Ambassadors for Goodness
Dylan Chidick was born in Trinidad 17 years ago. When he was 7, his family immigrated to the U.S. They settled down in Brooklyn; later, priced out of the market, they moved to Jersey City, where Dylan enrolled at Henry Snyder High School. He was an excellent, hard-working student. His mother supported the family by working as a home health aide. In mid-2017 she lost her job and the family lost their home. They moved into a shelter and lived there for several months.
Around this time, Dylan started preparing to go to college, hoping to be the first person in his family to matriculate. He went to summer school, taking advanced placement classes, while earning money through his job at a recreation center. He’d get back to the shelter at 9 p.m. and would study late into the night. Eventually, assisted by Women Rising, a local organization that helps poor women and families, Dylan and his family were able to move into permanent housing. That winter he sent in his college applications. He’s now received acceptances from 17 schools, but is waiting for an 18th, from his first choice, the College of New Jersey, one of the best public institutions in the northeast.
The New York Times chose to profile Dylan Chidick this week, the same week the paper broke the story of a massive college admissions scandal in which dozens of wealthy parents paid millions of dollars in bribes to get their kids into elite schools. By now the details of the case are familiar – I don’t need to dwell on them. Many have responded to this disturbing story by deploring the competitive mania to get into top schools that now dominates the lives of so many adolescents and parents. Some have focused on how bright, deserving students like Dylan, who have to struggle to make it on their own, have reacted to the scandal of people buying their way into college. Others have been fascinated by the idea that members of the privileged elite, whose children already enjoy a huge advantage in the college admissions system, chose to game the system even further. And some have explored the unfairness already inherent in the system even when nobody breaks the law, as these parents allegedly did.
I want to look at this story from another angle. Among those charged with federal crimes in the admissions scandal were several Jews – business leaders and professionals, some involved in the Jewish community, in synagogues. One comes from a wealthy Iranian Jewish family in Southern California whose name is attached to the JCC of Orange County. Another, the American Lawyer’s 2018 “Dealmaker of the Year,” was recorded on a wiretap saying, “To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here.”
So aside from being a disheartening story about the rapacious culture of college admissions these days, this is also one of many stories in recent years detailing the bad behavior of prominent Jews.
Don’t misunderstand me – most of those involved in this scandal were not Jewish, and I’m not suggesting that Jews are especially at fault here. But whenever there are Jews in the news for reasons other than positive ones, the discomfort is heightened for us. So let’s look at this phenomenon of Jews who engage in unethical behavior through a Jewish lens. How is it viewed by our tradition? What does it mean for us? What can we do when it shows up in the headlines, other than cringe?
We begin with a short, painful journey through some recent scandals that involved members of our tribe. The most notorious is now a decade old, but it still haunts our communal memory: Bernie Madoff, former trustee of Yeshiva University, convicted of operating a massive Ponzi scheme, the largest financial fraud in U.S. history, who defrauded his investors of billions of dollars.
Back in 2002, there was Andrew Fastow, convicted felon and former CFO of Enron. Fastow’s wife, Lea Weingarten, also worked for Enron; she pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering and filing fraudulent income tax returns. The Fastows belonged to Or Ami, a Conservative synagogue in Houston where Andrew taught Hebrew school.
Then there’s William Rapfogel, leader of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, one of New York City’s largest social service agencies, who over two decades looted that charity of more than $9 million, convicted in 2014 of grand larceny, money laundering and tax fraud. His predecessor, David Cohen, and former CFO Herb Friedman, also pled guilty in the scheme. Rapfogel belonged to the same synagogue as former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful politicians in New York, found guilty in 2015 of federal corruption charges of receiving millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks and hiding the money by disguising it as income from his law practice.
In 2017, as part of a welfare fraud sting operation, 26 members of the Jewish community of Lakewood, including a rabbi, were charged with understating their income to get millions of dollars in public assistance they were not entitled to, including free healthcare, food stamps and rental subsidies.
Just a couple of months ago, Jeremy Reichberg, a wealthy Jewish businessman and fundraiser for New York mayor Bill de Blasio, was convicted in federal court of fraud and four counts of bribing NYPD officers with lavish gifts to receive personal favors, such as illegally obtained gun permits, ticket-fixing, parking privileges and police escorts around city traffic.
Then there’s the Sackler family, descendants of Polish Jewish immigrants, major donors to great museums and universities in America, England, China and Israel. The Sacklers own Purdue Pharma, which has made billions from Oxycontin, and is now facing multiple lawsuits for its role in the opioid crisis ravaging our country. The lawsuit said the Sacklers “actively participated in conspiracy and fraud to portray the prescription painkiller as non-addictive, even though they knew it was dangerously addictive.”
And we can’t forget attorney Michael Cohen, sentenced to three years in prison for multiple counts of tax evasion, bank fraud, lying to Congress and violating campaign finance laws. Cohen, who describes himself as “an agnostic Jew,” is the son of a Polish Holocaust survivor. He began his education at a yeshiva day school on Long Island, and celebrated his son’s Bar Mitzvah in 2012.
I won’t detail the list of prominent Jews involved in sexual misconduct cases, some of them horrific, except to say that it includes journalists, academics, actors, directors, producers, writers, musicians, TV executives, politicians, day school teachers, heads of Jewish schools, a camp director, the former head of a Jewish youth movement, rabbis of all denominations, major philanthropists, including a leading funder of Birthright, and this year’s winner of the Genesis Prize, sometimes called “the Jewish Nobel” -- a million dollar award bestowed on individuals who “have made a significant contribution to improving the world, are proud of their Jewish heritage, and inspire young Jews through their dedication to philanthropy and social justice.”
