Supporters of camp for children with special needs call board action corrupt.
Seven and a half years after being forced to step down as the top executive of the Hebrew Academy for Special Needs (HASC) amid allegations of serious financial improprieties on his part, Bernard Moshe Kahn of Brooklyn is back — but not without a fight from some of the organization’s most dedicated staff and supporters.
Citing a settlement agreement under the auspices of the Beth Din of America, an affiliate of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the HASC board of directors is set to make Kahn director of strategic planning of the charitable organization May 1, at a salary of $180,000 a year, despite the extraordinary efforts of a number of top administrators, staff, donors and advocates to block his reappointment.
Those opposing the move view it as an unethical, if not unlawful, power play on the part of Kahn and the seven-member board, composed primarily of his friends and relatives.
A Feb. 21 letter from nine of the top professional staff members at Camp HASC, which operates a highly praised Catskills summer program for several hundred physically and mentally impaired children and adults, said they were “bewildered and chagrined at the course of events leading up to the return of Moshe Kahn to the administration of HASC Inc.”
They asked the members of the board of directors to “reconsider their plans and fulfill the charge that they have legally accepted” to lead the charity with “transparence and prudence” and not to “use their role for the personal aggrandizement of any person,” a clear reference to Kahn.
The letter, which went unanswered according to staff members, was signed by the two head counselors, camp rabbi, staff psychologists and program directors of the camp. They said that “as the professionals who actually run the camp program, we find ourselves torn between our love of the program, its campers and staff, and our utter dissatisfaction with the lay leadership’s decision to turn back the clock to the darkest time in the camp’s history.”
That reference is to 2003, when as first reported in The Jewish Week at the time, a forensic audit of Camp HASC’s records found that Kahn “used more than $1 million in funds from the government-supported charitable organization for personal and other improper expenses, including lavish spending, such as a sheva brachot wedding party for his daughter, maintaining a previously unknown HASC bank account, and keeping no-show employees on the payroll.”
As a result, he was forced to step down, rather than face legal charges, after more than 30 years of involvement with the Brooklyn-based institution his family founded and directed.
“Even when he was given the benefit of the doubt” over every questionable transaction, when interviewed by the forensic accountant and board members, it was determined that Kahn had expended “at least $1.4 million,” one insider said, adding “that was only going back less than 10 years.”
A number of key camp staff left at the time, disillusioned by the scandal.
Since then, close observers say, the camp has rebuilt its reputation and its physical campus, thriving under the direction of Moshe Kahn’s brother, Shmiel Kahn, who has been lauded for his integrity and financial responsibility.
This Time ‘Far Worse’
But Moshe Kahn has wanted to come back to work at HASC, those close to the situation say, and was able to act behind the scenes to bring in board members who would support his goal. Several sources said that under Barry Hertz, the current chairman, board members were asked to sign a statement agreeing to bring back Moshe Kahn. Those who refused were forced off the board, the sources said.
In a signed Feb. 7 letter to the board, 10 young professionals who described themselves as representatives of Team HASC, a volunteer group of dedicated advocates of and fundraisers for the camp, wrote that the current situation is “far worse” than when Moshe Kahn had to resign his post in 2003.
“Last time the board took on corruption and rid it from our midst,” they wrote. “This time the corruption took on the board and joined forces.”
Hertz was contacted by The Jewish Week but directed all inquiries to Hank Sheinkopf, a public relations consultant recently hired by the board.
Sheinkopf confirmed that Moshe Kahn’s reinstatement was approved by the board and begins May 1, and that for the past year Kahn was paid $10,000 a month as a consultant. He noted that “this job does not involve financial management and has already been approved by the HASC board.”
He also confirmed that a HASC-owned house is being built for Moshe Kahn’s use across the street from camp property.
Sheinkopf said “all of the beth din work was done under RCA rules. To suggest otherwise smears the credibility of the RCA and its judicial process.
“There was never a civil or rabbinical finding of fault,” he added. “Moshe Kahn has decades of experience, which now, after a long and fair process, will be available to HASC. The entire process has been open, nothing has been hidden.”
But those who wrote letters of complaint to the board said they remain in the dark regarding board decisions, asserting that there was no response from the board to their charges and inquiries.
Several rabbis involved with the RCA say their understanding was that the parties to the beth din had no actual dispute to settle regarding the ethics of whether or not to rehire Moshe Kahn, since the agreement reached was between Hertz, representing a board that wanted Moshe Kahn back, and Kahn himself.
Shlomo Perl, a HASC board member and in-law of Moshe Kahn, told The Jewish Week that “the beth din cleared all things against him,” referring to Kahn.
Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, director of the Beth Din of America, said all cases are confidential and would not discuss the matter.
But insiders say the HASC board is “seeking to hide under the shield of the RCA,” as one rabbi put it, and that the beth din issued no ruling and was not asked to pass judgment on Kahn’s guilt or innocence; it simply recognized that the two parties had reached a settlement between themselves.
Donors Feel Shame
The very fact that Camp HASC is so admired for its compassionate care of severely challenged children makes those involved with its work — supporters and employees alike — reluctant to criticize publicly those they consider guilty of improper behavior so as not to jeopardize the summer camp program.
But reports of Moshe Kahn’s impending return as an employee has created a storm of protest from within HASC’s ranks and has seriously hampered fundraising efforts.
The group known as Team HASC raised more than $200,000 for the organization this year through participation by 74 of its members in a marathon in Miami. But they put all of their future fundraising efforts on hold after learning of the “dishonorable and shameful” reappointment of Moshe Kahn, according to their Feb. 7 letter written to the HASC board of directors.
The letter says the team has gone from “proudly devoted” to HASC to feeling shame and embarrassment, and is now seeking to “spread the message that HASC Inc. no longer deserves the support of the worldwide Jewish community. Honesty and integrity are above all else.”
Team HASC said it plans to inform all 2,700 of its donors of the “deceit” leading up to Moshe Kahn’s reinstatement, apologize for asking for their support for an “immoral” cause and pledge to work to support special-needs children “via another organization that is lawful and trustworthy.”
The letter is signed by 10 Team HASC members from New York, Florida, Minnesota and Toronto.
HASC board spokesman Sheinkopf said that “donations are up,” though he gave no statistics. As for criticism leveled at the board from former advocates, he said: “We believe that these supporters over time will return.”
Esty Edell of Toronto, who has two sons who were counselors at Camp HASC and met their future wives there, said she had planned to host a major fundraiser for the camp, but could not generate interest among her usual constituents.
Finally, her friends and colleagues acknowledged that the reason for their reluctance was their concern about the “unsettling” situation at HASC, she recalled.
“There has to be a feeling of trust when I go to friends to ask for their support” for charitable causes, said Edell, who noted that she recently hosted an event that raised a considerable sum for an association for mentally and physically challenged children in Israel.
She said she canceled her plans for the HASC fundraising dinner.
“I didn’t want to be involved in a situation where people don’t have that trust,” she said. “It’s very sad because in the end, the children lose out.”
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