Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Big-Shot Rabbi says it's OK to accept tainted money

Well, remind me never to learn ethics from rabbis.

Or at least Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, the head rabbibincal honcho at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in LA.

Rabbi Leder writes in response to the the Jack Abramoff scandal:

All of which brings us back to Jack Abramoff and his ilk. Most people in fund-raising have heard of the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the money comes from 20 percent of the people. It stands to reason that most of the money the synagogue or church needs to operate will come from a few families.

So what choice does the clergy really have? We are the ones with the relationships to those families. We have buried their loved ones, married them or their children, brissed or christened their grandchildren, helped get their kids into college or off drugs. The truth is that for most of them it is not so much to the Bible, synagogue, or church that they feel obligated--it’s to us personally.

Let me be clear. Should I use those relationships to benefit the synagogue? Of course. Should I accept the money even when I know the donor’s character or methods of acquiring the money are suspect? Yes. I see no reason why a synagogue or church or any charity for that matter should not try to right a bit of the wrong by putting ill-gotten money to sacred use. It was Mother Teresa who I am told once said about a suspicious donor, “Even the wicked have the God-given right to do a good deed.”

Judaism also teaches that you should never stop a person from doing a mitzvah. Would I put a convicted criminal’s name on a building? No. Would I accept his or her anonymous donation to the synagogue? In a minute. Robin Hood had the right idea. His mistake was stealing from the rich instead of meeting them at the club for lunch and asking.

Wow. What a distorted view of the purpose of the clergy. And, it explains to some degree, why the majority of k'lal Yisrae'l refrains from affiliating with Jewish religious institutions. We've always had this niggling suspicions that our rabbis care more about the rich members of the congregation. Rabbi Leder, in this article, confirms this suspicion.

And the text of the Torah suggests that Rabbi Leder is just plain wrong:

Do not bring a harlot's fee or payment for a dog to the house of Ad-noy, your G-d, in fulfillment of any vow; because Ad-noy, your G-d's abominations are even both of them.
Deuteronomy 23:19

But there is an alternative, and that's in a low-overhead religious community that is completely self-sustaining in its expenses and can safely ignore the 80/20 rule of fund raising. The shul I belong to, "B'nai CA," is a good example. We have less than 200 members, we charge an affordable (in the grand scehme of synagogue dues) $1,000 per years dues (with a special committee for hardship cases and a lower rate for singles.) we own no real extate and pary in rented space, we have a part-time rabbi (our only paid staff) who's not expected to be on call 24/7 and be a cheap alternative to a real professional therapist or counselor. We have weekly Shabbat services, Yom Tov services, and weekly Talmud session, plus some other miscellaneous programming, all for a budget of less than $250,000 per year. We do the occasional fund-raiser, but the bottom line is that whatever our limitations in term of programming, we are not dependent on a minority of wealthy donors who can call the shots. And while anybody or organization could always be tempted by taineted money, we do not have the insatiable need for it just to keep the organization going.

So this is what American jews need to do. Sell their expensive money pits synagogue buildings, get by with a part-time rabbi. Have the members do the work, and don't expect such professional results. Better to have 10 congregations like "B'nai CA" than 1 Wilshire Bouldevard Temple.