Iranian-Jewish clothing executive agrees to serve time, pay fine


For six years, Los Angeles apparel executive Masud Sarshar hid more than $21 million from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with the help of Bank Leumi and another unnamed Israeli bank, according to a plea agreement announced Aug. 1.

Sarshar, an Iranian immigrant who founded Apparel Limited, Inc., agreed to pay about $8.4 million in restitution to the IRS, as well as a civil penalty that could add millions to the total, and serve 24 months in prison.

The Department of Justice Tax Division alleged that from 2006 to 2012, Sarshar failed to report income held in Israeli bank accounts while collecting interest from those accounts and, with the help of bank personnel, using those funds in the United States. It also alleged that he obtained Israeli and Iranian passports “for the sole purpose of evading U.S. reporting requirements.”

To avoid detection, neither bank sent Sarshar account statements by mail, according to the allegations. Instead, relationship managers traveled to Los Angeles to meet with him in person. In one case, a Bank Leumi employee hid a USB drive in her necklace to smuggle information to the executive.

In total, Sarshar was able to bring $19 million in Israeli-held funds back to the United States “without creating a paper trail,” according to a Department of Justice press release.

Government officials intended the case to send a message: “There’s no safe place for taxpayers to divert and hide income anywhere in the world,” IRS criminal investigation chief Richard Weber said in the press release.

Sarshar immigrated to the United States in 1978 and made his riches in rags. In a video interview posted on his website, he describes how he went from selling clothing at the Santee Alley flea market in downtown L.A. to selling in Walmart stores. His big break came after he decided to buy Dickies brand clothes and resell them after dyeing them unique colors.

According to Sarshar’s website, Apparel Limited now employs more than 100 people and occupies a 78,000-square-foot downtown warehouse.

Local Iranian-Jewish banker and leader acquitted of federal fraud charges


Family members said they watched tears of joy and relief run down the face of Shokrollah Baravarian, an 82-year-old Iranian-Jewish former banker and community activist, on Oct. 31 after a jury in a downtown Los Angeles federal court acquitted him on four charges of conspiring with his clients to defraud the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) of tax revenue.

“For the last 2 1/2 years during the investigation of this case against me and the trial, I have had no peace of mind — I’ve maintained my innocence the entire time because I never did anything illegal, and I never conspired with anyone to do something illegal,” Baravarian told the Journal. “In my case, I believe that in the end, justice prevailed.”

In April, the government’s indictment alleged that Baravarian, a former senior vice president at the Los Angeles branch of Israel-based Mizrahi Tefahot Bank, conspired with three of his Iranian-Jewish clients in the United States to conceal the existence of undeclared bank accounts in Israel. It accused him of opening new accounts for them under pseudonyms and helping them access the funds overseas through loans from the Los Angeles branch of the bank. 

Baravarian’s attorney, Marc Harris, said the government’s case against his client was weak from the start because there was no evidence to show any wrongdoing by Baravarian — who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Tehran — and the bank’s clients all admitted during the trial that they never conspired with him.

“From the beginning, we maintained there were no facts to support the charges laid against Dr. Baravarian,” Harris said. “The paperwork showed, and the clients admitted, that these were legitimate loans that Dr. Baravarian’s clients needed and received to increase their lines of credit for their businesses. Several of the clients took out these ‘back-to-back’ loans secured by collateral held at the bank in Los Angeles, and most of them paid off the loans with U.S. funds, which proved that these were legitimate loans, not some mechanism or device to access hidden foreign accounts.”

Harris said federal prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of three of Baravarian’s Iranian-Jewish former clients, to whom they had offered leniency if they testified against Baravarian and the bank. One witness had been criminally prosecuted and two others were awaiting final sentencing for tax fraud, Harris said. 

“These witnesses admitted that they lied on their taxes by not disclosing their foreign accounts,” said Harris. “The government’s key witnesses agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge — to implicate the bank and Dr. Baravarian in their criminal conduct — to avoid going to jail. On cross-examination, however, each of the government’s witnesses admitted that they had not conspired with Dr. Baravarian to cheat on their taxes. In fact, the government’s very first customer witness admitted that he did not believe Dr. Baravarian did anything wrong and did not think he deserved to be prosecuted.”

Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice in Los Angeles did not return calls for comment on the Baravarian case. In April, a Justice Department press release indicated that prosecutors had been investigating “the use of undeclared bank accounts globally.”

Harris said at the close of the trial, the court room was tense as everyone waited to hear the jury’s verdict and that as soon as the jury’s “not guilty” verdict was read aloud, Baravarian’s friends and supporters that had packed the courtroom burst out in loud cheers.

