Madoff scandal reduces student trips to Israel
Madoff scandal reduces student trips to Israel
By TYLER RUSTEIN, Alligator Contributing Writer
The Bernard Madoff scandal, a Ponzi scheme allegedly costing investors around $50 billion, is keeping Jewish UF students from taking the trip of a lifetime.

Taglit–Birthright Israel plans to send 5,000 Jewish students to Israel this summer compared to 25,000 last year. For UF Hillel, that means they will not be doing any recruiting for the summer 2009 trip, according to Keith Dvorchik, executive director of Hillel.

Birthright Israel is a twice–yearly free trip to Israel for Jewish students and young adults that relies heavily on donors. Many of these donors had money invested with Madoff and are no longer able to make contributions.

Madoff, chairman of Madoff Investment Securities, was charged by federal authorities in December 2008 for possibly one of the largest Ponzi schemes ever. In a Ponzi scheme, money from new investors is used to pay off early investors, giving the appearance of returns. Several Jewish nonprofits of Palm Beach, Fla., invested their endowments with Madoff.

“Many foundations no longer exist because he basically stole their money,” Dvorchik said. “We’re expecting decreases in our federation allocations next year because a third of the major donors from South Florida had money invested with Madoff.”

Hillel is also being forced to cut back on its day–to–day operations. Students may be charged for the Passover Seder meal this year for the first time in seven years, Dvorchik said.

“Things are definitely at risk. We may not be able to provide at the same level if we don’t have the donors that continue to step up and help us pay for everything,” Dvorchik said.

The combination of a spiraling economy and financial losses from the scandal make donors hard to come by, regardless of Madoff–related losses. The financial setbacks from the scandal will continue to linger for Hillel.

For the winter Israel trip, Dvorchik said they would be lucky if they could send 40 people, a significant difference compared to the 100 they usually send.

Some Jewish UF students are concerned they may not get to go to Israel. Mike Eisen, a UF sophomore, had been planning to go on the summer trip.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do this summer,” Eisen said. “All of my friends have gone and told me they had such an awesome time. I just hope I still get that opportunity.”

Rabbi Yoni Kaiser–Blueth, associate director of Jewish Student Life at Hillel, said he has been preparing himself for fewer Birthright trips.

“Without Birthright, I highly doubt anything else we are doing will attract the imagination and attention of students to really come and get involved,” Kaiser–Blueth said.

Kaiser–Blueth credits the Birthright trip as one of the cornerstones of their engagement with students.

“The opportunity for students to go to Israel for free is unparalleled,” he said. “It, probably more than anything else that we do, has the quickest potential to bring students onto our radar screen and to create real and serious relationships.”

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