For almost 30 years, Torah Academy High School of Brooklyn has been a haven for young men seeking an alternative to the rigid mainstream haredi yeshivas and the limited future career opportunities they afford.
Now, the future of TAB is itself in doubt, its fate in jeopardy over an application submitted to the New York State Attorney General by the school’s administrator seeking permission to sell school property.
While it appears that both the school’s own board of directors and the attorney general may have been derelict in their duty to properly vet the proposed sale, a New York Supreme Court judge has recently called a halt to the proceedings to get to the bottom of the matter.
It may not be easy.
The drama playing out regarding the Flatbush school — referred to as a “last-stop yeshiva” in a 1996 Jewish Week article for offering a compassionate sanctuary for Orthodox boys who don’t fit the “mold” — is a complicated one. Some TAB alumni and supporters believe the bid by school administrator Moishe Rubin to sell school property is actually a cover for his intention to shutter the yeshiva. An attorney for the TAB Alumni Association alleges in court papers that TAB officers and directors may have been involved in financial improprieties.
There is a personal side of the story, too. It pits the school’s founder, Rabbi Avi Davidowitz, who is a beloved figure to many TAB alumni, against Rubin, who was brought in as administrator a year after the school’s founding in 1982, and who some believe is on a campaign to intimidate Davidowitz into silence.
And hovering over the whole situation is a political question: Was the TAB application — which was clearly incomplete and riddled with anomalies — approved by the Attorney General’s Office as a political favor in the waning days of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tenure as attorney general?
The saga began last August, with what looked like a pro forma application submitted by Rubin to the Attorney General for approval to sell a piece of land the school bought in 2000. Adjacent to the school’s East 9th Street location, the plot was to be used as the site for a new building, but it was never developed. (Under certain conditions, nonprofits must seek approval from the attorney general’s charities division to sell real property.)
In the application, Rubin claims that the school is mired in debt, owing close to $2 million to lenders and teachers, and that the sale is necessary to pay off those obligations. He also notes that a dissolution of TAB “is not contemplated at this time” — an action that would require the approval and oversight of both the court and the attorney general. (When nonprofits dissolve, the attorney general oversees the dispersal of any remaining assets to ensure that the interests of all connected parties are met.)
But the application itself provides no real evidence for many of the loans, almost all of which Rubin claims were taken to repay prior loans the school used to pay off the original mortgage on the plot. (While the vast majority of the loans were taken in the past several years, the original mortgage was apparently satisfied in 2002). In lieu of promissory notes or other written agreements to support most of these loans, the application instead furnishes signed affidavits from creditors detailing the loans’ terms (and, with respect to some loans, copies of checks made out to TAB).
In addition to the loan affidavits, the application also contains affidavits from teachers and administrative staff regarding salary owed them, in many cases since mid- or late-2009, totaling just over $750,000.
The application seems also to suggest that the accuracy of the school’s financial statements is in doubt. TAB’s accountant states in the application that TAB
“[m]anagement has elected to omit substantially all of the disclosures required by generally accepted accounting principles.” As a result, the accounting firm makes clear that the financial statements provided in the application may not accurately reflect the financial position of the school.
The school’s books, according to the application, are also admittedly not completely accurate, and for this Rubin blames an “elderly” bookkeeper who, though employed by TAB for “approximately seven to ten years,” was discovered after her departure not to have “[maintained] as clear and accurate records as possible.” Attempts to locate the bookkeeper were unsuccessful.
Further, the sole appraisal of the property under consideration for sale fails to include examples of comparable properties in the neighborhood and instead offers comparables in a neighborhood a considerable distance from the subject property.
Despite its various omissions, the application was nonetheless approved by Cuomo’s office and then advanced to the court for final approval. (A call to the attorney general’s office for comment on the TAB application was referred to the then-spokesman, who did not follow up.) But it has stalled there for months, due to questions about the application raised by the judge, Laura Lee Jacobson, as well as the school’s founder and educational director, Davidowitz (later withdrawn), this reporter and, most recently, the TAB Alumni Association.
In light of these questions, the office of the new attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, recently registered its own objections to repayment of two of the claimed loans, on the basis that they were reported as donations. As a result, it has informed the judge in writing that it now has “serious concerns about the accuracy of the other representations in Torah Academy’s Verified Petition.”
