A matter of transparency

Numerous “American friends of” organizations exist in the Jewish communal firmament to help direct funds to worthy causes in Israel. That’s what most people thought was the case with an organization known as Aish International — it was generally assumed to be the American fundraising arm of Jerusalem-based Aish HaTorah, the haredi Orthodox outreach group with programs throughout the world. It turns out that many big Jewish names who backed the group were wrong.

Joe Lieberman, the former Connecticut senator and Democratic nominee for vice president, was listed as the honorary co-chair of Aish International’s King David Award luncheon, held last month at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. He, for one, appears to have been misled. He is quoted as saying: “I read it to clearly mean that Aish HaTorah, which I know and respect, would be the beneficiary of any funds raised.”

But an adviser to Aish International said that “no funds raised by the organization in the last two years have gone to Aish HaTorah,” and that proceeds from the King David event supports Aish International’s executive director, Rabbi Richard Boruch Rabinowitz, and the initiatives he deems worthy. This has upset many former large donors to Aish International, who believed that the millions of dollars they contributed to Aish International were being directed to fund Aish HaTorah educational projects. Those donations have now stopped, and the Aish HaTorah-Aish International dispute is now before a Brooklyn, N.Y. rabbinical court.

This is not the first time that questions have been raised regarding the complex relationships between foreign institutions of importance to the Jewish community and the American-based entities that exist to fund them with tax-free contributions.

Sometimes the U.S. faces of Israeli nonprofits are quick to point out their independence when it’s the foreign parent that is under the microscope. Such was the case with Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Inc., when the flagship Hadassah Medical Center cut back staff to stanch the loss of funds in the Madoff scandal. Jewish National Fund similarly emphasized its independence from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, when the Israeli NGO was under fire for a lack of transparency when it came to the proceeds of land sales.

Here, it’s the Israeli entity raising the alarm about an organization that until relatively recently — Rabinowitz was fired last year — had, for all intents and purposes, been the face of its fundraising in the United States.

We do not fault the donors; nor do we fault Aish HaTorah. We simply don’t know enough about the facts to reach a meaningful judgment. We therefore leave it to the legal process to sort things out. But we highlight this case to call for greater transparency on the part of the U.S. nonprofits that solicit money, and the foreign nonprofits purportedly funded by those charitable dollars. Donors deserve to know exactly how their money is being spent.

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