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.

42 Comments:

Blogger IchBinEinBrookliner said...

So where do you go when you have to say kaddish daily?

How do the kids learn Hebrew and/or get religious instruction?

Shouldn't a shul be more than just a weekend thing?

2:16 PM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

So where do you go when you have to say kaddish daily?

I'll do without saying kaddish if the only way I can do so is to support a corrupt institution.

How do the kids learn Hebrew and/or get religious instruction?

They learn Hebrew at a community school (which, alas, does depend on the 80/20 rule for fundraising.) I give them religious instruction, I wouldn't trust that to a rabbi.

Although, come to think of it, I learned Hebrew by spending a year in Israel, so who needs schools?

Shouldn't a shul be more than just a weekend thing?

Why not?

2:54 PM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

The problem with the do-it-yourself approach to Judaism is that you need a critical mass of do-it-yourselfers to run a chavurah or a small synagogue that's largely lay-led. In our synagogue, which is, heaven help us, even smaller than yours, the number of people who can chant a haftarah can be counted on two hands, and the number of people who can lein (chant from the Torah) or lead a service can be counted on *one* hand. In addition, our congregation is largely elderly, and many congregants are no longer well enough to do a lot of volunteer work. Unless the congregants are willing and/or able to pitch in and do the work, you're going to need a staff.

I have my own problems with Conservative Judaism. I would gladly have sent you this link via e-mail, if you provided an e-mail address, but since you don't, and since your blog's general topic is related to my post, I hope you'll forgive me for cluttering up your comments:

Fed up with Conservative Judaism's attitude toward Observant Conservative Jews

8:19 PM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

Shira,

There's a problem with the link you provided....If you could redirect us to an active one, our readers would be very appreciative.

Thanks,

CA

1:42 PM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

You know, thinking about this somemore, the prblem isn't only that synagogue budgets are too high, it's the whole assumption of the 80/20 rule of fundraising.

Is rthis assumption valid? Could an isntitution raise the needed funds without having to rely on a small core of donors who expect disproportionate influence on the policy of the insitution? Is it really the job of the clergy to "dirty their hands" to ensure that the funds are raised?

I suspect that a large number of Jews who chooose not to affiliate with jewish institutions made that choice becuase they don't wish to belong to an organization that kowtows to the needs of a minority of the membership. In other words, most people don't rsally derive any benefit from the fact that the lobby is named after Ploni Almoni. Further, if Ploni Almoni and his family get first dibs on the rabbi's attention becuase of the rabbi's need to extract Almoni family gelt, then Mr. or Ms. Average Yod amy conclude that there's no real benefit to belonging to a synagogue of which they are, for all practical purposes, second-class members.

1:52 PM  
Blogger waltergibson45722409 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:23 AM  
Blogger IchBinEinBrookliner said...

I've been thinking a lot about your point.

First, I think that you have set up a straw man argument. Because some rabbis and some shuls are corrupt, it does not necessarily follow that all rabbis and large shuls are likewise corrupt. You are making a big jump that I do not accept.

I can say from personal experience, your remarks do not apply to my rabbi. He may have his faults, but kowtowing to big donors isn’t one of them. I’ve never been in a position to be big donor to my shul, but my rabbi has stood by my family in good times and bad. When my father was terminally ill, the rabbi made several bedside visits that were a great comfort to my whole family. It is unfair to characterize clergy’s role in matters like this as “…a cheap alternative to a real professional therapist or counselor.” When the “professionals” in the hospital had the meeting with my family to tell us that my father had to go to hospice care, my rabbi dropped everything to be there. He was far more helpful than the professionals. To say that the professionals were less than comforting that day would be an understatement.

You are also assuming that what works for you will work for everyone. I’m glad that you get a lot out of your minyan. And if you can bring in unaffiliated Jews, more power to you. I believe that the fact that half of all American Jews choose not to affiliate is not a comment on Jewish institutions, but evidence that American Jews reflect broader American culture in which half of all Americans choose not to affiliate with any organized religion.

I think that there is a large role for small minyanim for American Jewry, but it is a massive leap from that to advocating we all abandon the traditional synagogue.

Regards,

IchBinEinBrookliner

9:23 AM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

Because some rabbis and some shuls are corrupt, it does not necessarily follow that all rabbis and large shuls are likewise corrupt. You are making a big jump that I do not accept.

But the larger the shul is, and the more expenses it has, the more dependent it is on the 20 percent of the congregation who give 80 percent of the money.

And I was mainly commenting on Rabbi Leder's breathtaking assertion that he can "right the wrong" by using dirty money in his institution:

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!

My preference would be to take the stolen money and return it to the people from whom it was stolen.

It may be true that many large congregations meet their expenses without having to take tainted money, but Rabbi Leder's writing indicates that all too many are sorely tempted. Obviously, the best way to avoid taking tainted money is not to need money in the first place, or at least not need any more than can be raised in an egalitarian manner by the mass of the membership. Too bad if that means that the shull can't afford that 6-figure rabbinical salary.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

I believe that the fact that half of all American Jews choose not to affiliate is not a comment on Jewish institutions, but evidence that American Jews reflect broader American culture in which half of all Americans choose not to affiliate with any organized religion.

OK, so American in general don't want to affiliate with religious institutions becuase all religious institutions in this country are basically slaves to their insatiable appetite for funding, and religious leaders basicall kowtow to the easiest source of that funding.

9:55 AM  
Blogger IchBinEinBrookliner said...

You can isten to a focus group of unaffilated Americans done by the NPR show "This American Life".

http://thislife.org/pages/descriptions/06/311.html

Go to minute 38 of the program.

11:25 AM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

The one clear message: never trust a prosperous religious institution, as you cannot know exactly what nasty compromises they have made.

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Rabbi Barry Leff said...

Just so you know, there are some of us Conservative rabbis condemning Abramoff who would refuse tainted money. See my D'var Torah on Vayigash posted on my blog, www.neshamah.net . (http://tinyurl.com/femvv) Also, there are a number of us working on bringing more visibility of ethical issues to Conservative Jews. See for example my teshuva on whistleblowing (http://tinyurl.com/zo6mb) which is under consideration by the movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Rabbi Jill Jacobs has a teshuva on the obligation to pay a living wage before the Law Committee.

Unfortunately, most rabbis spend very little time learning Choshen Mishpat, the section of the Shulhan Arukh that deals with business law / ethics. But there is SOME progress out there...

3:47 PM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

kol Ha kavod, Rabbi Leff!

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