The attorney general’s letter goes on to recommend that, “should your Honor choose to approve the proposed sale, the proceeds be placed in escrow pending a further review of the validity of Torah Academy’s claimed debts to prevent the potential misappropriation of these charitable funds.”
Given the omissions in TAB’s application, it is difficult to understand why it was approved by Cuomo’s office in the first place, though to some observers the approval is hardly surprising.
Bill Josephson, former assistant attorney general in charge of the New York State Law Department’s Charities Bureau and currently an attorney at the New York law firm Fried, Frank, told The Jewish Week, “Unfortunately, I am personally aware of a number of complaints that were formally submitted to the Charities Bureau under the prior AG on which no action was taken. In each of these cases, if Eliot Spitzer had been AG, and I had been the head of the Charities Bureau, we would have taken action.”
Schneiderman’s office declined through a spokesman to comment on the matter, as it is still pending. The judge has scheduled a hearing on the TAB matter for Feb. 28.
Aside from the conduct of the attorney general, there remain questions about the proposed sale itself, not to mention TAB’s operations in general. While the school’s founder, Avi Davidowitz, submitted a letter to the court noting his opposition to the sale, he has since withdrawn his objections and declined to speak about them to The Jewish Week (though he did agree to be interviewed about the school itself). Phone calls and e-mails to TAB board members were unreturned. And when The Jewish Week reached Moishe Rubin by phone at TAB, the school’s administrator hung up.
Apparently, there are those who believe that Davidowitz is being intimidated by Rubin, whom he brought into the school shortly after its founding to handle its administration and finances. Indeed, on a Facebook page set up recently by and for TAB alumni dedicated to “saving” the school and stopping the sale, one anonymous graduate commented, in the style typical of an unedited online post, that “the fact that so many of us are afraid of showing our names, me too, shows how much rabbi rubin is scaring rabbi [davidowitz]. i hope enough of us join to save tab and that we wont be scared of the bad stuff they are doing to tab and rabbi d. everyone needs to know what is happening there can not be secrets in a yeshiva.”
One possible reason for the alleged intimidation may have to do with claims, made in court papers by the attorney for the TAB Alumni Association, that “members of the Association have reason to believe that certain officers and directors of TAB have for the past several years breached their fiduciary duties … by permitting the distribution of assets of TAB to a director and officer of TAB.” The papers go on to assert that “members of the Association have reason to believe that such transfers represent an ongoing course of conduct by this individual, and may be an underlying reason as to why TAB has incurred substantial debt, including the loans and unpaid salaries detailed.”
Indeed, e-mails obtained by The Jewish Week written from Davidowitz to a TAB supporter indicate that Davidowitz believes Rubin has been “spending money he raises or borrows in the name of TAB for other or private needs” and has “arranged for all TAB mail to go to a post office box to which only he has the key.”
In one e-mail, Davidowitz speculates that Rubin may be squirreling away school funds in order to purchase a building to house a different yeshiva founded by Rubin.
A call to TAB’s attorney, Israel Goldberg, was not returned.
Despite the controversy over Rubin’s application, one thing that is clear is that among many in the community TAB is considered a vital institution. After learning of the current situation several months ago, one community activist claims he is ready to step in and help keep the school afloat, under certain conditions.
“TAB is too [important] an institution to be allowed to be shut down,” said Jacob Eisenstein, who lives on the Upper West Side and is actively involved in several organizations in both Manhattan and Brooklyn geared toward addressing the needs of Orthodox youth. Referring to his own supporters, Eisenstein added, “We’re prepared to raise the funds needed to operate TAB, provided there is transparency and competent management in place to support Rabbi Davidowitz’s work.”
But it seems that nobody may feel more passionately about TAB and its fate than its own alumni.
“[As] a student i always felt out of place. when i came to TAB my life changed,” comments Alex Madnick on the alumni Facebook page. Referring to Davidowitz, Madnick continues, “Rabbi D. is and was a true model to me. He made me want to be better and taught me so much. there is no other school like TAB. i consider TAB to [be] my family. i wish i could have started off in tab when i was 4 years old and not 16. TAB’s existence is crucial because their approach, love and devotion towards present and past students is unique and successful.”
Shlomi Krayzman echoes these sentiments, writing that, “TAB is amazing, helping so many kids get through their rough ages. Hopefully they can continue to do so years and years!”
Whether or not that will happen, however, remains to be seen.