New Fiscal Chief at Seminary Resigns Post Amid Debt Crisis

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America’s new chief financial officer has resigned after just three months on the job at a time when the institution, the flagship of Conservative Judaism, is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

The departure of CFO Richard Bengloff marks the second resignation in four months of a top seminary financial officer. Longtime seminary controller S. David Shapiro abruptly resigned his post November 9, 2004, only weeks before news stories disclosed that JTS was struggling to cover tens of millions of dollars in debt borrowed from undisclosed sources.

In a February 17 e-mail distributed to the entire seminary community, Rabbi Michael Greenbaum, the school’s vice chancellor and chief administrative officer, stated that Bengloff “has decided, for personal reasons, to move on.” Greenbaum wrote that he intended “to engage an interim financial officer within the next week or two, and/or recruit for a full-time replacement.”

Bengloff’s resignation comes two months after published reports that JTS had borrowed an estimated $36 million from “internal sources” to meet rising operating expenses. The debt was accumulated over several years, before Bengloff was hired.

Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of seminary, which is located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has announced that proceeds from the sale of a nearby land parcel would be placed in the school’s endowment fund.

Schorsch stated in a December 17 e-mail that the JTS board has “implemented a plan to reduce our current borrowings, which represent less than half of our endowment.”

In the e-mail, Schorsch stated that the seminary has an endowment of $80 million.

Seminary officials have declined to discuss the school’s financial picture, including whether the “internal source” of the loan sale of a nearby land parcel would be placed in the school’s endowment fund. Seminary officials have declined to discuss the school’s financial picture, including whether the “internal source” of the loan refers to the institution’s endowment fund.

The seminary’s director of communications, Elise Dowell, declined to discuss the institution’s financial situation, or to provide the Forward with a copy of the seminary’s annual report or with any investment policy statements. She declined to discuss how the endowment is invested or whether it had grown or shrunk in recent years.

Dowell declined to address the significance of the departure of two top financial officers in such a short time frame. But a veteran faculty member, who requested anonymity, said: “There seems to be some sort of hidden smelly mess in there that is not being publicized, and the people who get too close to it don’t want to get mixed up [with it].”

This past December, Dowell confirmed that Shapiro abruptly resigned as controller November 9 to become executive director of a day school in New Jersey. She would not discuss whether Shapiro’s departure was related to the seminary’s financial crisis.

Shapiro could not be reached for comment.

Bengloff did not return several calls to his home on Tuesday. That same day, Dowell said he left for personal reasons.

The next morning, Dowell e-mailed a statement which she said could be attributed to Bengloff announcing his new position as “the Chief Administrative Officer at WNYC,” a public radio station in New York. “It has been a pleasure working for JTS,” Bengloff was quoted as saying. According to the statement, he added that the new job “was a wonderful opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.”

Bengloff’s hiring and departure were just two of several recent staff changes in the seminary’s financial accounting and donor relations departments. JTS tapped Andrew Dorsch “several months ago” to serve as the seminary’s new budget manager and director of internal audit. Half a year ago, Jordan Chattam was hired to be the institution’s new director of donor relations. Dowell said it would be ridiculous to link the hiring of Chattam to the school’s debt problem.

JTS officials said in December that major borrowing was necessary to offset declining income from investments and donations that did not meet projections. But Schorsch, stated in his December e-mail that the school is in fine fiscal health and that a business plan was being developed to reduce the debt.

“JTS is exceedingly strong financially. Our assets far exceed liabilities by many times,” wrote Schorsch, who has served as chancellor for 18 years. “Our Board has implemented a plan to reduce our current borrowings, which represent less than half of our endowment, to [ensure] that we move forward from a position of strength.”

The seminary operates a rabbinical school, a cantorial school, graduate and undergraduate colleges of Jewish studies and a world-renowned library, in addition to the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education.

JTS’s annual operating costs rose by nearly $10 million in a four-year period, from $27.5 million in 1999 to $37.2 million in 2003, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. During the same period the school’s fund raising jumped from $3.8 million to $6.4 million.

On Tuesday Dowell declined to answer questions about the seminary’s debt or its debt-reduction plan. “We have a plan in place and we are moving forward,” she said. “We are not going to go into specifics.”

Asked about JTS’s unwillingness to provide basic information, an expert on the financial practices of nonprofit institutions said, “We think a public institution owes it to its donors, the public and the press to be transparent and accountable.”

Another nonprofit expert said the seminary’s refusal to answer questions about its investments is indicative of a wider national problem with accountability at charitable institutions.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.