“One who has curly hair must not collect funds for the Temple treasury.”
BT Shekalim 9a
A recent article in the Forward by Josh Nathan-Kazis presented a catalogue of misfortune in the past 10 months, only five years after the Madoff case: recent large-scale Jewish non-profit scandals that have been shocking to the core of our value system and all that we as a community must stand for in the realm of integrity. The article begins with William Rapfogel’s crimes at the Met Council and then mentions a $57 million dollar fraud unfolded at the Claims Conference and the Yeshiva University abuse scandal. “One Jewish charity CEO hid allegedly stolen cash in his apartment closet. Another had an affair with his assistant while the assistant’s son-in-law stole from the CEO’s organization. A third covered up sex abuse charges for decades.”
While most Jewish non-profits are well-managed and above board in every area of ethics, the few and the bad have received a great deal of attention and have forced sobering introspection. In The Speed of Trust, Stephen R. M. Covey contends that when you have a “trust account” with someone, you have to understand that withdrawals and deposits are not even. To make up for withdrawals of trust, you have to deposit much more than you ever took out to regain what you’ve lost. Those of us in the world of Jewish communal service – both lay and professional - sadly know that we have a lot of trust building to do right now, even if we did not personally create the overdraft.
In thinking about this, we turn to the Talmud’s discussion of collecting the half-shekel charitable requirement demanded of everyone in the ancient Jewish world. Charity collectors were particularly scrupulous lest they come under any suspicion whatsoever that as stewards of public money, they personally benefited from their jobs. This was true to the extent that someone with curly hair, as the text above suggests, could not collect money in the event that his hair was thick enough to hide the shekels in the curls. As someone with straight hair, it is hard to imagine using one’s own head as a wallet.
This was such a cause for concern that the Talmud continues and states, “The treasurers (of the Temple) would untangle the matted hair” after collectors with curly hair delivered the half-shekels. They needed to be sure no coins were there. Not only that. The treasurers would also speak with each collector from the time he entered the chamber until he left to ensure that no money was placed in a collector’s mouth. The passage that contains these recommendations to maintain the integrity and trust of a communal fund ends with a broad desideratum: “A person must appear just before people as he must appear just before the Omnipresent.” The name for God - “Makom” – or Place is used here to suggest that God appears where we are even if we cannot see God. Awe and reverence must be upon us at all times from both those on earth and those above. We must be trustworthy custodians of our world, and we must do our jobs in good faith.
Turning back to today, the Forward article stated that, “Experts blame lax oversight, saying that the multi-decade leadership tenures common among Jewish charity CEOs have corroded governance at some of the Jewish community’s largest not-for-profits.”
It’s time for stronger moral fiber, better training and intensified oversight and review. I’m not suggesting that we hire CEOs with only straight hair but I am suggesting that we’ve got to do a better job checking in all the hidden places to make sure we can stand tall and transparent before God and each other. It’s time for some big deposits in our communal trust account.