Zionist Organization’s Chief Faced Workplace Complaints

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 10, 2006, issue of March 10, 2006.
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During the buildup to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year, the Zionist Organization of America and its outspoken national president, Morton Klein, spearheaded opposition to the plan among right-wing American Jews. At the same time that he was juggling Middle Eastern politics, however, Klein also was facing down a lawsuit from his ghostwriter and top adviser and a labor grievance from the organization’s longtime receptionist.

The ZOA, a storied century-old organization, employs fewer than 20 people, but the two recent complaints are only the latest of a raft of workplace problems for Klein — problems that many inside the organization say he has caused. Klein was elected national president of the ZOA in 1993. Since then he has assumed almost complete control of the organization, staying in office thanks to a constitutional change that allows him to remain president indefinitely.

During his tenure, Klein has turned the ZOA into arguably the most prominent American opponent of Israeli territorial concessions and American aid to the Palestinians, with fiery speeches, endless press releases, frequent newspaper opinion pieces and intense lobbying in Washington. He has won over such big-name donors as Lowell Milken, brother of famous junk-bond trader Michael Milken. But interviews with more than a dozen former employees and board members indicate that Klein’s tenacity and control of the organization can make working for the ZOA a sometimes unnerving and unhappy experience.

The issues brought to the attention of the Forward extend from the bottom to the top of the organization. The ZOA’s security guard for 23 years, Lister Carvalho, said that when he asked Klein for severance pay after retiring last year, Klein told him he wouldn’t get “a penny.” Higher up on the chain of command, influential right-wing board member Sam Schachter said that after having a policy disagreement with Klein, he received irate phone calls from the ZOA national president at unusual hours, leading Schachter to resign from his position.

One indication of the difficulties is the high turnover rate in top positions. Since Klein took office, the ZOA has had at least eight executive directors. And since 2003, Klein has lost a top adviser, an executive director, a Washington director and a legal director. Schachter said that when he was a board member, from 2000 to 2003, he would make frequent trips to the ZOA’s office in midtown Manhattan and was shocked by what he saw.

“I am a businessman, with companies,” said Schachter, 75, who is a Florida real estate mogul. “I never treated people in my life as I saw Klein treating human beings. Never, ever.”

Klein told the Forward that “each situation is separate.” He declined to comment on many of the specific examples of his treatment of ZOA employees, saying they were “internal matters.” Regarding Schachter’s complaints, Klein said that he had not made angry phone calls to Schachter and that Schachter was embittered after making an unsuccessful bid to buy ZOA House in Tel Aviv. To explain the high turnover rate among top employees, Klein pointed to the relatively small salaries that the ZOA was able to offer, saying it forced him to hire sub-par employees.

“I have had some very difficult people to work with at ZOA, and I have tried my best,” Klein said.

The ZOA was founded in 1897 as the American branch of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist movement. After World War I, the organization became one of many competing American Zionist organizations, with close ties to what would become the moderate wing of the Likud Party. In 1993, Klein, the organization’s Philadelphia chapter president, was elected national president after unseating the organization’s incumbent leader, James Schiller, in a bitter fight.

Prior to his involvement with the ZOA, Klein had moved through numerous careers. He started as an assistant to Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling and ended as an investment manager. He said he found his calling when he led a successful campaign to force travel guides to change what he deemed biased coverage of Israel.

Klein’s ideological positions have won him a small group of large donors who have supported his efforts to change the organization. One change was that Klein, unlike past presidents, started receiving a salary so that he could dedicate himself to the work full time. In 2004 he received $212,000, significantly more than any other employee at the organization. Today, Klein is essentially the only public face of the ZOA. He lives in suburban Philadelphia and occasionally commutes to the ZOA’s New York office, but is said to have close control over internal matters at the organization.

Klein has his defenders. His current secretary, for example, said that Klein “always treated me with respect and dignity.” One of his eight executive directors, Janice Sokolovsky, said that she had a happy two years at the organization. Sokolovsky said that she had occasional encounters with Klein’s temper, but they would always pass. “He had a tremendous responsibility, and he would get angry and then it would blow over, and that was it,” Sokolovsky said.

Many of Klein’s critics said that his temper would run hot and cold, with emotive apologies following outbursts. But they also said that in the end, the pattern was damaging to the ZOA’s work. The Forward spoke with 18 other past employees and national presidents who took issue with various elements of Klein’s management style. A number of these people did not want to speak on the record because they feared a possible response from Klein. But enough spoke openly about their stories to give a stark picture of life at the ZOA.

Mindy Weinberg, for instance, was a graphic designer for the ZOA at its Manhattan office until mid 2004. Weinberg said that she had few dealings with Klein until she became pregnant and tried to reach Klein to learn about maternity benefits. Weinberg, who is Orthodox, said her assumption was that ZOA, as a Jewish organization, would support her desire to take time off. But after three written requests to Klein, asking about the organization’s maternity policy, Weinberg still had received no information. She went into Klein’s office on a rare day when he was in New York and was surprised by his response.

“He literally blew up at me,” Weinberg told the Forward. “I was very upset.”

