A group of former presidents and executive directors from the Zionist Organization of America is putting pressure on the organization’s current leadership over severance payments that have been denied to the ZOA’s longtime security guard.
Seven former ZOA presidents and executive directors have come together in the weeks since the Forward wrote an article describing the situation of 74-year-old Lister Carvalho, who was the ZOA’s security guard for 23 years. Carvalho has not been given any compensation since retiring three years ago, despite apparent oral agreements and written commitments. One internal document acquired by the Forward showed that Carvalho would have been owed $68,000 after his retirement.
The Forward’s article detailed complaints from Carvalho and from other former employees who felt mistreated by the ZOA under its national president, Morton Klein, who has been in office for the past 12 years. Since that article, several current ZOA employees have come forward to defend Klein, saying he is a kind and caring boss.
At the same time, the former presidents and executive directors have come together to help advocate for Carvalho. The group wrote to the New York State Department of Labor, criticizing the ZOA, and also made numerous entreaties to Klein and to a top board member. One member of the group is Jacques Torczyner, current honorary president of the ZOA. Torczyner said last week that Klein had offered to pay Carvalho $30,000 but has since withdrawn that offer.
When asked about the $30,000 figure, Klein said that there was “no such offer.” He said that though he was “told” of such a conversation between two other people, “I never agreed to it.”
David Black, a former ZOA staffer who is leading the effort to win compensation for Carvalho, said, “It is disturbing to many that a Jewish leader who would have us weep for the injustices done to our people defames us by dishonoring those who count on us to honor agreements.”
“I and many others will call upon the leaders of the ZOA to do right by Lister and those other employees too fearful to speak on their own behalf,” said Black, who was deputy executive director of the ZOA in the 1980s and is now executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.
In addition to Black, Carvalho’s advocates include three of the four living presidents who preceded Klein, the current honorary president and two former executive directors. All claim it was their understanding that all nonunion employees at the ZOA, including Carvalho, would receive the same severance benefits as union employees. The advocates have been working to find a lawyer to represent Carvalho.
Klein said he has received phone calls from some former executives, but he said his board has determined in the past that it has no obligation to Carvalho.
The ZOA was founded in 1897 as the American branch of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist movement. In 1993, Klein, the organization’s Philadelphia chapter president, was elected national president after a bitter election fight with one of the former presidents who is now advocating for Carvalho, Jim Schiller. During his tenure, Klein has turned the ZOA into perhaps the most prominent right-wing Jewish organization in America. But he also has had occasional troubles with the organization’s employees.
Carvalho’s situation was detailed in an article in the Forward that included complaints about Klein from many former employees — as well as the revelation that Klein recently had been sued by his former ghostwriter, who alleged that the ZOA national president had denied him his severance pay and a final paycheck.
The Forward article sparked several developments. The ZOA changed the promotional material on its Web site in response to evidence that some claims it had been making about membership numbers and activities were overstated. In addition, a group of current employees came forward and vigorously defended the organization’s current leadership.
The director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice, Susan Tuchman, wrote in a letter to the Forward, published March 17: “I have never been treated with anything other than respect and decency; in my observation other employees are treated in the same way.”
Carvalho said that Klein called him soon after the article appeared in the Forward. In the conversation, Carvalho said, Klein offered to give him $5,000 to settle the matter. Carvalho hesitated, because Klein also had offered to give him $5,000 when he first asked for his severance pay more than a year ago but Klein had never followed through. Carvalho said that when he did not accept Klein’s recent offer, Klein told him: “If you are ready for a fight, I am ready. I never back down from a fight.”
Klein acknowledged that he had a conversation with Carvalho, but he denied having used the word “fight.” Klein said he withdrew his initial offer of $5,000 because of the board’s decision that it had no written obligation to Carvalho.
That decision appears to contradict commitments spelled out in documents obtained by the Forward. Schiller, the president who preceded Klein, wrote a letter to the organization’s nonunion employees in 1993 telling them that they would receive the same severance benefits as the union employees: one month’s severance pay for each year of employment at the ZOA. In 1998, Carvalho signed a letter — also signed by the ZOA’s current accountant — designating his wife as the beneficiary of his severance pay.
Carvalho’s advocates all say that they remember him as a dedicated employee who would have put his life at risk for the ZOA.
“He was a man who was there five or six days a week, and always greeted everyone with a smile,” said Joe Breman, who was the ZOA’s executive director before Klein took office. “No matter what the weather, this man was there.”
Carvalho said that since retiring from the ZOA in 2003, he has had to rely on the Social Security payments of his deceased wife.
Carvalho’s advocates have circulated a number of e-mails discussing strategies for securing his compensation. Ivan Novick, who was a president of the ZOA in the early 1980s, called current board chairman Michael Goldblatt to ask about a deal. Black, the former ZOA deputy director, also wrote a letter to the New York State Department of Labor.
“He is living on meager means,” Black wrote in the letter, adding that he found it objectionable “that the ZOA refuses to recognize what has been promised to Lister over many years.”
The labor department contacted Black on Friday and told him in a telephone message that it would inquire about the ZOA’s severance policy to see if the department has jurisdiction over the case. Carvalho’s advocates have said they will not give up until the ZOA rectifies the situation.
“I have known Mr. Lister since he started working at the ZOA,” said the ZOA’s honorary president, Torczyner, who was national president during the 1970s. “He’s entitled to severance pay like every human being in America who works and is at the end of his life.”