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In Wake of Jewish Scandals, Time for a Little Soul-Searching

August 14, 2013
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Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, has come under scrutiny for the organization's bungled handling of a 2001 letter warning about fraud. Photo by Uriel Heilman/JTA

There are enough scandals roiling the Jewish world to keep our tongues wagging and our hearts crying for quite awhile.

The Hebrew month of Elul, which started last week and leads us toward Rosh Hashanah, is a fitting time to reflect on what — if anything — we can learn from these shandahs.

They run the institutional gamut — from fraud at the Claims Conference, which stained the reputation of an organization long dedicated to providing restitution for Holocaust survivors, to this week’s revelation that the longtime head of a New York organization devoted to fighting Jewish poverty has been fired, allegedly due to corruption.

In a chain of stories that could be titled: “When Bad People Hijack Good Organizations,” we are left shaking our heads, wondering how people involved in purportedly selfless work could wind up so far afield.

In the case of New York’s Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, CEO William Rapfogel allegedly inflated insurance bills to pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars of overcharges for himself. Rapfogel is now reportedly the focus of a criminal investigation by New York’s state attorney general and comptroller.

Beyond the institutional malaise come the string of personal scandals in the political and sports worlds. To name just a couple: Ryan Braun testing positive for steroids, and Anthony Weiner, the New York former congressman and mayoral wannabe, whose sexting sickness just won’t go away.

The seemingly endless onslaught of scandal leads to debate about whether individual Jewish wrongdoing should cast a shadow on all of us or whether another person’s sins are just that — belonging to someone else.

Are we past the days when such collective guilt — or, perhaps more accurately, embarrassment — plagues us? Should we be, as Burt Siegel suggested in an opinion column in these pages last week? Or, as a reader responded in a letter this week: Not so fast. “What every Jew does most certainly reflects on all of us whether we like it or not, and no matter how tenuous that person’s relationship is to the Jewish people. We cringe and are shamed, and we are proud; these emotions are not things of the past.”

This soul-searching about how we identify with other Jews, for good or for bad, is healthy. It helps frame our community, where we fit in and who — and how — we want to claim as our own.

It also can help us think differently, perhaps more carefully, on a personal and communal level as we prepare this month for the High Holidays. While it’s hard to resist the tongue wagging, wouldn’t it be better to redirect all that energy toward self-reflection and a dedicated commitment to communal renewal?

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