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Special-Needs Camp Torn By Conflict

Special-Needs Camp Torn By Conflict

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

About a year ago, amid allegations of financial improprieties on his part, Bernard Moshe Kahn of Brooklyn quietly resigned as the top executive of HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children, which operates a highly praised Catskills summer camp and other services.Sources close to the institution say that a special audit of the charity’s records found that over the past few years Kahn used well over $1 million in funds from the government-supported charitable organization for personal and other improper expenses, including lavish spending, like a sheva brachot wedding party for his daughter, maintaining a previously unknown HASC bank account, and keeping no-show employees on the payroll.As a result, sources say, he was forced to step down after more than three decades of involvement with
the Parkville, N.Y., institution his family founded and he directed.

“Even when he was given the benefit of the doubt” over every questionable transaction, when interviewed by the “forensic accountant” and executive board members, it was determined that Kahn had expended “at least $1.4 million,” one insider said, adding that “that was only going back less than 10 years.” Now sources are angered that not only has Kahn not made restitution to the charity, as was discussed, he is planning to take its board of directors to a din Torah, rabbinical hearing, presumably seeking severance compensation.The move by Kahn signifies the latest round in a controversy that has become increasingly known in, and deeply upsetting to, segments of the Orthodox community. Some of its leaders are torn between making the issue public to punish those they hold responsible for improper behavior and keeping it quiet to ensure the continuation of an annual summer camp program that provides services for more than 300 physically and mentally handicapped children and adults.

The fact that Kahn may have halachic grounds for compensation, according to some rabbinic sources who contend his actions were illegal and unethical, is yet another troubling aspect of this complex and unusual case.Kahn did not return phone calls seeking comment. In a previous conversation, Franklyn Snitow, HASC’s attorney, denied the allegations against Kahn and said the former director resigned over “a difference in management style.” Snitow confirmed this week that Kahn plans to take the board of directors to a din Torah and said he had no further comment on what led to the resignation.What emerges from extensive interviews with rabbis, communal leaders, current and former top staffers, and those closely involved with the workings of the board of directors — virtually all of whom insisted on anonymity — is an agonizing conflict for those who are close to the camp and deeply supportive of its work.

They believe the program is being held hostage, in effect, by members of the Kahn family who are said to feel a sense of entitlement to its operation and its finances. Samuel Kahn, Bernard’s brother, has now replaced him as director, and though those close to the case believe he himself was not involved in the misuse of funds, some say he may have been aware of what transpired. In addition, he already has a full-time job heading the adult homes and other services operated by HASC Center. (On Tuesday it was learned that the Kahn brothers’ father, Rabbi Mordechai Kahn, founder of HASC, died, and funeral services were being held that day in Brooklyn.)Earlier this month, most of the top staff of the camp, frustrated and angered over Samuel Kahn’s insistence on heading the camp program and refusal to re-hire their highly respected peer, Rabbi David Plotkin, as director, resigned after taking their case to the board, which voted against them and in support of Kahn. Even some of those who agreed to come back to camp say they are only doing so for the good of the clientele, and are also deeply upset with how the situation has deteriorated.The choice was agonizing, the formerly close-knit camp team members say.

Each felt he or she was doing what was best for the camp program, but there is acknowledgement now that a growing bitterness is the result of the rift over whether or not to return to camp.“Enough is enough,” said one member who decided to leave. “We tried to get the board to understand the situation but they refused, so it was time to go.”“We’ll be working for an immoral agency,” one employee who chose to come back said, but “we felt that the alternative” — no summer program for hundreds of desperately needy children and adults — “was worse.” Like everyone else interviewed, the employee expressed a sense of inevitability about the story becoming public, but had mixed feelings about whether that would have a positive result. Paramount for most people was the continuation of the programming offered by Camp HASC, sometimes described as one of the jewels of the Orthodox community.Samuel Kahn declined to speak to The Jewish Week, referring calls to Snitow, the HASC attorney. The Camp HASC board has 11 members, several of whom are said to have proclaimed that their allegiance to the Kahns supersedes all other priorities.

Most of the board was selected many years ago by Bernard Kahn, who allegedly told associates that the best way to operate in such a situation was to set up a rubber-stamp board of friends and others who would not interfere with his plans. Several board members are said to feel indebted to Bernard Kahn because they have handicapped children who were clients in the program. One of the three men on the executive board, Barry Hertz, is an in-law of Samuel Kahn.Israel Werner, chairman of the board, told The Jewish Week that despite his title, he is “just a figure-head” and “not in control of the board.” He is said to be one of the few board members critical of the Kahn brothers’ management style.People close to the case suggest the financial allegations regarding Bernard Kahn must have been serious if he indeed was forced out of his top position by a board so devoted to him, and they say it makes his current effort to take the board to a din Torah all the more difficult for them to understand. Some insiders expressed dismay over why the board members, apparently aware of their fiduciary responsibility to a charitable organization, did not go to the authorities after Bernard Kahn’s financial dealings were made known to them. One board member resigned at the time.

According to insiders, some of the others wanted to prevent a public embarrassment, some wanted to ignore the problems, and others thought they could rectify the situation from within. The few dissidents on the board may be waiting for the din Torah to bring out the information they have against Bernard Kahn. But they are worried that a halachic concept of entitlement for a family that founds an institution — even when it later becomes not-for-profit — may work in Kahn’s favor, citing cases involving several notable yeshivas where the founding rabbis were able to have their sons succeed them despite board complaints.What is agreed on by all is that the HASC summer program itself, which includes nearly 200 college-age counselors who give one-on-one, fulltime attention to the campers, is admirable. “The clientele would be the innocent victims if anything happened” to prevent the summer program from continuing, one staffer said.At this point, as camp officials scramble to fill key staff positions for next summer and prepare for the camp’s annual fund-raising concert, set for Jan. 9, there are charges that some board members are trying to silence critics from speaking out.

Several top staffers who plan to return to the camp insist that the new staff being hired to replace those who resigned is first-rate, that the program itself may actually be improved, and that some of those who resigned did so for personal rather than ethical reasons of principle. “It’s hard to tell people’s motives when they are calling parents or potential counselors now and telling them not to come to camp,” one top staffer said. “Some of the people left for ethical reasons but some are trying to sabotage the program now, and that’s wrong, too. The program itself will be excellent, I’m sure.”

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