It’s always risky compiling a list of the year’s top stories before the year is actually out — after all, Bernie Madoff’s arrest came on Dec. 11, 2008, too late for many of last year’s lists. But the anniversary of the Madoff scandal put me in a retrospective mood, and I’ll take the chance. Note: I’ve chosen events according to their impact on the American-Jewish community.
1. It’s a Madoff, Madoff, Madoff, Madoff World: The full fallout from the largest Ponzi scheme in United States history wasn’t felt until the first weeks of 2009, and a full accounting has yet to be made. Madoff’s scam wreaked havoc on Jewish organizations that had parked endowments with his phony company, and many individual Jewish investors — like NJ State Sen. Loretta Weinberg — saw their life savings wiped out. The wider Jewish world took a hit not only in philanthropic giving but in self-esteem: Affected Jewish nonprofits were suspected of naivete at best and complicity at worst, while many of us worried that, with Madoff cast as the proxy Evil Financier, Jews would be scapegoated for the country’s financial woes.
2. In the red: While economists considered the recession over, retailers and employers didn’t seem to get the message. The grim global economy put white-collar Jews out of work, increased the caseloads at Jewish-run social service agencies, and slammed fund-raising at most Jewish philanthropies. From schools to shuls, the Jewish nonprofit world was in contraction mode, cutting jobs and losing members.
3. From Gaza to Goldstone: Israel’s massive response to Hamas rockets led to global condemnation that the IDF had used “disproportionate force,” with scant acknowledgement of Israel’s right to defend itself from a ruthless enemy. September’s “Goldstone” report by the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission, nicknamed for the Jewish South African judge who chaired it, struck many Jews as one-sided and biased in its methods and conclusions. The number of rocket attacks on southern Israel fell, but the barrage of criticism rained down throughout the year.
4: Israel as pariah: The Goldstone report was another salvo in the war on Israel’s very legitimacy — Jews grown used to defending Israel’s actions now found themselves defending its very right to exist. And it wasn’t just the Palestinians or the Iranians denying Israel’s legitimacy — academics bandied about the notion in books like The Invention of the Jewish People and op-ed pages aired the “one-state solution.”
5. Containing Iran: The American-Jewish establishment (mostly) united around a common theme: For Israel’s sake and the world’s, Iran could not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. How to stop them, however, was another story. Jewish leaders favored sanctions with bite, while laying the groundwork for the possibility — in the absence of cooperation from oil-dependent, conflict-weary world powers — that Israel would take matters into its own hands.
6. Obama — buyer’s remorse?: American Jews voted for Barack Obama by a three-one margin in 2008, and polling suggested his approval ratings among Jews remained strong through his first calendar year in office. But the gaps between him and Jewish leadership grew wide, reflecting his single-digit approval ratings among Israelis, especially after the administration’s call for a freeze on settlements seemed to backfire. Talk of Obama and the Jews comes with a subtext: How central do American Jews regard the U.S-Israel relationship, and on whose terms?
7. The J Street Rag: A similar question animated discussion of J Street, the self-styled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” movement that seeks to be a voice in Washington for those who want the U.S. government to play a more assertive (read: more even-handed) role in brokering a Mideast peace. J Street denied accusations by long-established Jewish groups that it was both reckless and feckless; the media enjoyed the debate, and the attacks and counterattacks gave J Street a visibility it could take to the bank.
8. New bosses, new brooms: Two movements synonymous with the rise and decline of post-World War II Jewish life in America — Conservative Judaism and the federation system — appointed top leaders with hopes of restoring their former influence. Rabbi Steven Wernick became executive vice president of United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, while Jerry Silverman became president and CEO of the newly renamed Jewish Federations of North America. Both movements have seen a dip in their market share as a result of generational and demographic shifts. But both retain a significant base and assets, and feel the right leader can boost their fortunes in the 21st century.
9. The shande down the shore: A Syrian-Jewish informant, four Deal rabbis under custody, dozens of politicians facing corruption charges, a Brooklyn Jew charged with organ trafficking: The New Jersey corruption probe seemed to validate all those “Sopranos” jokes, while casting observant Jews in the least flattering light possible. It was the probe that launched 1,000 sermons: on business ethics, on respecting civil law as well as religious law, on the wages of insularity.
That’s nine. I’ll leave the 10th up to you: What’s missing from my list of the year’s most significant Jewish events? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.