Ezra's father Hermann Merkin founded the 5th Avenue Synagogue 50 years ago after he was forced out of the Park East Synagogue, known then as Congregation Zichron Ephraim.
Financier in Madoff Case Quits Synagogue Position
By PAUL VITELLO
J. Ezra Merkin, the financier who entrusted sizable portions of his friends’ and investors’ money to what turned out to be Bernard L. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, stepped down Wednesday night as an officer of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, a wealthy congregation founded 50 years ago by his father, and whose members included some of Mr. Merkin’s largest individual investment-losers.
Mr. Merkin disclosed his unexpected decision in a speech at the synagogue’s annual membership meeting, in which he declined the nomination to become chairman of the synagogue’s board of trustees. Ordinarily he would have assumed the chairmanship by custom, as the outgoing synagogue president.
“He said he had decided that he needed to focus on a number of events in his life, and that to best serve the community and his family, he would decline the nomination,” said Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier, the congregation’s chief rabbi. The approximately 100 members present, from a total membership of about 300 families, “warmly applauded” Mr. Merkin’s speech, the rabbi said.
Leaving the meeting Wednesday night, one member who declined to give his name said “there was a lot of relief” about Mr. Merkin’s decision. He said that in the weeks preceding the annual meeting, the general expectation that Mr. Merkin would take the largely honorific post of chairman had made for “a stressful period” for many members of the synagogue. By some accounts, the congregation as a group lost more than $1 billion in the collapse of Mr. Madoff’s scheme.
Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University who is acquainted with several members of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, described the synagogue as “probably the wealthiest Orthodox congregation in the world.”
Among its well-known billionaire members, not all of whom invested with Mr. Madoff through Mr. Merkin, are Ronald O. Perelman, the financier and corporate raider; Ira Rennert, who made a fortune in junk bonds and the Hummer; and Mort Zuckerman, the real estate magnate who owns The New York Daily News.
Mr. Merkin acted as the intermediary to Mr. Madoff for another temple member, Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who lost much of his personal wealth and the endowment of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity as a result.
Mr. Merkin also lost large sums in Mr. Madoff’s scheme, and Mr. Sarna said there was a deep ambivalence toward him, “a feeling that he had done a lot of good for the temple over the years,” mixed with resentment over the Madoff disaster.
New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo has charged Mr. Merkin in a civil suit with misleading investors by taking $470 million in management fees while turning their money over to Mr. Madoff.
Rabbi Kermaier would not say if there were investors among the members who attended Wednesday night’s meeting. But he said that most “have not been interested in castigating or criticizing.”
He acknowledged that there were some who were angry.
As for his own remarks to the group, Rabbi Kermaier said, “I tried to convey the view that hopefully we will all be able to take a few steps back and see this through the lens of a long history of communal service” by Mr. Merkin and his family.