A long-running case in the New York State Supreme Court between a small Staten Island synagogue and the large charedi outreach organization that operates Kars4Kids now includes allegations of tax fraud.
The Young Israel of Eltingville, a struggling 40-year-old Modern Orthodox congregation, is battling Oorah Inc., the Lakewood, N.J.-based outreach organization that operates Kars4Kids, for control of the synagogue building. The two entities first locked horns earlier this year after a 2007 agreement to sell the building to Oorah went sour. The synagogue is now fighting to overturn an arbitration award from a religious court stipulating that they synagogue owes Oorah $1 million.
Now, concern over Oorah’s application to the IRS to attain synagogue status is taking center stage. Young Israel of Eltingville is claiming that Oorah Inc. formed a separate entity, Congregation Oorah, to falsely obtain tax-exempt status, thereby allowing Oorah to shield potential “questionable financial dealings” from public scrutiny. (According to IRS code, religious congregations do not have to file an annual tax return.)
Oorah fired back, arguing that it does use the facility for religious functions because it is connected to a Jewish day care that is run on premises.
Young Israel president Max Robek said he has never seen members of Congregation Oorah attend services. Courtesy of Y.I. of Eltingville.
In a 2010 application to the IRS, Congregation Oorah, created in 2009, says it was a synagogue that holds services three times a day on weekdays as well as on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Max Robek, Young Israel’s president, disputes this, telling The Jewish Week in a telephone interview that the claim is “absolutely false.”
“I’ve never seen any member of this so-called ‘Congregation Oorah’ here for services. I don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Robek, who is 77 and has been a member of the Young Israel for two decades.
In its exemption application to the IRS, Congregation Oorah said that its congregational leader is Rabbi Chaim Mintz, the founder of Oorah. The application states that Mintz is “usually available for Shabbath [sic] and Jewish Holiday Services.”
Rabbi Mintz did not respond to a request for comment.
Robek and other Young Israel congregants told The Jewish Week that they’ve never seen Mintz, who lives in Brooklyn, attend or lead Shabbat and holiday services.
In the application, Congregation Oorah suggests that the current Young Israel congregation is defunct, stating that the location “was known as the Young Israel of Eltingville” and claiming that no other entity operates in the same facility.
Obviously false, Robek said: “The Young Israel of Eltingville is clearly still functioning, as I’m its acting president and attend services there every week.”
Young Israel’s attorney, Solomon Rubin, calls Oorah’s claims “identity theft” and argued that enforcing the $1 million arbitration award would amount to the court “assisting” Oorah in this alleged fraud.
Oorah operates Little Star Preschool on the premises, which it identifies as a parochial school. Courtesy of YI of Eltingville.
“When applying for tax-exempt status for its non-existent congregation, Oorah falsely told the IRS that Young Israel of Eltingville no longer exists and it is holding services at the Young Israel’s location,” Rubin, who is representing the synagogue pro bono, told The Jewish Week via email. He says it’s “identity theft” because “Oorah adopted Young Israel of Eltingville’s identity to obtain tax-exempt status as a religious congregation. It would not have been able to obtain this tax status without the false representation.”
Oorah declined to respond directly to these allegations while litigation is pending. However, in court documents the organization’s attorney, Israel Vider, argued that Congregation Oorah is operating as a religious corporation by running educational programming at the synagogue. Oorah runs a preschool and kindergarten in the building, as well as weekly religious programming for adults and teens.
“He [Robek] is wrong as a matter of fact since … Little Star (as a parochial school) holds prayer service every weekday between 9-10 a.m. for the staff and the children,” writes Vider in court documents. Weekly adult and teen programming are also often accompanied by prayer services, he wrote.
Vider called the allegations of fraud “bogus” and said they stray from the central point of the litigation — the $1 million arbitration award.
In a hearing earlier this month, synagogue representatives maintained that the agreement to sell the building and the resulting arbitration award were made without the congregation’s knowledge; Oorah maintains that Sid Stadler, architect of the agreement and a former synagogue president, was well within his right to represent the synagogue in the sale.
At a Nov. 3 court hearing in Staten Island, Stadler told The Jewish Week that he felt the lawsuit had been “unnecessary” and has been burdensome to “so many people.” He said he and Oorah founder Rabbi Mintz had been close friends for “40 years” before tensions arose. “It’s like you come home to your wife and she says she’s not your wife anymore,” he said. “I’m standing there and saying if you don’t want to live together, we’ll work something out.”
According to Robek, Stadler is still a member in good standing at the Young Israel, despite negotiating the sale agreement with Oorah that spurred the lawsuit.
“I built an edifice of joy for the community and he [Rabbi Mintz] just wanted to destroy it,” said Stadler.
For years, Oorah, and its closely affiliated charity Kars4Kids, have faced allegations of financial improprieties. In 2012, the organization — which runs summer camps and provides scholarships to Jewish families — lost a $375,000 federal lawsuit over scholarship money that Oorah allegedly promised (but never gave) to students at the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island. In 2009, the organization paid tens of thousands of dollars in settlements to the state attorneys general of Pennsylvania and Oregon over its failure to disclose that the funds raised through its vehicle donation program benefited children of a specific religion. In 2010, the New York State Attorney General announced that his office had subpoenaed Joy for Our Youth — the name under which Kars4Kids is incorporated — as part of a broader investigation into charities that accept car donations.
Oorah was also caught up in an alleged Ponzi scheme run by Lakewood real estate developer Eliyahu Weinstein in 2010. Weinstein is serving a 22-year federal prison sentence for running a fraudulent real estate investment scheme that caused $200 million in losses. He also allegedly laundered $140 million through a number of Jewish charities, including Kars4Kids, according to news reports.
Editorial Intern Renee Beyda contributed to this report.