Baravarian said the IRS investigation broke his heart because he had established a reputation for himself as an honest individual during his career spanning more than 50 years while working in senior management positions at major banks in Iran, England and in the U.S.

“From a very young age, I was taught that honesty is the best policy, and I have never, ever gone against that belief in my work or personal life,” Baravarian said. “In my life, because of my conservative nature, I have tried never to do anything illegal, and I’ve always tried to do the right thing to help people. Therefore, it was very difficult for me to understand how this difficult situation would befall me.”

Baravarian got his start doing accounting work at the National Iranian Oil Co. at age 17 as part of a program that allowed him to study for his bachelor’s degree in accounting and work part-time simultaneously. He went on to receive a law degree and a doctorate. 

At one time in Iran, Baravarian was president of a major private bank overseeing more than $1 billion in funds, he said. His multiple language skills, education, excellent reputation with clients, as well as extensive work experience in finance, became his salvation when he immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s. By 1983, he had gained a senior management position at Mizrahi.

“For many years, it was easier for my Iranian-Jewish clients to come to me for their loans or banking needs because I speak Farsi. They were more comfortable with my background in banking from Iran, and they were familiar with my integrity to help them get good loans for their business,” Baravarian said. 

Baravarian said he worked full-time for 25 years at Mizrahi’s downtown Los Angeles branch and then two years part-time at the bank following his 2009 retirement.

A statement released to the Journal by the West Hollywood-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) expressed the community’s long-standing support for Baravarian throughout the ordeal.

“The Iranian-Jewish community welcomes the great news of Dr. Baravarian’s acquittal,” the organization said. “He is a pillar of our community, very well-respected, and we are glad that he is now able to move beyond this.”

Many community leaders said Baravarian also has a stellar reputation among Iranian Jews in Southern California because of his extensive volunteer work within the community. Most notably, he has served on the board of the Iranian-Jewish nonprofit Magbit Foundation, which offers interest-free loans to college students, and volunteered as the president of the IAJF from 2002 to 2006.

Those who had worked with Baravarian said many in his community did not believe the allegations of fraud levied against him by the government but instead gave him encouragement to remain positive during the case.

“There was a strong feeling of surprise and disbelief that lingered in the community about these charges,” said Shahla Javdan, past president of the IAJF. “Both Dr. Baravarian and his wife have played and continue to play essential roles in our charitable organizations.”

Baravarian’s family members praised his close friends for their continued encouragement.

“I don’t know how we could have gone through this ordeal without having the full support we received from the family and friends around us,” said Baravarian’s daughter, Haleh Baravarian Shooshani.

Despite all of the difficulties he encountered with his case, Baravarian said he harbors no ill will toward his former clients who testified against him in this case or the federal prosecutors who brought the criminal charges against him. 

“I have no hatred for them because I’ve learned in my life that hatred only hurts the person with the feelings of hate in his heart, and forgiveness gives a person calm and peace,” he said. “After the trial, I went over to the government’s attorneys, shook their hands and told them I had no ill feelings for them and wish them all the best in life.”

The case against Baravarian came on the heels of other criminal cases against local Iranian-Jewish businessmen who in recent years had been convicted of various federal criminal fraud charges and had defrauded community members of millions of dollars through Ponzi schemes.

In May, Shervin Neman, also known as Shervin Davatgarzadeh, a Century City Iranian-American man, was convicted in federal court of defrauding two people — one of them a former NBA and NFL executive — out of $3 million in a Ponzi scheme. 

In March 2013, John Farahi, a popular Iranian-Jewish radio talk-show host and investment adviser, was sentenced by a U.S. District Court to 10 years in federal prison for operating a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme against local Iranian-Americans. Farahi was ordered by the court to pay more than $24 million in restitution to close to 60 victims.

Prior to that, Ezri Namvar, a longtime leading Iranian-Jewish businessman and philanthropist in Los Angeles, was sentenced in October 2011 to seven years in federal prison for stealing $21 million from four clients. Namvar also was ordered by the court to pay back $21 million in restitution to his victims, yet he allegedly bilked investors — who put money into his $2.5 billion real estate portfolio before the 2008 market crash — out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Iranian-Jewish community leaders and victims have kept quiet about Namvar and other Iranian-Jewish investors charged in recent years with running Ponzi schemes, in keeping with a long-standing community taboo against publicly discussing potentially embarrassing incidents. 

Rob Eshman: The Shutdown


What the $%#@ is happening?

