Orthodox assume responsibility for business ethics at West Coast conference

Orthodox assume responsibility for business ethics at West Coast conference

Rabbi Steven Weil, speaking at the closing plenary session of the Orthodox Union’s West Coast Torah Convention in Los Angeles on Dec. 27, 2009, stressed that those who receive ill-gotten funds even for noble purposes are responsible for the wrongdoing. Daniel Jankovic

LOS ANGELES ““ The agenda booklet that greeted the guests of the Orthodox Union’s here painted a grim picture of 2009.

“This has not been a good year for the Jewish community,” said the booklet for a conference titled “Recalibrating Our Moral and Ethical Compass.” “It seems like not a day went by without hearing of another scandal involving members of the Orthodox community.”

Revelations of shady dealings by Jews, Orthodox or otherwise, certainly did not increase as drastically in the past year as the statement suggests. The perception stemmed largely from the international shock waves caused by the unraveling of the Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff (who is Jewish but not observant), as well as several other very public scandals involving members of the Orthodox community.

The purpose of exploring the conference topic, the booklet suggested, was not to “criticize the transgressions of others” but rather “to find solutions that will prevent us from embarrassment in the future.”

Held Dec. 24-27 at various venues, from synagogues to homes to OU headquarters, the conference included sessions with titles such as “Why Are Orthodox Jews Getting in Trouble with the Law and How do we Fix it?”; “To What Extent is Civil Law Binding?”; and “Do Noble Ends Justify Unethical Means?”

Some of the speakers, including the opening-night keynoter Rabbi Yosie Levine of the Jewish Center in New York, seemed relatively young in contrast to the audience, which at least at the opening and closing sessions was mostly elderly.

Discussions focused repeatedly on how to inculcate in Orthodox youth the values of ethical business behavior, as well as how to deal with donations from tainted sources.

“What defines a Jew?” Rabbi Steven Weil, the OU’s new national executive vice president asked in a fiery speech at the final plenary session, held at the Young Israel of Century City.

“It’s the practical application of our theology, how we engage in business,” he responded to his own question.

For Weil, it was not a new topic.

Two years ago, sermonizing on his pulpit at Beth Jacob Congregation here, in the wake of the arrests in Los Angeles of eight fervently Orthodox men indicted for tax fraud and money laundering, Weil famously said of the so-called Spinka rabbis: “You call yourself a tzaddik? You’re a liar!”

Returning to the same theme, but with a new twist at the OU conference, Weil told an attentive and concerned audience of about 150 that the wrongdoing also is the responsibility of those who receive ill-gotten funds.

“We have no right to sell our soul,” he said. “We have no right to put names of donors on yeshivas, names of people who have made their money dishonestly.”

Weil went on to say that “When we put the name of such a person on a yeshiva, when this is the kavod [honor] that we give, then all the Torah that we teach our children, all the values that we teach our children, we can throw it all out because bottom line, it’s the money talking.

“The students see those names, and they say to themselves: ‘These are the people we are honoring, no matter how the money was made.’ ”

Throughout the convention, Weil and others emphasized practical steps to combat illegal and unethical business practices among individuals or with the government. The United States, Weil said, has provided Jews with a “wonderful home,” and he stressed that in financial dealings with the government, including paying taxes, Orthodox Jews must “be snow white, more American than Americans.”

To help, the OU has been offering a series of seminars across the country.

“We call it ‘Honest to God,’ “ noted Stephen Savitsky, OU’s national president.

In addition, the OU’s Web site, www.ou.org, has video shiurim, or classes, on ethical business practices. Four videos already are on line, and Savitsky said many more will follow soon.

The shiurim explore the business ethics of “how we market ourselves,” Weil said. “How we pay our taxes, how we deal with wholesale-retail, how we deal with the acquisition of real estate, how we set up structures. Just because something might be legally acceptable — and you can always find an attorney who’ll tell you something is legal — if it doesn’t smell right, we should reject it.”

Savitsky said the topic is complex and seemingly infinite.

“The more forums we have, the more we talk about it, the more it’s going to become a priority for us,” he said. “I know that it gets really hard when you’re trying to make a payroll, and someone is willing to give you a check, so you look the other way.”

Just as storeowners put up signs that say they pay minimum wage or deal in fair trade, Savitsky said, “Orthodox Jews should also put up a sign that reads ‘Is the money you’re giving me kosher money?’ “

“The paradigm needs to change,” he added, suggesting that those convicted of crimes should come to schools to talk about their misdeeds.

“These speakers could come to the schools and say, ‘I’ll tell you what I did wrong and I paid the price, and I think about it every single day, and at night I wonder how I could have done that, and you shouldn’t do it because it’s going to ruin your life.”

The speed bump in instituting some of these steps, Savitsky suggested, is willpower.

“What I’m afraid of is that we don’t really see this as an important issue,” he said. “It’s something we give lip service to, but we’re not really prepared to do something about it.

“Moses is Moses, but business is business. When it gets to our pocketbooks, we have trouble dealing with it.”

Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

Rabbi Weil’s statement:

Today’s published report quoting Rabbi Steven Weil when he spoke on Shabbat at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills in January 2008, reads as follows: “Weil famously said of the so-called Spinka rabbis: You call yourself a tzadik (righteous person); you’re a liar!”

Rabbi Weil today issued the following response:

“The association of my statement of January 2008 with the Spinka Rebbe is patently false. Over 800 people heard the sermon when I specifically said that when we address financial corruption, we are not pointing fingers but are referring to ourselves. It was about our own community and not about anyone else. What I said was the exact opposite of what the story implied. The specific comment was a challenge to any of our membership who, G-d forbid, may be led to believe that cheating on taxes, lying when marketing one’s product or profession, and manipulative pricing policies are tolerated, while at the same time they observe Shabbos, kashrus and taharas hamishpacha.

My remarks were not to condemn anyone else, but rather to look at ourselves. The more than 800 people who were in the sanctuary for Shabbat services that morning, including individuals who were quoted in the original story two years ago, can verify that. My agenda was to take care of my congregation, my family, and myself and not to sit in judgment of the Spinka Rebbe.”

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