Years ago, the little yeshiva in Skokie, Illinois, had a pathetic basketball team. Just a bunch of slightly nerdy kids stumbling around the court. Their star forward dribbled like a drunk trying to stomp a cockroach. They were so low in the Jewish schools’ league that they usually fell off the bottom of the page.
One day—wonders of wonders—the Chicago Bulls offered to coach them to basketball excellence. This was going to be The Dirty Dozen all over again. There is something deeply moving about watching hopeless losers rising to stardom. King David’s words would resonate throughout Jewish Chicago, “The stone the builders despised has become the cornerstone.” (Psalms 118:22)
What a generous act of magnanimity. Living legends of basketball like Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman unstintingly giving of themselves. Through their concern, a motley collection of kids who had never known what it was to hear fans roaring approval, would ultimately achieve success in sports.
We all gathered to watch the stars’ limousines sweep into the dingy lane that housed the yeshiva. To our astonishment, instead of heading for the court, Coach Phil Jackson led Jordan, Rodman and their teammates into one of the classrooms. There they set the Jewish kids to write an essay on basketball.
The giants strolled the room, offering a word of encouragement here and a stylistic tip there. Pretty soon, the three hours were up and to cheers, the Bulls left Skokie. A week went by and they returned for the second session. This time they asked their students to write down the rules of basketball. One their third visit they explored baseball literature and recommended some books.
It eventually became apparent that the Chicago Bulls believed the classroom experience was more valuable than actually playing the game. We politely reminded them that not one of their illustrious number had learned the game in that fashion. In fact, some of them were not even terribly good readers. They learned the game by playing.
Suppose my absurd story were really true. What could possibly explain the Chicago Bulls spending countless hours coaching the Jewish kids in a way alien to them that produced absolutely no positive results at all? Surely we would have to conclude that the Bulls were either stupid or malicious. After all, it would have been so easy for them to have put the yeshiva on the basketball map had they only done for others what they had originally done for themselves.
Unfortunately, over the past fifty years most of my fellow Jews have done the same thing. Inexplicably they have tried to help their fellow Americans escape poverty by means quite different from those they employed in their own journey from poverty to prosperity. Not only do they fail to share their methods, they promote a political panacea almost guaranteed to perpetuate dependency and hopelessness.
Jews comprise under 2% of America’s population. It follows that we ought to be represented by perhaps 8 of our co-religionists on the famous Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. In fact, each year the list usually boasts between 60 and 100 Jews. Yes, Jews have achieved spectacular and disproportionate success in business.
As both our admirers such as Mark Twain and Winston Churchill as well as our enemies like Adolf Hitler have noted, we are good at business. From notorious Nazis to venerated scholars, from Japan’s cultural commentators to conspiracy theorists who have never met a Jew, all who have examined the historic and current identity of the people of Israel acknowledge one simple truth—Jews are good at making money.
With the right guidance, anyone can emulate the Jewish climb from Harlem tenements to Beverly Hills mansions. One fact is irrefutable. Jews did not achieve affluence by persuading the government to transfer to them money seized from other citizens. Instead, we succeeded because of the Biblically-based culture of ancient Jewish wisdom passed down since the time of our founding father, Abraham.
In 1968 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a group rooted in rejection of traditional Judaism in favor of modern, man-centered wisdom, proclaimed, “…American Jews are products of the welfare-oriented civilization of Judaism,” in its efforts to promote welfare and other federal social programs.
That, quite simply, is a lie. Had Judaism really been “welfare-oriented” Jews would never have achieved the independent financial power that, despite persecution, we gained in most countries. Instead, we would, quite logically, have remained on welfare. The U.A.H.C was just plain wrong.
Its spokesmen were neither stupid nor malicious. They were well intentioned but, just like the Chicago Bulls in my myth, they were mistaken. By falsely claiming that Jewish affluence came through, “the welfare oriented civilization of Judaism,” Jews gave moral respectability to those advocating increased taxation and cash hand-outs. In so doing, we unintentionally helped create an American subculture of welfare addicts. The recipients acted logically and naturally; but those who promoted the “Great Society” in the first place must accept some blame.
Here’s a way to atone. Some of the famous Jewish legends of fiscal success and monetary know-how should actually pass on the secrets of entrepreneurialism to the less successful. This can best be done not in the classroom, but in the marketplace where we and our parents acquired our training. In this fashion, we could live the advice of Maimonides who urges that the highest form of charity is to confer true economic independence on the recipient. It may feel good to make the poor recipient eternally dependent on one, but it is wrong. Jews really do have the ability to help America’s less successful achieve the same business success that we have. But we must use the methods that worked for us. In this way, the stone despised by the builders can once again become the cornerstone.