Scandals Tarnish Some Jewish Charities

$5 Million Man: William Rapfogel was charged with stealing from Met Council. His predecessor Dovid Cohen (right), resigned his current job running Jewish ambulance service Hatzolah. (Photo courtesy of the Met Council via The Jewish Daily Forward)

William Rapfogel (left) was charged with stealing $5 million from Met Council. His predecessor Rabbi Dovid Cohen (right) had his consultant contract with Met Council terminated and also resigned as head of the Jewish ambulance service Chevra Hatzalah. (Photo courtesy of the Met Council via The Jewish Daily Forward)

Four embarrassing financial and sex scandals in major Jewish charities so far this year have stirred calls for more oversight and transparency in their governance.

Josh Nathan-Kazis of The Jewish Daily Forward investigates why some of the community’s largest charities are losing money and reputation just five years after suffering losses from Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

The first of the four scandals surfaced in December 2012 when Yeshiva University’s longtime former president Rabbi Norman Lamm admitted to covering up sex abuse of students at Yeshiva University High School from the 1970s through the 1990s.  The alleged victims filed a $380 million lawsuit against the school after the scandal surfaced.

In May 2013, reports of multi-million dollar fraud came to light at the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which distributes aid to Holocaust victims.

In July, the 92nd Street Y’s executive director Sol Adler was fired over an alleged affair with his assistant Catherine Marto. It later transpired that Marto’s son-in-law, who headed the Y’s facilities, was also accused of receiving kickbacks from vendors.

In August, William Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and one of the largest figures on the New York Jewish not-for-profit scene, was fired, and charged a month later with stealing $5 million from the Council in a two-decade kickback scheme.

“It has definitely shaken a lot of people’s confidence,” said Rabbi David Teutsch, who heads the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, referring to the repeated blasts of bad news. “The response clearly needs to be greater controls and better training.”

Experts cited in the story said governance at a number of Jewish non-profits has been corroded by leadership tenures of various decades, the presence of wealthy families on multiple boards of trustees and lack of oversight by largely untrained board members.

Top officials in three of the four organizations hit by scandal had held their jobs for more than two decades.

The experts believe that most of the Jewish charities are still well-managed. The reporter says the scandals he mentioned are not the only ones surfacing in the last five years. There have been plenty of others including the revocation of Zionist Organization of America’s tax exemption for failing to file tax returns and an attempt by a clerk at the UJA-Federation of New York to steal donor credit card information.

Mark Charendoff, former president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, had his own reasons for these back-to-back scandals rocking his community.

“For many years, the Jewish community looked at the failings of other faith groups and proclaimed with pride that that’s not happening in our house,” Charendoff said. “I think it led us [to] a certain complacency that recent events have proven we can’t afford.”

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