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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Shai Franklin, a former executive director of the SCF, said that he was no longer up to date with affairs of the SCF. The group has 501(c)4 tax status, meaning it is a not-for-profit civil league or organization that operates to promote social welfare, and whose earnings are devoted to charitable, educational or recreational purposes. Franklin referred inquiries to Sam Sutton, the SCF’s president. Sutton declined to speak on the record for an interview. Jeff Leb, a former SCF executive director, also would not reply on the record.

The most puzzling silence has come from Greenberg, who was tasked with leading the committee. In 2010 he spoke extensively with the Forward about the committee’s goals and said that a list of charities that adopted the SCF’s guidelines and those that declined to do so would be published sometime in the fall of that year. Despite requests and investigations, the Forward never obtained such a list. Since 2010, it’s unclear just how much work the committee has done in total. According to 2011 federal disclosure forms, Greenberg averaged only one hour per week working with the SCF.

While members of the SCF were not willing to speak to the Forward, educators in the Syrian community talked about the arrests and how they resonated through their classrooms. During a May 20 episode about Syrian Jewish education on the radio show “Talkline With Zev Brenner,” Rabbi Harold Sutton, assistant rosh yeshiva at Magen David Yeshivah, said the arrests were a trying period for the community, and in response, Magen David instituted business ethics courses.

“The students came with questions, part of them with their loss of faith in the rabbinate,” Sutton said. “We had to explain to them — and of course the first thing we had to do was uncategorically and emphatically tell them what we thought was wrong, without any apologetics, and that people make mistakes no matter who they are, and people have to (face) the consequences for those errors.”

Some in the community didn’t believe that the committee would be effective from the start. Sam E. Antar, a Syrian Jew who pleaded guilty to fraud in 1991 as the chief financial officer of Crazy Eddie, a prominent New York-area electronics store, said he was not surprised by the lack of follow-up on the part of the SCF.

“Back in 2010 I questioned the sincerity of the Sephardic Community Federation’s efforts to reform charities and the effectiveness of its purported reforms,” Antar said. “The fact that they won’t speak, provide any update or even admit that the program still exists is of no surprise to me. Maybe they were just playing to the crowd back in 2010?”

The SCF has been involved in few public campaigns over recent years. In January it released ads attacking a plan to build a casino in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, fearing that the resort would bring crime, gambling and addiction. It also offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest of a Brooklyn man who had killed several store owners.

While it is not clear why the SCF has decided to not disclose updates about its charity reform committee, others in the field have noticed some change.


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