Synagogue to Press Charges

A California synagogue is expected to file criminal charges against its former executive director, Eric Levine, a Bethesda resident who most recently worked for Adas Israel Congregation in the District, for allegedly stealing almost $400,000 over a five-year period.

“We anticipate that criminal charges are going to be filed,” said Sonia Israel, president of Congregation Beth El in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla. “We are preparing a police report.”

Israel added that charges should be filed “within the next few weeks.”

Levine only worked at Adas Israel for about a month, and synagogue officials there are confident that he did not steal any money while there. He reportedly admitted to the Beth El theft and deceptive record keeping last month after synagogue officials there discovered discrepancies in their financial records; he also told Adas Israel officials of the issue and resigned from his executive director position at the Cleveland Park synagogue.

Between 2008 and Levine’s resignation in December 2013, he stole at least $390,000 from the synagogue on an ongoing basis, said Israel. “It was a regular pattern, every month.”

Assuming the alleged theft took place over the course of 60 months, the take would have amounted to roughly $6,500 per month. Although Beth El had a part-time bookkeeper, Levine was protective about the way the synagogue’s financial records were handled, explained Israel. “He kept a lot of it to himself,” she said, adding that “we are very confident he worked alone.”

Because of this incident, an independent task force has been established to make sure no one will embezzle money from the synagogue funds again, she said. The task force consists of three synagogue members, two nonmembers and one board member who is a nonvoting member. Among the task force members are CPAs, auditors, attorneys and “people who understand nonprofits,” said Israel.

The synagogue held a town hall meeting to update congregants about what happened. About 185 people attended.

Israel said she was especially hurt.

“I never suspected anything,” she said. “That was the whole problem. We were duped.”

Also expressing concern was the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Diego.

“We are profoundly shocked and saddened that a trusted staff member of a leading community organization would behave in this manner,” said a spokeswoman at the organization. “We have confidence in the leadership of Congregation Beth El to determine what happened and to take all corrective action necessary, and [we] are ready to help and support the congregation and its leaders in every way possible.”

About 45 days after Levine had stopped working at Beth El, officials discovered that the money was missing. In a joint telephone call to Levine on Feb. 9, he “apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” said Israel.

The California synagogue is still reviewing its report to police, and Levine could be charged with state or federal charges. Solomon Wisenberg, a partner at the D.C. law firm of Nelson, Mulins, Riley and Scarborough LLP, said that with many embezzlement cases in which large amounts of money are stolen from a nonprofit, interstate bank, mail or wire fraud is involved.

If Levine is found guilty of fraud, he is likely to serve time in jail, explained Wisenberg. Also, in this case, it could be argued that every congregant who pays membership dues was harmed, making the penalty more severe, he said.

Potential federal charges could include tax evasion if Levine took $390,000 and never reported it on his taxes.

Levine has not returned messages, including one left in the door of his Bethesda home. A woman who answered the door at that address said, “No thank you” when asked about the case.

Prior to working at the California synagogue, Levine was associate director/director of planning and allocations at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County from April 2005 to July 2007. He is married with young children.

spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com

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