Now that Bernard Madoff has been sent to jail for the rest of his life, and then some, it is tempting to put his sordid story behind us, to leave the follow-up for the business pages and those tracking who else will be caught in his web of deceit. Tempting, but unwise, because this scandal was not just about him. It was about us.
It was about individual victims — some of them now destitute, all of them heartbroken — who are understandably seeking further redress from the courts beyond the satisfaction of Madoff’s whopping prison term. But while their pain and empty pockets are real, the uncomfortable lesson is that really bad scams happen to good people. As the New York Times’ Joe Nocera noted recently, the victims “were robbed, pure and simple, and the government is not in the business of reimbursing for robberies.”
The scandal was also about the Jewish communal world, not only because so many of the individual and institutional victims were Jewish, but because of the way Madoff used his tribal connections to further his scheme. Those connections have also helped heal — the Jewish Funders Network, for example, organized a $5 million loan program for worthy nonprofits hurt by Madoff, but it was meant to be only a short-term fix. The longer-term challenge is for those nonprofits to strengthen their policies on investment, conflicts of interest and employment practices, and then follow those policies assiduously. Donors and board members need to hold leadership accountable.
Remember: Plenty of Jewish organizations declined to invest with Madoff, because doing so would have violated their policies. They were not blinded by the shiny lure of lucrative returns. We all need to keep our eyes open now.