When Bernie Madoff was caught defrauding untold millions from organizations and private investors in a Ponzi scheme, the Jewish community felt a collective sense of shame.
Likewise, when religious Jews with payot and black hats, including Orthodox rabbis from Deal’s Syrian community, were shown on the evening news doing “the perp walk” in July 2009 for everything from selling organs to money laundering, a similar communal shudder was felt.
According to educator Erica Brown, the sense that Jews belong to an “extended family” is a double-edged sword.
“We are a people; we feel unity. We feel a powerful connection. I need to feel aligned with you,” she said. “That is why as a Jew when there is a scandal I feel personally they are talking about me.”
Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, addressed issues from both sides of that sword — pride and shame — at a March 28 program at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
Brown, author of Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Other Jews Do Bad Things, conducted an interactive program in which audience members were asked to match the apology to the celebrity who made it.
She also cited examples of biblical figures behaving badly and discussed examples of Jewish texts regarding ethical standards.
“Most Jews are good, ethical people who live by a strong moral code,” she said. However, those who gain notoriety trigger strong reactions in other Jews.
“Did Bernie Madoff take anything from you?” she asked. “Of course, he did. He took your pride, honor, and credibility. He tarnished the credibility of Jewish nonprofits. He made it harder to fund-raise because trust was down. He made us feel a little anxious about being Jewish and unsure of how to explain his behavior when none of us was responsible for it.”
The idea for her latest book, she said, came about after a colleague, a respected Conservative rabbi, was caught in a sting on To Catch a Predator — a reality show from Dateline NBC — soliciting sex from a minor.
To help her coworkers cope with the shock, Brown scheduled a class in which they discussed their horror and “intense feelings of shame.”
However, Brown said, the primary catalyst for the book was the corruption and money-laundering scandal two years ago that implicated leaders of the Syrian-Jewish community. Brown said she grew up in Deal.
Brown blamed “an entitlement culture” that leads many to believe their status gives them the right to do wrong with few consequences.
However, Jewish tradition holds that no one is exempt. Jewish kings not only had to have a Torah scroll written for them but were required to carry it. The message was simple, said Brown, that all be aware of the law and be governed by its principles.
That tradition of holding to a higher morality makes the public indiscretions of Jews even more disturbing to other Jews. Yet, Brown said, few Jews are willing to criticize lawbreakers and the Jewish educational system isn’t doing enough to transmit ethics to adults or children.
“We Jews need to take morality more seriously,” said Brown. “We need to take responsibility for the actions of others more seriously.”
She added that Maimonides himself instructed that sinners be repeatedly rebuked in private and wrote that those who fail to do so are considered responsible for committing that sin.
“You need to be a whistleblower,” said Brown. “You understand someone may be hurt. But you have to say it until they hear it.”