Madoff's Victims Take In the Spectacle, Attempt to Move On

By Jacob Berkman (JTA)

Published June 30, 2009.
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For Belle Faber, the sentencing of Bernard Madoff felt surreal.

Television coverage of Monday’s event was being projected on a screen in the conference room of the American Jewish Congress, one of the Jewish nonprofits hit hardest by Madoff’s thievery. Faber, the organization’s development director for nearly 25 years, had retreated into her office to watch CNN by herself.

The archival footage of Madoff flickering across the screen showed the person that had sat across from Faber numerous times in the offices of AJCongress, which Madoff once served as a board member. Faber even knew Madoff’s wife, Ruth, and recently came across an old note she wrote to the Madoffs wishing them a good trip to Florida.

Who could have known then what Madoff was doing?

Still, Faber says, she doesn’t wish vengeance on Madoff, even though he bilked his victims, including Faber’s organization, out of up to $65 billion. The AJCongress lost $21 million – 90 percent of its endowment – in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, forcing the organization to lay off 25 staff members.

On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge sentenced Madoff to 150 years in prison, the maximum penalty for his crimes.

“I have left a legacy of shame,” Madoff said in the Manhattan courtroom before his sentencing, according to media reports. “This is something I will live in for the rest of my life.”

Madoff’s shame was little solace for some of those he hurt.

“Mr. Madoff is not going to find any sympathy from us,” said Marc Stern, acting co-executive director of AJCongress. “There has been a 150-year sentence in the case of a 71-year-old man. It is not in practical terms very great, but in symbolic terms it is very significant.”

“It doesn’t give us our $20 million back,” Stern went on. “That is inherent in these sorts of processes. It is satisfaction mixed with the reality that it does not undo the harm that he did.”

For some charities decimated by Madoff, things will never be the same.

The Robert I. Lappin Foundation, whose entire $8 million in assets was wiped out by Madoff’s scheme, was transformed by the loss.

It used to fund programs such as Youth to Israel, which sends kids from Massachusetts on free trips to Israel, out of its own once deep pockets; now the foundation must raise funds to survive. New programs, like one that would have sent teachers to Israel, have been put on hold, according to Deboah Coltin, the foundation’s executive director.

“If I was to sum it up, justice was served. What else is there to say?” Coltin told JTA. “The Lappin Foundation has been able to pick up and move on. We haven’t been thinking about it.”

One Madoff victim, Carla Hirschhorn, who lost her entire $7 million in savings in Madoff’s scheme, called her life a “living hell.” She said her mother is now dependent on Social Security and her daughter works two jobs to pay tuition.

Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate who saw most of his fortune stolen by Madoff – and who has been stumping across the country talking about it and trying to raise money – declined to comment.

So did Yeshiva University, one of the nonprofits hit hardest by Madoff, having lost $110 million in real and imagined profits.

“It just doesn’t benefit anyone to be associated with this anymore,” said one observer close to the situation.

Faber said she often wondered if a check made out to the AJCongress was among the stack of checks for tens of millions of dollars that investigators found in Madoff’s desk after he was arrested – because maybe, just maybe, Madoff would have wanted to do right by the charities he had devastated.

Watching coverage of the trial, Faber said she felt the charity world she had known was gone.

“We will never see the kind of beneficence we have always seen in the future because of what happened,” Faber said. “He has changed the whole fabric of the Jewish community, especially when it comes to organizations like ours.”






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