Audit Probes Rabbinical Union’s Missing Cash

By Jennifer Siegel

Published April 01, 2005, issue of April 01, 2005.
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HOUSTON — An independent auditor believes that the Reform rabbinical union’s missing $1 million was spent on a legitimate organizational expense, according to the group’s incoming president.

The newly elected president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Harry Danziger, told the Forward that the finding was contained in an interim report filed by independent auditors. He declined to identify the firm that is looking into the matter.

Leaders of the CCAR, a 1,500-member organization representing Reform rabbis, say that they were shocked by the realization that the organization’s former comptroller, Mohan Sawh, used money from restricted accounts designated for other purposes to cover a substantial operating shortfall. The CCAR’s yearly audit failed to detect the scale of the deficit, which came to light only after Sawh resigned several months ago, organizational leaders have said.

“He clearly used money that wasn’t authorized to pay bills,” Danziger told the Forward during the CCAR’s annual conference in Houston this week. “Part of what we’re sorting out is what is there, what isn’t there.”

The investigation, he said, is ongoing, with a final report expected in late April or early May.

Sawh could not be reached for comment.

In an article in the New York-based The Jewish Week, Sawh was quoted as saying that he used 2005 income to pay 2004 expenses. “That’s how I normally did it,” he reportedly said, adding, “If they maintain their budget expenses normally, they will have the money to pay back [the depleted accounts].”

CCAR leaders have said that the organization plans to quickly replace funds that were meant to support Reform rabbis in Israel and money sent as a deposit by congregations for the new prayer book.

While the contours of the accounting missteps remain under investigation, the deficit itself dates back several years, according to Danziger, a rabbi who is retired from his pulpit in Memphis, Tenn.

Forty percent to 50% of the CCAR’s $4 million annual budget comes from book sales, which have fallen off considerably in anticipation of the release of a new prayer book in 2006. Other sources of income include dues and endowments.

Danziger said that the organization would wait until the completion of the audit before it implements a final plan. To help close the budget gap, the organization’s executive vice president, Rabbi Paul Menitoff, has already moved up his retirement from December to June. Other possible solutions are withdrawing money from a $1 million rainy-day fund, seeking a line of credit, scaling back operations and postponing a search for Menitoff’s replacement.

Some rabbis seemed to be taking the investigation in stride. Leading a textual study on the issue of physician-assisted suicide late Monday night, Rabbi Mark Washofsky noticed that his handouts were plagued by microscopic print. “They reduced the size so it would fit on a letter-sized page,” he quipped. “The conference is already saving money.”

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