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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Andres Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, said he did not have specific data. But his organization has worked with charities in the Syrian community to adopt new standards.

“As a general trend, we see some funders in the Syrian community getting much more strategic and guided by these kind of standards,” Spokoiny said. “I don’t know how representative that is of the entire community, but it is good to see that positive change is happening.”

Full transparency, however, still appears to be a distant dream. Several leading Sephardic charities contacted by the Forward, including the Sephardic Bikur Holim and the Sephardic Heritage Alliance, declined to comment.

In 2009 the JFN created suggested guidelines for non-for-profit and religious organizations seeking support from members of their organization.

“Even if religious organizations are not supposed to present 990s as nonprofits are, we tell funders that they only should fund people that file financial reports or have financial reviews by CPAs,” said Spokoiny, referring to federal tax forms that disclose a not-for-profit group’s finances. “Zero fraud is an impossible goal, but you can certainly minimize it if you follow a set of very clear rules.”

Charendoff, who now heads the Maimonides Fund, an organization that underwrites programs with a focus on enhancing Jewish identity in North America and education in Israel, said a problem remains in the Jewish community involving not-for-profit organizations that are classified as religious organizations. “The transparency that’s required by the government for them is nowhere near sufficient in terms of good practice in the not-for-profit community,” he said. “There are glaring examples of inappropriate behavior when there’s no transparency. The most well-meaning individual is going to be tempted to cut corners if light is not shone on their activities.”

The SCF’s silence on charity reform is the second instance where promises made in the wake of a high-profile scandal have shown few tangible results. The Forward reported in early May that the Magen Tzedek Commission, which promised to create an ethical kosher certification seal in response to the discovery of gross mistreatment of workers at Agriprocessors has yet to place its seal on any product.

Magen Tzedek’s program director, Morris Allen, said it’s time for customers to become more vocal and demonstrate their desire for such a change.

In the case of charity reform, Charendoff echoed a similar statement, saying that to bring about tangible change, the donors themselves have to take an active role.

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com.


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