August 15, 2012
Rabbi’s use of discretionary funds spurs new policies
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The CCAR and the RA emphasize that in addition to understanding the legalities, each congregation needs to draw up an agreement with its rabbi that sets out the moral and ethical guidelines for the fund, which should reflect the synagogue’s priorities and mission.
The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association also has guidelines, and the Rabbincal Council of America, an Orthodox umbrella group, recently appointed a subcommittee to create its own guidelines. Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, executive director of the Orthodox Union West Coast Region, said he distributed the CCAR’s guidelines to his member synagogues.
According to the various guidelines, in addition to supporting the needy and other charitable organizations, the rabbi and shul should agree on whether funds can go toward honorariums to guest speakers, support internal programming, or cover the rabbi’s expenses for trips to visit college students or for hosting events at his or her home. Whether it covers membership dues in rabbinic associations is debated.
If the rabbi needs to be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses, he should write a check for that amount from the discretionary fund to the synagogue, rather than to himself, and have the synagogue pay him back, so that the paper trail is transparent.
If the fund is used to purchase books or CDs, those items remain the property of the synagogue. And if the rabbi leaves the congregation, the fund stays.
Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills says transparency is key.
“There is a sense of secrecy that sometimes prevails around these funds, and I think we live in an age where we have to take away that mystery, and to replace it with an aura of trust,” said Vogel. “It’s not about questioning the rabbis’ integrity — it’s just that we live in an era of suspicion, and we need to respond by taking away that suspicion.”
Vogel submits a yearly accounting to the president, and the president can look at the fund at any time. Vogel tries to write the checks to third parties — rental agencies, insurance companies, car mechanics — rather than directly to recipients, to assure the funds are being used properly and that there is a paper trail.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein at Valley Beth Shalom says his fund, which distributes around $10,000 a year, is reviewed monthly by the executive director, but Feinstein blocks out the names of individual and families who have received funds. He said much of his fund goes to support day school and camp scholarships.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin at Young Israel of Century City has a fund that disburses hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, much of it collected through appeals for specific causes locally and in Israel. Muskin said all recipients, from individuals to institutions, are vetted in some way — even the itinerant poor must have certifications from a local rabbinic committee attesting to the veracity of their plight. His finance committee reviews the allocations monthly and the congregation receives an annual report.
Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said transparency protects both the congregation and the rabbi.
“I have seen abuses of the funds that have caused great pain and anguish for the rabbi and the congregation, and I have also seen situations where perhaps well-intentioned leadership alleges abuse that did not happen,” he said. Many rabbis tell tales of congregants who latch on to the discretionary fund as an issue to try to prove the rabbi is not honest.
All of this stems from the tension between accountability and protecting the confidentiality of the recipients, a concern Ner Tamid dealt with as it crafted its new policy, Weiner said.
“We wanted the rabbi or the cantor to have the freedom to make a donation. You don’t want to have a whole committee know what is going on,” Weiner said. “But at the same time, as we have learned, it’s good to have trust but you have got to have some sort of oversight.”
Weiner was a close friend of Jeret’s — their families spent the last three Thanksgivings together. Jeret is, Weiner said, a powerful leader.
“To hear him speak was really amazing. The first time you heard one of his sermons, it knocked your socks off. He brought a lot of energy to the synagogue, and I think he had a style that was very much his own,” Weiner said.
Weiner hasn’t spoken with Jeret since his resignation.
“It was completely unexpected. You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Weiner said. “It was devastating.”
Rembaum, who will preside at Ner Tamid part time, said he is impressed with how the community has pulled together, and he looks forward to a year of teaching, praying and forming relationships with congregants to take them through their lifecycle events. As an interim rabbi, he won’t initiate programs or make big decisions, Rembaum said.
Last year, Rembaum, who led Temple Beth Am for 25 years, stepped in as interim rabbi at Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.
“An interim rabbi needs to help the congregation appreciate the things that they are doing right, because when you have a crisis, people begin to have doubts about themselves, and you need to say: ‘No, no, no — you’re good. You’re doing the right things,’ ” Rembaum said.
His sermons on the High Holy Days may deal with forgiveness in a universal way, but he doesn’t plan to directly address the situation.
In this healing process, he looks at himself less as the surgeon and more as the physical therapist, he said.
“I’m coming in to get the bones working again, to get the muscles strong, so the congregation can go forward and do the job they want to do. I want them to get the sense that they can legitimately feel optimistic and hopeful about the future and about the fact that they are wonderful shul and community.”
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