Author Archives: Heidi Traband

Calif. Synagogue Ponders Legal Action Against Former Exec

The just departed executive director of Adas Israel Congregation has admitted to intentionally stealing at least $390,000, deceptive record keeping and illegal transferring of funds from a California synagogue during the time he was executive director there.

Eric S. Levine, who was asked to resign on Tuesday from the D.C. synagogue after being executive director for about a month, “apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” Sonia Israel, president of the Beth El Congregation in La Jolla, Calif., announced in a letter sent to congregants Feb. 12.

Levine, of Bethesda, allegedly stole the money over a five-year period, beginning in 2008, Israel noted. He likely will face time in jail if the California congregation decides to press charges and Levine is found guilty.

Adas Israel’s president also sent out a letter to members of his congregation.

“While there is no indication of any improprieties during Eric’s short time at Adas, we have nonetheless commenced a thorough review of our financial and administrative records,” wrote Arnie Podgorksy.

Right now, Adas Israel is satisfied that no money has been taken from its synagogue, as there were no irregularities found during the audit, a source close to the synagogue said.

After being confronted by the leadership at Beth El, Levine not only admitted what he had done, but he also informed the leadership of Adas Israel of the theft. Adas Israel is not contemplating legal action as the synagogue has not been harmed, the source said.

However, the leadership at Congregation Beth El is considering pressing charges.

“We are consulting with experts in the appropriate areas of law to determine how to proceed with the authorities,” wrote Israel wrote. The synagogue also is investigating how to recover the money from Levine, if possible.

In an effort to keep congregants informed, a town hall meeting has been set for Feb. 26.

Solomon Wisenberg, a partner at the D.C. law firm of Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough LLP who specializes in white collar criminal defense, said that Levine is likely to face federal charges.

Wisenberg is not familiar with the case but when told the details, he said that it probably would be a federal case as embezzling almost always involves interstate bank, mail or wire fraud.

“That’s serious,” he said. “He’ll probably do some time” in jail unless the synagogue decides to keep the matter quiet. But considering the entire congregation has been informed and a meeting is planned, Wisenberg said it didn’t sound like that is what Beth El had in mind.

In cases like this, a judge must follow guidelines but is allowed leeway. The final amount of money stolen and the number of people harmed play a role in the sentencing, he explained.

“Presumably if you are stealing from a congregation, you are stealing from all the members who contribute,” said Wisenberg.

Under federal guidelines, a loss of less than $400,000, combined with the harming of more than 250 people, could translate to a sentence of between 21 months to 63 months. A source close to Adas Israel, however, said on Wednesday that Levine’s alleged theft could be closer to $500,000.

Considering that Levine confessed right away and assuming he cooperates with any law enforcement investigation, said Wisenberg, his sentence may be lighter.

According to Beth El’s president, Levine’s financial irregularities “came to light” at the end of January, about 45 days after he stopped working there. Then, in a phone call Sunday, Feb. 9, Levine was confronted by synagogue officials.

“He admitted that the deceptive record keeping and illegal transfer of funds was intentional. He then apologized and did not deny any of the accusations,” Israel wrote in the letter to congregants.

While not everything is known, Israel noted that “Eric was budgeting for improperly used funds. Therefore, we anticipate that our current cash balance and projected receipts for the rest of the year will cover our operating expenses.

“It is never easy to learn that someone you trusted has violated that trust,” continued Beth El’s president. “It is never easy to learn that someone you relied on to guide and protect an institution’s financial security has instead stolen funds for personal use and then covered up his misdeeds. When the institution is a religious organization, a community held together in part by moral and ethical bonds, such a betrayal is even more painful.”

Rabbi Philip Graubart also sent out a message to Beth El congregants, questioning how a community recovers from betrayal and calling the time since he learned of Levine’s misdeeds “a dark several weeks for me personally.”

“We made serious mistakes in trusting Eric,” wrote Graubart. “We were victimized by a skilled liar. We will carry the brokenness with us for a long time.”

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.

When asked about Levine, Michael Sonduck, president and CEO of the Federation in San Diego, told Washington Jewish Week, “I am not going to have any comment at all regarding this matter.”

Calls and emails to Graubart, Israel and others on the rabbinical and staff leadership at Congregation Beth El were not returned.

Levine started working at Adas Israel last month; he had been executive director at Congregation Beth El from July 2007 until December 2013.

Levine is married with young children.

Synagogue Without Exec After $500K Theft

After little more than a month of work, the new executive director for Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., was let go after admitting to stealing close to half a million dollars from a synagogue in California when he was its executive director.

