The national president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, has promised the widow of a former executive director that the organization will resume making payments for her health care — two years after those payments were abruptly cut off. Klein made the offer after the Forward inquired about the 89-year old widow’s situation.
The widow, Rebekka Ilutovich, was the wife of Leon Ilutovich, a Zionist pioneer who helped build up the ZOA over 40 years in top positions, including two decades as the executive director. After Ilutovich died in 1997, his widow moved to Israel and the ZOA agreed to give her $200 a month to pay for her health care costs. In late 2004, though, the ZOA’s comptroller wrote to Ilutovich and told her they no longer would send her the payments.
Klein said that after receiving a call from the Forward about Ilutovich’s widow this week, he called her and offered to resume payments — now at $150 a month — pending approval from his board. He said the organization previously had believed that it was only obligated to make the payments for five years, but will now make the payments as a sign of good will.
Ilutovich confirmed that she had received a phone call from Klein, but said that when she first picked up Klein was irate about her having spoken to the press, leading her to hang up on him. She said that when Klein called back, he offered her $150 a month.
“It is not enough, but I agreed,” Ilutovich told the Forward in a telephone interview from her home in Tel Aviv. “I will not go fight. I am a woman of 89. I am sick, and I have no energy to do something.”
Soon after Klein made his offer, one of the ZOA’s past executive directors wrote a letter to the organization’s board, asking them to provide full compensation to Ilutovich.
“Why did the ZOA leadership have to wait for external pressure before it offered to make (partial) good on its commitment,” wrote Robert Jancu, who was executive director from 2002 to 2004. “And why does the ZOA leadership now offer $150 instead of $200, as if an extra $50 would bust the budget?”
Ilutovich’s health care first became an issue soon after her husband’s death in 1997, when she moved to Israel and became ineligible for the ZOA’s American health insurance. At the time, the ZOA’s comptroller wrote a letter to Ilutovich promising to make payments for her new health care, acknowledging “the organization’s commitment to underwrite the cost of your health insurance.”
There was no indication that the payments would be made for a limited time, and in 1999 Ilutovich wrote back stating her understanding that the payments would be made “monthly for my lifetime.”
She continued receiving the payments until 2004, when the new comptroller informed her that they would end. When she wrote back to express her “dismay,” the comptroller informed her that Klein said the “intent was to reimburse you for a few years, which had already passed.”
Klein said that the decision to limit the term of the payments was made at a meeting of the finance committee in 1998, which he attended along with two people who since have passed away. He said that because Ilutovich was never informed of this decision, he now would resume the payments.
In Israel, where Ilutovich lives, health care is universal but does not cover the cost of medications — a big concern for Ilutovich, who said she has a wide array of health problems. Since the ZOA cut off payments two years ago, she has struggled to cover most of her costs with the pension she receives from the German government because of her time in the Warsaw Ghetto and in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.
“It is not easy, but I have to manage; I have had no choice,” Ilutovich said.