Bad investment strategy? Not enough diversification? Reason to suspect that Weinstein was not acting with the requisite fiduciary responsibility? There doesn't seem to be any factual evidence even of these things, nor have I seen any allegations to that effect. But an accusation of deception in contravention of donors' trust and torah values and in "betrayal of the cause of holiness" sounded like an implication of more than inadvertence or even mere negligence to me and, I suspect, to many listeners.

The "not blameless" part is worth talking about. It certainly is a Jewish trait to take ownership of and even feel mightily guilty about an error we are associated with even if it was not intended and we were not directly responsible for--indeed even if we ourselves were taken in or clueless. But the level of mea culpa shouldn't rise to the level implied in the suggested apology. Maybe what you were really disappointed with not seeing was something like: 'Regardless of whether this was our fault or our predecessors' or whether it was avoidable or not by something we did or did not do, we feel absolutely awful about it and we apologize for the damage it has caused our work and the angst inevitably caused to you, our supporters. Everything Hadassah stands for and has always stood for is totally at odds with what happened here.' That in itself is an "al chet." But that is a very different thing than the type of "al chet" avowal you advised on Kol Nidrei.

Hoping for some clarification.

The clarification would simply be to reiterate what I said in my prior posting and to emphasize that no ill "intent" was assumed regarding the organization's investing with Madoff. As we see often in the Yom Kippur liturgy and elsewhere in Jewish legal literature, however, even sins committed inadvertently ("shogeg" is the Hebrew term) are still sins. And taking ownership for those actions would, I feel, be beneficial for the organization (which, as I stated repeatedly, I love), and to take ownership for Weinstein's fiduciary failure. As for Weinstein, it's hard to call adultery unintentional, especially given the potential conflicts of interest that were involved.

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