A former bookkeeper at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach turned herself in to police last week after reportedly admitting to having stolen nearly $100,000 from the Reform synagogue. Doina Stanescu, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, allegedly embezzled the money by signing checks to herself.
The case exposes a danger for nonprofit organizations like synagogues, which may rely on volunteer lay leadership for much of their financial management and oversight.
Margy Feldman, Temple Menorah's president, agreed that her synagogue runs on "a tremendous amount of trust in a very small office," but "my heart goes out to [Stanescu]." She said Stanescu had a gambling addiction and that the temple had contacted Beit T'Shuvah to request help for her. Feldman declined to discuss details of the embezzlement or the synagogue's accounting oversight procedures. "Our synagogue needs to heal," she said, adding that the temple's board of directors had met several times since the arrest to review accounting practices, "to see that this never happens again." Feldman also noted that other synagogues have been hit by similar crimes. "This is not an unusual circumstance," she said.
Embezzlement scandals at Jewish organizations have made numerous headlines in the past few years.
In March 2000, the fiscal administrator of the Los Angeles Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus was arrested and charged with embezzling more than a million dollars over an eight-year period.
An FBI investigation in April 2000 found that the bookkeeper and the executive director of a Philadelphia-area synagogue had collaborated to steal $700,000 from that synagogue.
The investigation into Rabbi Baruch Lanner's sexual misconduct as a leader of the Orthodox Union's National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) also uncovered numerous instances when Lanner had deposited donations to the NCSY into his personal bank accounts.
"Ideally, Jewish nonprofits and synagogues would be immune from this sort of behavior," said Judith Kranz, president of the North American Association of Synagogue Executives. "But we live in the real world, and so we set up these checks and balances to protect our synagogues from harm."
Because a great deal of money flows in and out of even a small synagogue, Kranz said, "In general, synagogues are set up like small businesses." Regular accounting principles should include two separate signatures required for each check with different people responsible for approving and writing checks.
Kranz also recommends having outside accountants come in to audit a synagogue's books. Strict accounting practices and thorough oversight should help ensure that a dishonest person will be unable to steal. Kranz said her organization has never had to deal with a case of embezzlement and believes that when it happens at a Jewish organization or synagogue, it is "news, because it's so rare."