Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Operation Varsity Blues

 As a high school principal for over 25 years, I was intimately involved with the college admissions process, often writing letters of recommendations for students. Even though I was the principal, I taught English Literature on a regular basis to the students of the school, which gave me first-hand knowledge of their academic strengths and weaknesses.

My most challenging situation in the college admissions arena was writing a strong recommendation for a mediocre student. I wanted to help him get into the school of his choice, but I had to be honest with the college admissions officers who set certain admissions standards. In the end, I tried to describe as many positives about the student as I could without misleading the college, and most students were pleased with the universities that accepted them.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal describes a much different kind of admissions process, one that corrupts the entire system. Here are the sordid details. In 2019, it was discovered that there was a criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions decisions at several top colleges in America. The investigation was code-named Operation Varsity Blues. Over 53 people were charged as part of the conspiracy, including some prominent business people and well-known actors, a number of whom pleaded guilty. They were accused of paying more than $25 million to Rick Singer, the mastermind behind the scheme, who used some of the money to bribe college officials, college administrators, and coaches. Moreover, Singer used his own charitable organization to hide the source of bribery payments. He also paid people to fraudulently take SAT or ACT college entrance examinations for weak students.

One of Singer’s most successful ploys to get students into elite colleges was to have coaches nominate unqualified applicants as elite recruited athletes, thus facilitating their admission into the university. At some schools, sports personnel could recommend a number of sports recruits to the admissions office. Singer chose to exploit little known sports at the college, and fabricated profiles describing the applicant’s athletic abilities. Occasionally, he used Photoshop software to insert a photo of a student’s head onto another person to demonstrate the purported athletic activity.

All this chicanery and deceit ultimately led to the destruction of reputations and, more important, to fostering a lack of integrity. Judaism places great emphasis on intellectual honesty. Rabbi Berel Wein cites the great sage, Rashi who lived in France close to 1000 years ago, who championed truth, even if it meant that he admitted intellectual ignorance of certain matters. He points out that Rashi on 77 occasions states,“I do not know that this means.” Rabbi Wein observes: “Now Rashi could have just ignored the word, phrase or idea in question and continued with his commentary. But that would not have been intellectually honest, for it would leave the student of Rashi with the impression that the matter was so simple or obvious that it required no explanation. Rashi therefore steps forward and advises us that he does not know the word, phrase or idea that appears in the text, and we are therefore warned that there is a problem facing us. That intellectual honesty is what makes Rashi the eternal teacher of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Shraga Simmons, a Jewish ethicist, in writing about integrity, comments about the key moment when someone has to make a choice to be honest or not: “Integrity is measured by those moments when, all alone, we confront a choice between right and wrong. As my father told me, an unethical gain is never worth the price.”

Rabbi Simmons suggests a tool for cultivating integrity: “A key to success in life is never lie to yourself. Here is one practical tool for maintaining integrity: Do a daily spiritual accounting. Every evening before going to bed, look back at that day’s events, and evaluate your profit or loss. Don’t indulge in self-deceptions. Instead, track down your Achilles heel. Clarify What am I living for? Make a plan to achieve it.

Achieving integrity is not easy. It requires lots of hard work, energy, focus, patience, discipline – and fierce commitment. Thankfully, it comes with a priceless bonus: the deep satisfaction of living 24/7 with yourself, striving to do the right thing.”

Regretfully, the adults and children in Operation Varsity Blues lose their moral rudder. This riveting documentary is a reminder to preserve our integrity even in the face of great temptation.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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