Eric S. Levine “will no longer be serving as executive director for Adas Israel Congregation due to alleged, serious financial irregularities in his previous synagogue position in California,” read a letter sent to congregants and signed by synagogue president Arnie Podgorsky.

Levine admitted on Tuesday that he took between $400,000 and $500,000 over a five-year period from Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, Calif., according to a source close to the D.C. synagogue. His admission to the Adas Israel leadership followed one made to Beth El’s leadership, the source said.

Adas Israel officials immediately conducted an audit of its funds and found no irregularities at all, the source added. The synagogue is not contemplating charges as it experienced no harm.

Calls and emails to rabbinical and staff leadership at Congregation Beth El were not returned.

“We are persuaded that these alleged wrongdoings were unknown to Eric’s previous synagogue when we verified his performance and integrity prior to his being employed,” Podgorsky noted in his statement. “Obviously this news comes as a tremendous shock to both congregations.”

Adas Israel already has begun the process of finding a new executive director.

Levine started working at Adas Israel last month; he had been executive director at Congregation Beth El from July 2007 until December 2013, according to his LinkedIn page. On that page, he listed his experience as having “successfully navigated [an] organization’s finances through one of the worst economic disasters in U.S. history with six years of balanced budgets and modest surpluses each year.”

He also claimed to have “raised over $6 million for [a] congregation’s endowment with an additional 60-plus future legacy commitments.”

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.

Levine is married with young children.

“Our hearts go out to Eric’s family during this difficult time,” wrote Podgorsky. “We appreciate the immensely difficult circumstances that his wife and young children are experiencing. As a Jewish and holy community, we have an obligation to respect their privacy and be supportive.”


Everybody’s talking about the State of the Union

state-of-the-union-Barak_2Moments after President Barack Obama finished his State of the Union address Tuesday, members of Congress were already picking apart the speech.

Some, like Tea Party favorite Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, thought the president was less antagonistic to congressional Republicans than in previous speeches.

But, he said, “He could have pulled all of the Obamacare out of the speech…then I think I could have sat there relaxed,” King said after the address. He said the speech was predictable and that since the president spent a large part of his address extolling the Affordable Care Act, the GOP should continue to focus on its repeal.

Obama told the joint session of Congress that while he wanted to work with Republicans, he would use to executive orders to get around gridlock.

“The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress,” Obama said. “For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government… When our differences shut down or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat and chair of the Democratic National Committee, applauded the president’s approach.

“I thought the speech was resolute,” she told the Washington Jewish Week. “I thought it was visionary; I thought it was clear; and that it really struck the right balance between reaching out his hand to the Republicans and very clearly telling them, ‘Look, a time for intransigence and obstructionism is over.’”

Compared to employment and the economy, the president spent little time on foreign policy. He said that his administration’s diplomacy has succeeded in launching an international effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons and initiating the Joint Plan of Action with Iran to roll back the threat of its nuclear weapons program.

“As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb,” Obama said.

He tried to put to rest the overwhelming distrust among Americans about whether Iran intends to be forthcoming about its nuclear program. He said that trust will not be an element of any long-term agreement with Iran. “Any deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb,” he said, adding,

“If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., did not share the president’s optimism, telling WJW that the testimony she heard from Iran experts earlier in the day did not paint the same picture.

“They said: ‘You know, we can call it a success if that makes us feel better, but it is not. It’s a very weak deal,’” Ros-Lehtinen said of the West’s agreement with Iran. “It’s a very low standard.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., was also critical of the interim agreement with Iran. “It was wishful thinking at best and it’s a rotten agreement at worst,” he said. “We are giving up what we are doing right now and they are giving up not doing something in the future. In other words they aren’t giving up anything and we’re giving up something.”

Applause in the chamber predictably followed party lines. Yet when president Obama said that he would veto the Menendez-Kirk bill – which calls for new sanctions on Iran after the JPA expires – if the Senate passed it, there was little applause from either side of the aisle.

Asked about the president’s position against Menendez-Kirk, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill, said that even though he supports the president’s efforts at diplomacy, he still maintains that the Menendez-Kirk bill will not stand in the way of diplomacy as the administration has suggested.

“My conviction is that the sanctions bill expresses the view that tougher sanctions will be needed if the talks fail, and that a vote is unnecessary as long as the progress in the negotiations is meaningful and visible,” Blumenthal said. “We can delay a vote until the negotiations no longer are producing visible and meaningful progress, and I think the president should view us as strengthening his hand rather than detracting from his effort.”

