A committee appointed to promote more transparency among charities in the Sephardic communities of Brooklyn and Deal, N.J, prompted by the arrests last year of three prominent Syrian rabbis on money-laundering charges, says that only six of some 30 organizations with tax-exempt status have agreed to a slate of voluntary operating guidelines.
“We are working aggressively with every organization,” said Eli D. Greenberg, a lawyer who is spearheading the campaign on behalf of the Sephardic Community Federation. “We hope by the fall to publish a list of who has adopted these compliance plans and make that public.”
Greenberg declined to discuss which of the organizations, which range from small discretionary funds run by rabbis to large synagogues, have thus far adopted the guidelines. The guidelines consist of a code of conduct, a conflict-of-interest policy, a policy protecting whistleblowers from retaliation and a document- retention policy. Compliance with the guidelines also requires annual audits by a certified public accounting firm.
The insular Sephardic community is careful about its communication with outsiders. Greenberg, a Sephardic Jew whose paternal ancestors originated in Austria but became part of the Jewish community in Syria before his grandparents immigrated to America, said that for many of the holdouts it was not a matter of reluctance but due diligence.
“For some it is a corporate process and they need to give their boards notice,” he said. “They want to adopt it properly and live by it, so it’s not just a question of let’s adopt this and get it over with. We’ve had mostly positive responses.”
The Jewish Week reported in July that the Sephardic Community Federation, embarrassed by the allegations against Syrian Chief Rabbi Saul Kassin and two other leaders entangled in a sting by the United States attorney in New Jersey, wanted to erase any further ethical questions with greater transparency of charities. The heavily affluent community had already been embarrassed in the 1980s and ‘90s by one of the biggest securities fraud cases in U.S history, the prosecution of members of the prominent Syrian Antar family for corrupt operation of the Crazy Eddie electronics chain.
“We know people are following this and we intend to get this done. We don’t want to have egg on our face.”
Greenberg said that the compliance list was not intended to embarrass any organization but to assist donors. “We hope people will take this into account when they give donations,” he said. “It is also helpful for board members to fulfill their fiduciary obligations by letting them know we think it’s important that they do this.”
The Sephardic Community Federation isn’t the only group calling for greater transparency in response to the July corruption arrests, which also included several New Jersey politicians, two Ashkenazi rabbis and a Borough Park man who was accused of trafficking organs for profit.
The Jewish Funders Network’s board of directors late last year unanimously adopted a set of recommendations for donors about what questions to ask of and behavior to expect from nonprofits that seek grants. That includes voluntary financial disclosures, since religious nonprofits are not required to file such reports with the Internal Revenue Service.
“It was very well received,” said JFN Executive Director Mark Charendoff. “People had a lot of questions and as far as we know they are taking it very much to heart.
“It’s something our members have grappled with in the past, and some have been frustrated by their inability to get information about the finances of religious organizations.”
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