Madoff’s victims: Moving on, yet mesmerized by the spectacle

Madoff’s victims: Moving on, yet mesmerized by the spectacle

NEW YORK ““ For Belle Faber, Monday’s sentencing of Bernard Madoff felt surreal.

TV coverage of the 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, development director at the AJCongress for the better part of 25 years, had retreated into her office to watch CNN by herself.

The Madoff flickering across the screen was the same person who had sat across from Faber numerous times in her offices, where Madoff was a one-time board member. Faber even knew Madoff’s wife, Ruth. Recently, Faber came across an old note she wrote to Bernie and Ruth, 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, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, the maximum penalty for his crimes.

Bernard Madoff, shown here in a mug shot, was sentenced on Monday to 150 years in prison – the maximum sentence allowed – for bilking investors of up to $65 billion in a Ponzi scheme. U.S. Department of Justice

“I have left a legacy of shame,” Madoff said in court 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 73-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 were wiped out by Madoff’s scheme, was transformed by the loss.

It used to fund programs like 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 Deborah Coltin, the foundation’s executive director.

“If I were 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 traveling around the country talking about it and trying to raise money for his charitable foundation – declined to comment.

So did officials of 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, in the stack of checks for tens of millions of dollars that investigators found in Madoff’s desk after he was arrested, one was made out to the AJCongress – because maybe, just maybe, Madoff would have wanted to do right by the charities he had devastated.

Watching coverage of the trial, Faber said that 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.”

Burt Ross, an individual investor who lost $5 million in the Ponzi scheme, was one of a handful of Madoff’s victims who were allowed to speak at the hearing. (See box.)

“I am relieved and satisfied by the sentence,” Ross, a local real estate developer and former mayor of Fort Lee, told The Jewish Standard on Tuesday. “We certainly couldn’t have expected more. We live in a civilized society where we no longer tar and feather people.”

Ross praised the IRS in its efforts to refund taxes Madoff investors had paid on phantom investments, but said New Jersey still had “ways to go.” State Sen. Richard Codey has introduced legislation addressing the issue but the bill has yet to advance in the state legislature.

“Because the government was complicit in this massive fraud by the SEC’s dereliction of duty, it’s important that those in government are sensitive and inclusive in their interpretations of the laws and regulations,” Ross said.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, an investor from Teaneck who lost her life’s savings through Madoff’s scheme, had similar harsh words for Madoff and the SEC. “He received what he richly deserved,” she said, “and now I would like to see that our federal government is going after anybody else who might have been involved and that our federal representatives are going to find out why the SEC gave this operation a clean bill of health. The havoc he caused for people – individuals and even more so the philanthropic life, particularly in our Jewish community – is unfathomable.”

JTA/Jewish Standard

Josh Lipowsky contributed to this report.

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