By far the shortest part of the president’s speech was the single sentence on the Israel-Palestine peace process.

“As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there: to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the state of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side,” Obama said.

The significance of the president’s use of the phrase “Jewish state” was not lost on the lawmakers. Israel demands that the Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state, and the term signaled to Israel’s many supporters in Congress that the president saw eye to eye with them.

“I think it’s the substance that matters and he was very clear in terms of his determination to achieve peace,” Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said, “But with Israel’s security is absolutely essential, you don’t have to make a long speech to be clear where you stand.”

Rohrabacher, who visited Israel where he met with Israeli security personnel, was unconvinced.

“We met with a Palestinian negotiator and our conversation confirmed for us that the Palestinians are not serious about reaching an agreement because they are unwilling to commit to an agreement with Israel that does not include their right to return millions of people to the pre-1967 borders,” Rohrabacher said, referring to the Palestinian demand for a right of return. “Unless they can do that, they are not serious and that would destroy Israel.”

Levin wouldn’t say what he thought the chances for the success of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were, but said at least they’re trying.

“That’s exactly what should happen,” Levin said. “Because someday, the issues will be worked out and Israel’s security will be absolutely sustained.”

State of the Union: Jewish groups’ priorities

President Barack Obama will present his annual State of the Union address before Congress and the nation this evening. Like presidents before him, Obama has traditionally used this opportunity to lay out an ambitious agenda – and he probably still will – but it would be difficult to do so without acknowledging the saga of last year, when the great plans he touted in that State of the Union became a series of failed policy initiatives.

One of his highest priorities, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, has been plagued by errors and delays. Undoubtedly, the president will point to the success stories resulting from the legislation while reminding the public that the errors and missteps – some of which he attempted to solve through executive order – are to be expected from any monumental, but fledgling government program.

Judging from statements emanating from the White House, however, even recalcitrant Republicans might not hinder Obama, who has previously shown his willingness to use his executive authority to enact regulations without the backing of Congress; today, the office of Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that while the president will tout raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, through Congressional passage of the Harkin-Miller bill, in tonight’s speech, he will also commit himself to using “executive authority to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for those working on new federal contracts for services.”

Other Obama accomplishments in the past year that might see a little review in the State of Union include his recent reforms in accountability and transparency, both instigated by the revelations that the Internal Revenue Service was putting extra scrutiny into their auditing of Tea Party and right-wing affiliated groups, and the National Security Agency was collecting information beyond what many Americans believed was acceptable.

What appears to interest the Jewish community most, however, is the president’s stance on the negotiations being facilitated by Secretary of State John Kerry between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the P5+1 conferences in Geneva aimed at reducing Iran’s nuclear capability. If the subject comes up tonight, the president will likely hail the Joint Plan of Action initiated earlier this month as a major breakthrough in relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran – a nation that the United States had not had diplomatic relations with in 30 years. At the same time, he will urge the public to have patience and faith in the process and urge lawmakers to not support the Menendez-Kirk bill and avoid interfering with the diplomacy currently underway.

To preview the speech, the Washington Jewish Week asked numerous leaders in the Jewish community to identify what they think should be included in the president’s speech tonight. Here are their responses:

Jewish Federations urge President Obama to reiterate his commitment to ensuring Iran does not develop a nuclear weapons capacity, while keeping “all options on the table.” Federations also urge the President to continue promoting the critical importance of charities in our society, speak out in support of Senate passage of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and to advocate for assessable long-term care for older Americans and services for their care-givers.

– William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America

I think that he will definitely address the two major issues: Iran and the Kerry initiative for the two state solution.

We know that the president is committed to this effort; what I think we would like to hear is a renewed commitment to Israel, to Israel’s security, and to the idea that this conflict with the Palestinians can be settled and it could be done now, this year. And that he will back to the hilt Secretary Kerry’s efforts, and that he will personally intervene at the right moment, and that this is a time for the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to show leadership and to take bold decisions for peace. But that the United States will always have Israel’s back and would never abandon that.

– Alan Elsner, vice president of communications at J Street

I would like the President Obama to clearly state that the United States and Israel are engaged in a shared and existential struggle with radical Islam and that the greatest threat facing the United States, Israel and most of Europe is a nuclear Iran.

I’d be encouraged to see him say that “yes, we’d like to see two states living in peace side by side, but it is unlikely to come about, as long as the Palestinians continue to teach their children that one day all of the land will be theirs. In order to achieve the lofty goal of peace, the Palestinians must end their incitement, which is based on an unjustifiable hatred that is unacceptable. If and when that day comes America will be ready to assist the Israelis and Palestinians in peace.”

