After months of internal turmoil at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, prompted by the discovery of serious financial problems, the agency’s top executive has stepped down.
At an emergency meeting with staff late Tuesday, Jeff Corbin, the newly elected president of the BJE, announced that Chaim Lauer, its executive vice president, had resigned for personal reasons.
Rabbi Martin Schloss, a highly respected 24-year veteran at the BJE and director of school services, has been appointed interim executive vice president, and a search will begin to find a permanent chief executive of the 91-year-old institution, which serves more than 700 congregational, day and nursery schools in the metropolitan area by providing workshops, consultations, and other educational services.
Corbin, 38, a public relations executive, instructed staff not to talk to the press.
In an interview with The Jewish Week Wednesday morning, he said his primary task will be to “enhance the image of the BJE both internally and externally,” to review its complex operation through a strategic development and planning initiative, and “step up” to meet the agency’s responsibility to lead the communal discussion on improving Jewish education.
According to a number of sources in and out of the BJE, it was when Barry Salter began as chief financial officer about 18 months ago and discovered existing financial problems that lay and professional leaders began scrambling to make cuts in budget and personnel. Since then, several employees have been terminated or eased out, and directors of the various departments have been told to trim their expenses, insiders say.
This was soon after the BJE sold its building on West 58th Street for about $7.5 million and rented quarters on Eighth Avenue.
Morale has been low at the agency but some staffers say Lauer has been scapegoated for financial problems beyond his control.
“This is a sad story about a serious oversight problem that was allowed to accumulate for several years before it was discovered,” said one key insider who, like others interviewed for this story, chose not to be named for fear of retribution.
Corbin acknowledged that staff reductions and other cuts were made “to provide greater efficiency,” but noted that the agency now has a balanced budget.
With a mission to “motivate, strengthen and increase Jewish identity and commitment” through educational programs serving 176,000 youngsters, the BJE is faced with a vital and difficult task. Its parent agency, the UJA-Federation of New York, has long had a love-hate relationship with its chief educational arm, believing its mission is vital but its effectiveness limited, officials note.
High marks are given for early childhood, special needs and helping schools get government funding, and for the addition, under Lauer, of effective regional BJE offices in Westchester and Nassau/Queens. But the agency is described as comprised of separate fiefdoms with little coordination or overall management, and it is perceived as following rather than leading in a number of educational areas.
These days professionals in both agencies say UJA-Federation is frustrated with the BJE, and they point to the fact that a major UJA initiative on congregational schooling is being handled primarily by UJA rather than the BJE because the educational agency has been slow to respond to prodding for cooperation. “We need the BJE to be a stronger partner,” one UJA official said.
Corbin, whose grandfather, Frank Heller, was president of the BJE in the 1970s, said one of his goals will be to strengthen the BJE’s relationship with UJA, and revitalize the educational agency. In his first speech to the BJE board after his election last week, he noted that UJA, the American Jewish Committee and other prominent organizations are focusing on Jewish education and said, “We at the BJE should be in the middle of all of this activity. We should be at the forefront … and while we sometimes are approached to be involved, this does not always occur.” The reason, he said, was that “many don’t know about us and what we do.” His primary objective, he continued, was “to confront and address this challenge.”