Little Sign of Change at Syrian Charities After Scandal

Has Oversight Group Made Progress Bringing Transparency?

Change? Rabbi Saul Kassin, chief rabbi of Congregation Shaare Zion, in Brooklyn, was at the center of a money-laundering scandal in the Syrian Jewish community. A group that promised new transparency has yet to produce tangible results.
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Change? Rabbi Saul Kassin, chief rabbi of Congregation Shaare Zion, in Brooklyn, was at the center of a money-laundering scandal in the Syrian Jewish community. A group that promised new transparency has yet to produce tangible results.

By Seth Berkman

Published June 05, 2013, issue of June 07, 2013.
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An organization that declared its intent to bring transparency to charitable donations in Syrian Sephardic Jewish communities has gone silent three years after its inception.

Shortly after the July 2009 arrests of three prominent Sephardic rabbis who had used charity funds in a money-laundering scheme, the Sephardic Community Federation instituted a compliance plan for charitable organizations and announced that nearly 20 groups had adopted the guidelines or were considering doing so.

But the organization declined to comment on how the committee was progressing. Over the course of weeks, multiple calls to the SCF’s executive director, Avi Spitzer, were not returned, nor were calls and e-mails to Eli Greenberg, who is a partner at the law firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz and a driving force in the initiative.

New York City Councilman David Greenfield, a former SCF executive vice president, would not speak on the record about the SCF and suggested contacting current SCF members. Shortly after the arrests, Greenfield proclaimed that the SCF would take unprecedented steps to certify that Sephardic charities operate at the highest legal and ethical standards.

“I would hope that they have a very good reason for their actions,” said Mark Charendoff, former president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, referring to SCF. “But certainly, if their purpose is to bring greater responsibility and greater sincerity, one would say, minimally, they should start by modeling that behavior themselves.”

Rabbi Saul Kassin, chief rabbi of Congregation Shaare Zion, in Brooklyn, was the most prominent figure arrested in the 2009 federal sting known as Operation Bid Rig. After pleading guilty in March 2011, Kassin was eventually sentenced to two years of probation. In all, 46 people were arrested, including a host of rabbis — among them a pair of New Jersey Sephardic rabbis: Edmond Nahum, rabbi of Deal Synagogue, and Eliahu Ben Haim, leader of Congregation Ohel Yaacob, in Deal — plus politicians and even a trafficker of human organs.

Kassin’s arrest shook the Sephardic communities of both Deal and Brooklyn, which are known for their wealth and extensive charitable donations. As a result, Greenberg was tasked with leading an independent committee to oversee not-for-profit organizations in those Sephardic Syrian communities. The accounting firm of Loeb & Troper was to certify guidelines set forth by Greenberg’s committee. Representatives from the firm did not return calls from the Forward.

By April 2010, between four and six Sephardic organizations had adopted the guidelines. At the time, Greenberg said 15 others were considering them and that he hoped to eventually have 40 groups. The guidelines included a code of ethics, as well as policies relating to conflicts of interest, document retention and the protection of whistleblowers. The initiative also aimed at diminishing cash transactions between charities and donors; however, there were no clear legal ramifications for not abiding by these rules.


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