On the topic of negotiations with Iran, I’d like to see the president assert that it is necessary to use all means to defeat a nuclear Iran, including negotiations, sanctions and the military option. I’d like to see the president say, “I have taken notice of the Iranians’ claim that the negotiations do not impede their goal of nuclear capability. I differ in that view, but if that is their view, then they have proceeded to negotiate in bad faith, and it is reasonable to prepare new sanctions, and I support such efforts.”

– Sarah Stern, president and founder of the Endowment for Middle East Truth


Columbia Community Searches For Answers


The Mall in Columbia Jan. 25, 2014. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT/Newscom)

Last Saturday morning’s fatal shooting at a popular Howard County shopping mall sent shock waves through the typically quiet suburb of Columbia, Md., with members of the area’s close-knit Jewish community joining their neighbors in mourning a sense of safety shattered by a teenager’s bullets.

Lynn Green, president of local Reform congregation Bet Aviv, shops at The Mall in Columbia nearly every day; she was inside the Macy’s department store at the other end of the mall when police say College Park resident and James Hubert Blake High School graduate Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, gunned down Zumiez employees Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy.

“All of a sudden, it sounded like cattle running through,” said Green. “All you heard were feet, and it looked like teenagers running through. I said to the cashier [that] it must be a flash mob.”

When a second group of people ran by yelling that there was a shooter, she knew what had happened. Aguilar later took his own life, according to police.

Even though Green did not see the shooter or hear any gunshots, it took her until late afternoon to fully recover from the shock.

“My heart was pounding the entire day,” she said. “I have never had that kind of experience in my life, and I take things relatively well.”

Green wondered why, with the mall being such a popular destination, especially on the weekends, and with what appeared to be an increased presence of security to handle the crowds, no one apparently spotted heavily armed Aguilar prior to the shooting.

Police accounts, through surveillance footage, determined that Aguilar arrived by taxi approximately an hour before the shooting. He was carrying a backpack filled with improvised explosives and a pistol-grip 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun.

Terry Erfer, who lives approximately two-and-a-half miles from the mall, had not shopped at the mall in about six months; she happened to be there that day nevertheless.

“I went with some friends to do some walking before the mall opened,” she said. “We got there at about 9:30 a.m. and then walked three times around [the mall] and left.”

Erfer said she felt lucky; she found out about the tragedy when her son called her from Texas to find out if she was all right.

“It’s scary because it could have happened half an hour earlier, and I would have been there,” she said.

Rabbi Susan Grossman, head rabbi at the nearby Beth Shalom Congregation, saw in the shooting a need to re-examine how the nation approaches gun control.

“How many more shootings will we allow to happen before we unambiguously enforce our gun control laws and create the proper checks and balances so that people who shouldn’t have guns don’t have them?” she asked. “In Judaism, if you’ve saved one life, it is as if you’ve saved the whole world.”

“I think that we in the Conservative movement have favored gun control,” she continued. “There are certain types of equipment that should not be sold, and there’s no reason not to have a waiting period before someone could walk out with a gun, so that their record could be checked.”

While surprise that such violence could happen in Columbia was a common refrain, many questioned the shooter’s mental state as well as the services available to those with mental health problems.

“I don’t think it’s possible to do gun control in this country anymore,” commented Elise Striz, a hydro geologist at the United States Nuclear Commission who the night of the shooting attended a concert at Beth Shalom with her family. “I think there are too many weapons out there, and we’re past the point of being able to control guns. I would have liked to have seen it earlier, but I think it [the window of opportunity] is done.”

“I don’t think that we put enough funds into mental health and into helping people who have mental health and anger management issues,” she added. “I wish we would put more funding into those areas.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Green, a retired middle and elementary school teacher.

“I feel very badly for the two people who got killed; I feel badly for their parents; I also feel badly for the shooter because — and I was a teacher for 35 years — if this guy is 19, he didn’t get meshugge overnight,” said Green. “There were kids [who attended my school] who committed crimes and you’d see it in the newspaper, and it didn’t surprise you because their personality showed this years ago.”

“I think we probably need to give some education,” she continued. “The schools give sex education, but maybe they need to give some mental health education.”

Despite what happened, Green will be back at the mall as usual on Monday. Striz, as well, doesn’t plan to let the shooting deter her from shopping.

“I don’t believe that in a free society you can ever really protect yourself from these kind of incidents, and I refuse to be frightened by it,” said Striz. “You have to go about your daily lives.”