Con Man Turned Rabbi Conned In Ponzi Scheme

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Reformed con man Mark Borovitz recently found out he'd been conned. Now a rabbi, Borovitz runs a synagogue and treatment center in Culver City, Calif. The endowment for his organization lost as much as $300,000 in the alleged Ponzi scheme run by Bernard Madoff. Rabbi Borovitz talks with Renee Montagne about how much that loss will hurt his group.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We turn now to a man who's facing a lot of uncertainty in this down economy. Mark Borovitz used to be a con man, a thief and an alcoholic. Today, he's a rabbi.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Borovitz runs a synagogue and treatment center with his wife here in Culver City, California. He uses his own story, combined with Jewish teachings and the 12 steps, to help other rebuild their lives. But last week, this reformed con man found out he'd been conned, allegedly by Bernard Madoff. The endowment for Borovitz's organization lost as much as $300,000, and I asked Rabbi Borovitz how much that loss will hurt what he's trying to do.

Rabbi MARK BOROVITZ (Beit T'Shuvah, Los Angeles, California): The truth is, we don't know. We help everybody whether they can afford it or not. What we're more concerned about, of course, is what's going to happen going forward with our annual fundraising. The endowment money was invested with the Jewish Community Foundation, and they invested with Mr. Madoff five percent or so of that common investment pool from all of Los Angeles. And what happens is people now question, how diligent were these different charities? Was there an adult in charge?

MONTAGNE: Bernie Madoff, he is perhaps the most reviled man in the Jewish community.

Rabbi BOROVITZ: Yes.

MONTAGNE: What is his biggest and hardest-to-forgive transgression?

Rabbi BOROVITZ: The rape of trust; they call it affinity theft. It's that I get you to like me, I get you to trust me, and then I not only steal your money, but I steal your belief that people are good and decent and caring.

MONTAGNE: I think a lot of people are wondering, and I'd like to ask you as a one-time con man - I mean, your cons I'm sure did not add up to billions - but what goes on in the mind of someone who is willing to betray people who trust him, and including, it always seems to be the most vulnerable, what they used to call widows and orphans?

Rabbi BOROVITZ: I think if I can get it, it belongs to me. And I start to believe that if I don't have the money, then I'm less than everybody else. So, it starts from a place of not believing that one is good enough, and then going to, how do I make myself better, without any concern or even seeing the other person. So, what happens with a con person is we no longer see you as a soul; we only see you as an object.

MONTAGNE: Is there a Jewish version of burning in Hell?

Rabbi BOROVITZ: The truth is that Mr. Madoff has to live with this himself. His children turned him in, his family. There's nobody that he can turn to without seeing the harm that he's done, and being shunned, being ostracized, for a guy who was absolutely in the in, that's Hell. He has lost everything that he thought he had built. And yes, it was all smoke; well, now the mirror's turned towards him.

MONTAGNE: Today is the sixth day of Hanukkah. Is there a special lesson fitting for this holiday?

Rabbi BOROVITZ: Hanukkah is, at its core, a war against Hellenism, a war against materialism.

MONTAGNE: Hellenism...

Rabbi BOROVITZ: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Greek world back in those days.

Rabbi BOROVITZ: Right. Because everybody wanted to get in on this perfect, you know, investment. And that there were so many things that showed along the way, wait a minute; there should be questions; how come you're not questioning this? So, I think that what this is really saying, as far is Hanukkah goes, is that we have to always bring light. Anytime there's any type of darkness or opaqueness in anything we're doing, we have to bring light. Otherwise, we fall under the spell of Hellenism, and at that point, we start to think what looks good is good, instead of seeing what's real.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Rabbi BOROVITZ: Thank you very much. I've appreciated it.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Rabbi Mark Borovitz has written the memoir "The Holy Thief: A Con Man's Journey from Darkness to Light."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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