(JTA) — A Jewish community mikvah near Boston says its supporters are rallying around it after the mikvah announced that a former staffer misused funds and engaged in other financial improprieties.
In an email sent May 18 to supporters of the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh, officials of the mikvah said the estimated financial loss was “significant” but “thankfully not enough to endanger the organization or our ability to serve our guests.”
In a phone conversation with JTA, Executive Director Carrie Bornstein was vague about what exactly the former employee had done, saying divulging further details would harm the ongoing investigation by Newton Police and a private investigator. She said the employee had engaged in the improprieties for approximately two years.
However, Bornstein did not shy away from speaking about the shock she and other staff members felt at the discovery.
“[It was] a feeling I can’t describe,” she said. “Our staff is a very small, tight-knit, close, family-like kind of staff, and it was shocking to see that somebody who was part of this extended family in that way could have done something like this.”
The organization has a staff of seven and a 2018 budget of approximately $840,000, according to Bornstein.
Mikvahs, or ritual baths, are fixtures in Orthodox communities, where women go for immersion after menstruation, among other rituals, and converts to Judaism immerse as part of the process. But since its founding in 2004 Mayyim Hayyim, which is not affiliated with any denomination of Judaism, has set out to make the mikvah rituals appealing to a wider swath of the Jewish community.
Its founding president, Anita Diamant, author of the novel “The Red Tent,” said she wanted the mikvah to be a place for “brides and mourners, those celebrating a happy milestone, such as becoming a grandparent, and those suffering losses, such as miscarriage or mastectomy.”
Last week, Mayyim Hayyim was included for the 10th time in the Slingshot Guide of “the most cutting-edge, innovative programs” in Jewish life.
Last month, Bornstein discovered something was not quite right with the organization’s financials. The situation pertained to an employee who was in the process of leaving the organization after 2 1/2 years there.
“It was clear that there were things going on that were problematic, to say the least, and that this person went to great lengths to cover up what was happening, “ Bornstein said.
A few days later, Bornstein contacted police and hired forensic investigators to look into the incident.
About a week after she made the initial discovery, she sent the email to supporters along with Board Chair Sheri Gurock and Diamant, now the founding board chair.
In her email, Bornstein urged donors who had used credit cards to check their statements for irregularities, but she told JTA that it was just a precaution and that there were no indications at present that donors’ information had been compromised.
Bornstein, who has been in her position for six years and with Mayyim Hayyim for 10 years, said there were no indications prior to last month that the former staffer, who oversaw accounts payable and receivable and managed the organization’s office space, was acting inappropriately. She said she had checked several of the employee’s references before hiring her and that they were all positive.
“I was totally surprised and disappointed that she could be capable of doing something like this,” she said.
Bornstein still doesn’t know exactly the extent of the loss.
“There are a lot of records to go through,” she said.
A Newton Police spokesman, Lt. Bruce Apotheker, said the department did not comment on ongoing investigations.
Bornstein said she made the decision to reveal the incident in the email last month because openness was one of the organization’s values. Since sharing the news, Mayyim Hayyim has received wide support from donors, other Jewish groups and the wider community, she said.
“As upsetting as it has been to go through all of this, our community has really been just so supportive, and that part feels family-like, too. We’re going to get through this and move forward together,” she said.
And though she described the current situation as “difficult,” Bornstein said she is focused on continuing to do just that.
“We’re all feeling a big jumble and mix of emotions, a lot of shock, a lot of anger, a lot of disappointment, a lot of resolve to keep doing our work and focusing on the positive and serving the community,” she said.
Josefin Dolsten is a former news fellow at the Forward, writing about politics and culture, and editing the Sisterhood blog. She received an MA in Jewish Studies and Comparative Religion from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a BA in Government from Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at @josefindolsten.