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Embezzlement Heads for Court

by Tom Tugend

March 16, 2000 | 7:00 pm

The former fiscal administrator for the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has been arrested and charged with embezzling $1.179 million from the Reform movement's seminary.

Jean M. Thorbourn, 61, of Sherman Oaks, forged numerous checks between 1989 and 1997, using a dean's signature stamp, and apparently applied a considerable part of the money to finance production of independent films, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Thorbourn, who also doubled as bookkeeper, had considerable latitude in her job, and her supervisors were thus slow in detecting the embezzlement, said Gary Judge, a senior investigator in the district attorney's office.

The alleged thefts first came to light in September 1997, when Rabbi Lewis Barth, who had been named dean of the HUC campus two months earlier, questioned Thorbourn about an expected but overdue payment of $381,000. (Rabbi Lee Bycel, who preceeded Barth as dean, was unavailable for comment).

Thorbourn said she had given the money to a friend, but a month later admitted that the money was used to finance a film titled "Jamaica Beat."

Barth said he immediately notified authorities and Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of HUC, which encompasses campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Jerusalem and Los Angeles.

Thorbourn was terminated after her admission, but at the request of the district attorney the case was not made public while his office investigated the matter in depth.

Thorbourn has now been charged with 13 counts of forgery, one count of grand theft, and four counts of filing false state tax returns.

She is being held on $1.179 million bail, the exact amount she allegedly embezzled. She was to have been arraigned last Friday, but her appearance was postponed until this week.

Her attorney, Stephen Jones, was not available for comment.

Thorbourn has apparently returned some of the money used in the film production, and Zimmerman said in a statement that additional funds have been recovered through the college's insurance carrier.

He emphasized that no dues from Reform congregations or from private donations were affected by the alleged embezzlement.

HUC's Los Angeles campus has an enrollment of 673 students and operates on an annual budget of about $3.5 million.


Weiss Leaving for London

By Tom Tugend,

Contributing Editor

Rabbi Abner Weiss, the leading voice of centrist Orthodoxy in Southern California, is leaving his Beverly Hills congregation to become principal of the London School of Jewish Studies and rabbi of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London.

A native of Johannesburg, Weiss left South Africa and his post as chief minister of the Durban United Hebrew Congregation in 1976, despairing that the prevailing apartheid system wouldn't change fast and far enough.

"I did not want my children to grow up in that environment," he said in a later interview.

As senior rabbi for the past 15 years of Congregation Beth Jacob, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Western United States, Weiss, 61, has been notable for his involvement with the larger community and his willingness to engage in dialogue with Conservative and Reform rabbis.

He was elected by his colleagues to the presidency of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and sserved from 1995-97.

At the same time, Weiss has protested strongly at the perceived anti-Orthodox bias by secular government officials in Israel.

Weiss gave early witness to a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity while an undergraduate at the University of Witwatersrand. By special permission of the academic senate, he took four full majors simultaneously in English literature, Hebrew language and literature, world history, and psychology.

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