When Jews Do Bad Things

Dr. Erica Brown

WESTPORT – Two years ago, Dr. Erica Brown decided she’d had enough. Bracing for scandal after scandal involving Jews in the U.S. and Israel, the writer and educator sat down to write a book, asking, “Where is our outrage?”
The result, “Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things” (Jewish Lights Publishing, August 2010), is the source for her talk on Thursday, Jan. 13 at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County.
Brown is the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency. She is author of “Inspired Jewish Leadership,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and “Spiritual Boredom.” She also co-authored “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood.” She writes “Weekly Jewish Wisdom,” a weekly essay that appears on the Newsweek/Washington Post’s “On Faith” website.
“As an educator, I was deeply concerned about the number of Jews involved in high-profile white-collar crimes,” she says. “It was and is a source of shame and embarrassment. It betrays our ethical mission, established thousands of years ago. The fact that the book has made some people feel uncomfortable only demonstrates to me the need that it serves. I am not profiling people involved in scandal; I am asking what we have to do to make scandals a thing of the past.”
Brown was struck by the absence of modern-day prophets who would express the moral conscience of the Jewish community. So she explored what it would be like to serve as a concerned voice for her community. She wrote the book to convey a simple but tough-minded message.
“We are all stakeholders in the reputation of the Jewish people,” she says. “We have to work hard to be good. It takes effort and discipline – which is hard in a morally flabby universe.”
The book presents several examples of recent and real examples of criminal behavior by Jews. Brown’s intention is not merely to expose such behavior, but rather to offer practical ethical guidance and precipitate discussion critical to the integrity of the Jewish community.
“What demands do we make of Jewish leaders in terms of their ethical responsibilities?” she asks. “Scandals in the Jewish community do more than crush individuals. They diminish the respect we have for rabbis, politicians and other authority figures. They take away our pride. We feel collective shame and hopelessness and wonder how we will break this cycle for good and restore our reputation. It is time we ask ourselves why so much crime is happening now and what we’re doing to confront scandal in the Jewish community.”
In her teaching, Brown mixes traditional Jewish texts with the work of modern thinkers to stimulate discussion around difficult moral issues that transcend the relativistic. She builds community in her classroom as a potential model for the larger Jewish world. Her book offers ideas for a communal return to the ethical behavior Judaism was built on.
“I think living in community is a good insurance policy for goodness,” she says. “We have moral expectations when we live in close proximity to others and we have responsibilities to others. I would like to see more rabbis speak openly from the pulpit about the impact of scandals in the Jewish world and I’d like to see more Hebrew schools and day schools teaching ethics through case studies that really force us to think about our ultimate commitments.”
We may not want to have this conversation in our communal organizations, Brown says, but it’s one we can no longer afford to avoid. “The prophet Isaiah said, ‘Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow,’” she says. “And so we must. We must teach ourselves goodness because our collective moral compass is failing.”

Dr. Erica Brown will speak on Thursday, Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m. at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County, 4200 Park Ave., Bridgeport. For tickets call (203) 372-6567, ext. 127 or email vivian127@jccs.org

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