Weinberg said that she never received an answer about maternity leave, and instead she received a letter informing her that she no longer would be allowed to leave at 1 p.m. on Fridays in order to be home in upstate New York for the Sabbath. Weinberg had taken her job on the condition that she could leave at 1 p.m. — an agreement confirmed to the Forward by the executive director at the time. Two weeks later, Weinberg said, Klein called her into her office and fired her, providing her with a security escort out of the building. The biggest concern for Weinberg was that she was fired for insubordination, a status that did not allow her to collect unemployment insurance. She appealed to the New York State Department of Labor and won. “Everyone is just so afraid of him,” Weinberg told the Forward recently. “It’s like he’s a bully, and I hate bullies.”

Another employee who ran up against Klein, according to multiple sources close to the organization, was Ezra Reinstein, the first director of the organization’s Center for Law & Justice. The sources said that, shortly into Reinstein’s tenure, Klein told Reinstein that he could not bring his fiancée, who is black and later converted to Judaism, to the organization’s annual dinner. When Reinstein pushed the point — and, according to the sources, threatened to take the matter to the organization’s board — Klein gave in. But when Reinstein arrived, the sources said, he found he had been placed in a back corner of the room.

When reached by the Forward, Reinstein would not comment on the incident. Klein acknowledged that he had asked Reinstein not to bring his fiancée, but said that this was because he did not want to send the wrong message about intermarriage by having an employee appear at an official function with a non-Jewish partner. Klein said he had nothing to do with the seating.

“I was worried that some of our people are deeply committed to Jews marrying Jews, and they may be upset if they found out that one our key employees was intermarrying,” Klein said.

The difficulties that Klein has had with dissenters have made it into the public record before. After Klein began his tenure, he had fallings out with a number of regional offices, causing chapters in Pittsburgh, Dallas and Baltimore — among the most active at the time — to leave the ZOA. Joe Breman, executive director just before Klein arrived, was heavily involved in the Pittsburgh chapter. He said that Klein’s attitude was: “It’s my ZOA. You didn’t support me, so you’re out.”

People who have worked at the organization said that Klein’s behavior has had an appreciable impact on the day-to-day functioning of the ZOA. Two of the eight former executive directors told the Forward that they had left because of frequent verbal abuse from Klein. When Washington director Sarah Stern resigned two years ago, she told the Forward, “Unfortunately Mort seems to be threatened by anyone who possesses any degree of honesty, integrity and intelligence and wants to work really hard.” Klein declined comment at the time.

The one steady professional at the top of the organization — aside from Klein — was Rafael Medoff, whose role at the ZOA has not been previously disclosed to the public. According to two past executive directors, Medoff wrote Klein’s speeches and the articles that have appeared under his name. In tax documents, however, the $110,000 salary that Medoff received was listed as “C. Gottleib Associates” — a “professional program.”

Medoff filed suit against the ZOA in a Maryland court in late 2005, claiming that after he told Klein he was leaving, he was refused any further paychecks — including that for his last three weeks and his severance pay. Medoff’s filing also mentions conversations that Klein and Medoff allegedly had about denying severance pay to several former employees, including Klein’s assistant and three executive directors. After a series of bitter exchanges through legal documents, in which the ZOA denied Medoff’s claims, the two sides settled the case out of court in January. Medoff, who is the director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, did not return calls seeking comment.

Severance pay was a pressing concern for many of the past employees who spoke with the Forward. Carvalho, the former security guard, said that he came across this problem when he retired in 2003 after 23 years at the organization. Carvalho, 74, says that he had been told on numerous occasions — including after Klein’s arrival — that he would receive the same severance benefits as employees in the organization’s small clerical union. This is similar to what Medoff claims he was told by Klein, and an internal ZOA document acquired by the Forward shows that the ZOA had calculated that under the union standards it owed Carvalho $68,000 for his 23 years of service to the organization.

Carvalho, though, says that when he called Klein to ask about severance, Klein told him: “You won’t be getting a penny. Nothing.” Though Carvalho called back to press the issue, he said that Klein refused to answer his phone calls. To date, Carvalho has received nothing in severance, and says he is struggling to get by on the pension of his late wife.

Klein told the Forward that he could not honor oral agreements, and that “any written contract has been honored completely.”

The other pending matter for Klein is the labor grievance filed by Emma Jordan, the ZOA’s receptionist for 24 years. Jordan, one of two union employees at the ZOA, has filed a grievance for wrongful firing, which is currently in arbitration. Jordan told the Forward that since Klein became president, she has been subjected to a steady trickle of verbal abuse. She told of a time when she didn’t clap during a staff meeting, and Klein called her into his office and went “ballistic.”

“He’s always ranting,” Jordan said. “‘You should find someplace else to work.’ That was his favorite rant.”

Jordan said that eventually, many did. She stayed until the end and only decided to speak up after she lost her job.

“I took a lot of insults there — and laughed it off, or smiled it off,” Jordan said, “but no one deserves what they throw at you.”

Klein denies ever having had any negative experiences with Jordan.

The chairman of the ZOA’s board, Dr. Michael Goldblatt, defended Klein’s dealings with employees, saying that he and the organization had behaved appropriately. Goldblatt, a fellow Philadelphian with long ties to Klein, said that the ZOA’s problems stemmed from bad hires.

“Mort is absolutely beloved by his staff and his board,” Goldblatt said.

Klein said that the ZOA’s employment problems have been one of the great frustrations of his tenure.

“It wasn’t that I was abusing them,” Klein said. “I tried very hard. The pain in my life is that it didn’t work out.”


*Click here to read a letter from ZOA leaders in response to this article.






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