In 1952 Bernard Malamud, an American Jew, published a poignant novel about the American dream. He was a farbrente baseball fan, and he chose to build his novel around baseball, the American game. He called it The Natural, because in it he tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a teenage “natural” at baseball who wants to be “the greatest in the game.” Roy works his way up from back-pasture hometown games to trying out for the National League and eventually a playoff game for the pennant.
Malamud’s real purpose was to tell us something about our culture; about competition, ambition and the American obsession with winning; about the corrosion of values and the corruption of the rules of the game.
Near the climax of the book, Roy Hobbs is found to have taken a bribe to throw a game. Distraught at the idea of his hero selling out, a young boy turns to Roy and says, “Say it ain’t so.” In response, Roy can only weep.
When public figures – especially those who are admired and respected – act unethically, the damage is profound. Repeated acts of betrayal of trust engender a sense of bitter cynicism that infects all of us. But it especially hurts young people, eroding their faith in the rules, institutions and virtues on which shared society is built; teaching young men and women that the world is a dirty place, that sooner or later everyone cheats, that the rules are for suckers.
When Jews in the public eye lie and cheat and prey on the vulnerable, there’s an additional level of damage. The tradition calls it “chillul HaShem” -- desecrating the name of God -- for each of us, made in the divine image, shames our Creator when we act immorally. And since each of us also represents Judaism and the Jewish people in the larger world, our behavior shapes others’ perceptions of Jews and the Jewish faith.
Worst of all is the hurt that is caused by unethical Jewish community leaders, for they engender contempt not just for themselves, but for the Torah they embody, and the God they serve. As the Talmud taught long ago [Yoma 86a]: “Let the love of God be spread through your actions. If a person studies and helps others to do so, if one’s business activities are decent, honest and trustworthy, what do people say? ‘Have you seen the behavior of one who studies Torah? How beautiful! What a fine person!’…But as for a person who studies Torah…but whose business activities are indecent and dishonest, and who treats people badly, what do people say? ‘How destructive are his deeds, how ugly are his ways!’”
Here’s how we might understand the ancient teaching of our tradition. Each of us who enjoys the trust of another – and that includes not just communal leaders but teachers, spouses, parents, grandparents and friends – each of us is an ambassador for goodness in this world. When we behave improperly, we convey the message that goodness doesn’t matter, that it’s irrelevant; a platitude to which we give lip service but nothing more; a fairy tale that can’t survive in the real world. But when we act properly, decently, honestly and fairly, we send the opposite message: that goodness is possible, that it’s real, that you can make it the foundation of your life.
So the recent college admissions scandal, like all of the cringe-worthy scandals before it, is an opportunity. Not just to cringe and feel uncomfortable. And not to gloat over the fall of the rich and the mighty, for our tradition emphasizes that all of us are vulnerable to temptation, and none of us should ever feel arrogant, overconfident of our own virtue. It’s an opportunity for self-reflection, as a community and as individuals.
How do we talk to the kids in our life about success, about the importance of winning, and how we define what it is to be a winner in this world? Is life a race, with limited spots at the top, or is life about loving our neighbor and lifting up the community around us? Do we use the news as an opportunity to talk about those who put profit before moral principles?
How do we convey our true priorities in life, and our aspirations for our kids? Do we care as much about cultivating in them the qualities that create strong, lasting relationships – patience, generosity, kindness, empathy, loyalty – as we do about prepping them for a top college and a lucrative career? And if we do care, how much thought and effort do we devote to shaping their character?
Do we teach our kids that just because you can get away with something doesn’t mean that you should? And do we clearly explain why not? Do we truly teach and model the importance of scrupulous honesty, fairness and hard work? How do we really feel about padding the resume, puffing the self-presentation, pulling any strings we can, or parental editing of the admissions essay?
Our kids are growing up in a community that values intelligence and quick wits, the ability to solve problems and see all the angles. Do we tell them that brains aren’t everything – what’s important is using your brain to do good – and help them discover how to use their own gifts in service to the good? Do we teach and model self-respect and respect for others, whatever their position in society?
Do we believe, and demonstrate through personal behavior, that having power and privilege entails special responsibility to others; that, as President Kennedy said, “of those to whom much is given, much is required”? Do we teach, and really believe – and this may be the hardest of all – that our kids are special and precious and beloved to us, but in the larger scheme of things they are not so special at all, no more entitled to the good things of life than a kid like Dylan Chiddick, or any other kid in this world?
Of course we love our kids. But how do we convey that love, and what messages are we sending – intentionally or not – about the values we hold and the virtues we practice? These are the conversations we should be having in our synagogues and public spaces, and especially in our homes and families. Because if we’re not crystal clear about saying and demonstrating what we believe – then we leave a vacuum, and the vacuum will be filled by our culture.
Said Rabbi Yosi in the Talmud [Arachin 15b]: “I never did anything for which I had to turn around [and see who was watching me].” It’s a pithy statement of what it means to have a clear conscience, knowing that you’ve done nothing that needs to be concealed or covered up; you’d be comfortable if your every action were published on the front page of the New York Times. We might think of it as a Jewish definition of being a winner.
We all slip up, of course, and fail to live up to our best selves, but that’s the ideal we’re working towards all the time. Holding fast to that ideal, we help to make it real. Together we can create a morally robust Jewish culture in which to raise the next generation. We can show them what it means to stand accountable to an authority even higher than the New York Times, who can’t be bribed or bamboozled. Together we can be ambassadors for goodness.