Aish recovering from substantial missing funds

By Ellen Futterman, Editor © St. Louis Jewish Light 2010

Aish HaTorah of Greater St. Louis, Inc. lost monies totaling in the six figures due to what a board member termed “inappropriate actions” of a former employee, the Jewish Light has learned.

The employee is no longer at Aish and the time frame as to when these actions occurred is still being investigated, although sources say it happened before 2010 and took place over several years.

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“We have taken significant actions as an organization to uncover the issue, as well as developed a strong internal control environment to prevent something similar in the future,” said Dan Winograd, who acknowledged his role as president of the local Aish’s advisory board. He explained that Aish has hired an outside accounting firm and an attorney to investigate the matter. In addition, the organization says it has filed a claim with its insurance company to recoup some of the losses. 

“We have only just recently learned that the insurance company has accepted our claim and will reimburse Aish for a significant portion of its losses; however the paperwork has not yet been completed.  Aish is also exploring additional insurance claims,” Winograd added.

It is unclear as to where all the lost money went, and whether it was misdirected to other Jewish organizations and/or individuals. Sources said that the individual involved threw large-group Shabbat dinners at his home and helped others in the Jewish community who were having financial problems.

Rabbi Elazar Grunberger, who served as executive director of Aish St. Louis for 24 years, said he was shocked when he learned that a “trusted employee of many years” had diverted the money. He credited Rabbi Yosef David, who took over as executive director in spring of 2009, as the one who scrutinized operations and discovered the financial improprieties.

“As executive director, I was more involved in rabbinical outreach, teaching and fundraising efforts,” Grunberger said, explaining that administration is not his strong suit. “I was very trusting and felt I had strong, trustworthy people in place, running the day-to-day operations and the finances. To think that this was happening under my nose is more than very upsetting.”

Rabbi David did not want to comment about when or how he realized the financials didn’t add up and that so much money was missing. But like Grunberger and Winograd, David stressed that once aware, Aish leadership immediately informed all the people who the situation affected, and has taken multiple steps to rectify the matter and make sure the money is restored.

“The external accounting firm is assisting us in quantifying the magnitude of the situation,” said Winograd. “The potential losses likely accumulated, principally in smaller amounts over many years, are not easily verifiable.   At this point, we are able to fully substantiate enough to make a claim under our insurance policy.”

Winograd reiterated that as soon as the losses came to light, they were disclosed to Aish’s 18-member advisory board, major donors and debt holders.

“Aish has implemented a significant revamping of our internal control environment,” Winograd said. “For example, we switched over to a more robust accounting software system.  We have segregated duties surrounding the cash disbursement and cash receipts process.  Our external accounting firm prepares all bank reconciliations, checks can only be signed by Rabbi David or two board members and booking is handled by one individual with several eyes monitoring.”

Aish HaTorah of Greater St. Louis tries to “inspire others to think and live more Jewishly.” The organization provides programs and classes on everything from basic Judaism to learning Hebrew to workshops on marriage and relationships. The organization also hosts lunch and learn sessions, one-on-one study and home-study groups. The annual Aish St. Louis Speakers Series brings top-notch people to discuss a variety of topics and the annual Stuart I. Raskas Dessert Reception presents a world-class speaker and awards a local volunteer who has contributed significant time and resources to Aish.

The international Aish HaTorah network, based in Jerusalem, operates 26 full-time branches on five continents, including 19 in the United States. Each branch is operated independently.

Aish St. Louis, which was founded in 1979, was the first outreach center outside of Israel. The organization moved into its current location in Chesterfield in 1999: the Gloria & Rubin Feldman Aish HaTorah Center for Jewish Studies, known as the “Firehouse.”

Winograd and Grunberger, who is still involved with Aish International leadership, said that Aish HaTorah International is aware of the problem. Grunberger said that since this situation has come to light, all Aish branches will now be required to submit their financial reports to Aish International and that there will be regular audits.

Winograd added that since there was no major funds involved from public or outside entities, such as United Way, Aish limited its disclosure to those individuals most impacted. 

“In addition, we informed certain organizations that we believed might be at risk of the situation as well as other members in the community who could potentially be harmed,” he said. “We do not believe that there is a danger to the general public.  We believed that any further disclosure would have served only the purpose of embarrassment to the individual and his family and, while certainly fodder for snickering and gossip, would have violated religious sensibilities that prohibit what is termed ‘loshan hora.'”

Winograd did not rule out the possibility that criminal charges against this individual may be filed, but was quick to add there are no plans by Aish to make such a request. “If we believed there was a benefit to seeking criminal charges, then we would consider it, but at this point, we have no immediate plans.  That said, if we make a claim with the bank, they could choose to prosecute,” he said.

The Light has chosen not to name this individual since it has no knowledge of pending civil or criminal charges. The newspaper attempted to contact the individual shortly before deadline but did not receive a response.

“Unfortunately, we experienced this event, but we are rebuilding our organization stronger and are very optimistic, given the changes we’ve implemented and the exciting upcoming programs, that we have already re-instilled donor confidence in the organization and the people who run it,” Winograd said.  “We have an obligation to not publicly disclose unsubstantiated claims and concerns as mere suspicions; even those held in good faith could potentially unnecessarily damage another’s reputation.  Even now the motives of the individual in question are unclear.”