When officers of Congregation Aish Kodesh, a popular Modern Orthodox shul in Woodmere, noticed that the the shul’s checks were bouncing, an investigation led to startling news.
After a brief meeting, the board members discovered that more than $500,00 had been wired from the shul’s bank account to the account belonging to the law firm of the shul’s treasurer, Isaac Zucker, a securities lawyer with a nearby practice.
“He was an upstanding member of the community,” said Azriel Ganz, the chairman of the shul’s board. “There wasn’t a scintilla of doubt on his trustworthiness.”
Early Wednesday morning Zucker was arrested at a Holiday Inn near MacArthur Airport on Long Island and charged with stealing $600,000 in shul funds, according to police, having disappeared after questions about the funds were raised .Detective Lieutenant Kevin Smith of the Nassau County Police Department said that it is unknown whether Zucker was attempting to flee. Zucker’s wife, Renee, had reported him missing when he did not return from his office on Friday. He is being arraigned on a charge of grand larceny in the second degree.
When the board confronted Zucker on June 16, he admitted to taking the money and promised to return it in a week, board members say. When the week passed and Zucker did not show up, the shul contacted the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, which investigates wire fraud, and then publicly notified the membership on June 23.
“We addressed how it could have happened and urged everyone to pull together,” said Ganz, who along with Rabbi Weinberger spoke to the membership about the loss.
“We are shocked and heartbroken over the news of the apparent fraud perpetrated on our shul,” said Rabbi Weinberger. He said that the shul was cooperating with the authorities and taking steps to determine the magnitude of the crime.
"Any time someone steals from a religious institution it could be change from a poor box or thousands of dollars it really shocks people," Lieutenant Smith said. "It makes you wonder if he was going through some personal crisis."
The shul, which serves 250 families, has a mortgage with First Republic Bank. Until four months ago, Ganz said, the shul had never been late on a payment.
“We raised about $225,000 over the weekend, so we’ve been able to pay the bank anything that was in arrears,” Ganz said. “Either we are or we will be current on all bills by the end of the week, and I think we have a bit of a reserve to get us through the normal fundraising schedule. … but it’s a very significant loss.”
The shul also hired a forensic accountant and traced the fraud’s origin back to 2008. Each board member is elected to a three-year term, and Zucker is believed to have started in 2006 and re-elected in 2009.
The shul maintained two accounts, one for operating expenses at a local bank and an endowment fund at TD Bank. Zucker deposited checks made out to the expense account into the endowment fund, which he then was able to sweep into his own account, according to shul officials.
“Until very recently bills got paid on time, so there was no reason to suspect that anything was going on,” said Ganz. “He [Zucker] got sloppy.”
Ganz said it’s still not clear how exactly Zucker managed to transfer the money into his account. According to the shul’s bylaws two signatures are required for every bank transfer; however, inexplicably, Zucker was able to transfer the money with only one signature.
Jennifer Morneau, Public Relations Manager for TD Bank, said they were unaware of the situation.
“It’s really too early to say what went wrong,” Ganz said.
He said the only reason that the shul briefly delayed notifying the membership was simply getting the story straight.
“This is about as transparent as you get,” Ganz said. “We’re getting criticized for being this transparent. There are people who are concerned about the family, and rightfully so. … Isaac is a friend of mine, but what happened happened.”
Burt Blass has been the treasurer for the last 25 yeas of the Torah Center of Hillcrest, an Orthodox shul in Queens, said that the shul has a two-signature policy on its checks, but he doesn’t place much faith in it.
“Banks are not looking at any actual signatures… ” he said. “The stuff is coming through fast and furious and there there’s a lot of things banks don’t look at.”
The Torah Center of Hillcrest along with several other Orthodox shuls in the tri-state area was the subject of a check-stealing fraud last year. Blass said close to $400,000 was taken from all the shuls.
“We’ve managed to recover some of our money,” Blass said. “Just because banks blow you off doesn’t mean you can’t make them take responsibility for what they’re paid to do.”
Professor Norman Silber, a professor of law at Hofstra University who specializes in nonprofit corporations, said he believed there were multiple ways for the synagogue to recover the money.
“There are five possible claims or routes for recovery here by the synagogue,” he explained. “The personal liability of the treasurer; the potential liability of the firm; the potential liability of the bank; the duty of the Bar’s insurance fund for defrauded clients of attorneys; the duty of insurers of the synagogue and its board. In each case except for the claim against the treasurer himself, there will be a defense argument that there was contributory negligence involved because of inadequate internal controls.”
Robert Nardoza, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to comment given that it is a pending case. TD Bank did not return comments in time for The Jewish Week’s deadline. Zucker could not be reached by his office or home number.
“Any time this happens it’s a tragic situation,” said Noach Gordon a shul member. “I’m still digesting it. The shul is a very inspiring place.”
Ganz said that the shul is still in the process of developing measures to prevent such alleged fraud. For the moment, the shul has blocked all its old accounts.
“Things like this are very hard to stop when they come from a trusted person on the inside,” Ganz said. “This is an aberrant act of one person that we’ll never understand. The way the synagogue will be measured will be how we go forward from here.”
Gavriel Fagin, an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and a member of the shul, said he was in “total denial” when he first heard the news.
“On a shul level, how could someone betray our trust in such a manner?” Fagin said. “But more deeply, on a personal level, this hurts so much. There is anger. I can’t help but feel sorry for him. I truly hope he gets the help he needs to recognize the destruction, and to begin to take steps to repair the shattered pieces.”
Fagin said the congregation considered Zucker’s family “the biggest victims here. Our hope is that Isaac’s wife, father, in-laws and, most of all, children can still come and feel comfortable in Aish. We love them, accept them, will be present for them and hope that they can find peace of mind among familiar faces.”