I’m writing this 17 minutes after the Federal government shut down — for the first time in 17 years.  I remember clearly the last time this happened.  It was stupid and superfluous and self-destructive then.  It’s stupid, superfluous and self-destructive now.

The Tea Partier Republicans set this in motion — they actually planned its implementation months ago.   You can go online and hear them at rallies back in the Spring promising to close down Washington, D.C.  “Shut it down!” their  audiences chanted back.

More mainstream Republican leaders went along with the demands of the far right.   House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Speaker John Boehner knew it wouldn’t work, knew it was dumb, knew Cruz and his ilk will likely hurt Republicans in the next election cycle — but went along. 

If only they were the only victims. 

Prior to zero hour, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs circulated a letter on Capital Hill calling on lawmakers to support a federal budget agreement and avoid a government shutdown

“Spending cuts should not unfairly target the most vulnerable among us,” Jared Feldman, JCPA’s vice president and Washington director, wrote. “We urge you to strengthen anti-poverty efforts and restore opportunities for all Americans. It is critical that Congress come together cooperatively and civilly in this effort. Regardless of the outcome, a cantankerous and divisive process is unacceptable.”

The shutdown will hurt thousands of furloughed Federal workers.  It will disrupt numerous services, including research at the National Institute of Health, and it will likely suspend the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which provides food, health care referrals and nutrition education for pregnant women, new mothers and their children.

Because, you know, those heart disease researchers and low-income children are sucking this country dry.

[David Suissa: We should shut down the hysterics]

The shut down, which Tea Partiers and their enablers are promoting as a fiscally responsible way to thwart the implementation of Obamacare, will actually end up costing a couple billion dollars, not to mention a few points on the Dow.  If it continues for too long, the nation’s entire economy could backslide.

And if that’s not bad enough, the whole debacle may actually pay off for the people who cooked it up.

In recent polls, Sen. Ted Cruz shot ahead of his potential 2016 Presidential contenders.  Because of his Seussian 23-hour speech denouncing a funding bill the President could sign, Cruz “now has more credibility with the GOP base than the folks who have been leading the party for years,” according to outsidethebeltway.com.

This would all make sense if, at the end of this nightmare, Cruz would stare into our eyes, and say, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad” did to Skyler: “I did it for me!” At least that would be honest.  But like Walt’s alter ego, Heisenberg, Cruz has convinced himself he’s leading this charge for the greater good. Seriously, even in “Breaking Bad” the meth dealers respected the Feds.

It may sound petty, given the enormity of this debacle, to point out here that a Republican Party taken over by anti-government nihilists can kiss winning the Jewish vote goodbye.  Granted, it’s a small vote, but it comes with the added benefits of activism, donations and a couple of swing states.

Why do I say that? Because Jews, it turns out, like good government.  Stable government in democratic nations have enabled them to prosper and practice their faith freely.  Effective, accountable  government protects minority rights and property and creates the conditions for prosperity, including investment in and support of those less fortunate—which turns out to be good for all.

I’m assuming Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, knows this, which is why at press conferences he looks like a kid being dragged in front of the principal.

It’s why — little known fact — the Republican President who garnered the largest percentage of the Jewish vote in the modern era was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Yes, he was a bit dull and unconscionably complacent on civil rights, but consider his achievements, as Stephen Ambrose enumerates them in his biography:  Instead of dismantling the New Deal, as more strident Republicans wanted, the number of people receiving Social Security benefits doubled under Eisenhower’s administration. He balanced the budget, froze military spending and refused to lower taxes. He kept New Deal regulatory commissions in place. Public works expenditures exceeded those of Truman or FDR—projects that included the Interstate Highway System and the St. Lawrence Seaway.  He refused to sell off public lands or open wilderness areas to mineral development. He stopped nuclear testing in the atmosphere.  He avoided all military entanglements.

“The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration,” Eisenhower said. “We kept the peace. People asked how it happened. By God, it didn’t just happen, I’ll tell you that.”

All that investment, all that government — and Eisenhower presided over the greatest decade of American prosperity in the twentieth century.

In 1956, Eisenhower received 40 percent of the Jewish vote—a number that hasn’t been topped since.  Even more telling, he campaigned and got that vote while delivering to Israel a series of punishing measures and blistering statements in response to its collusion with Britain and France in the Suez Campaign.

Call it ancient history.  Call it a distant fantasy.   But if Republicans want to come close to that accomplishment, it’s not the government they need to shut down, but Ted Cruz.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Founder of L.A. Kabbalah Centre dies


Rabbi Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles and a spiritual adviser to A-list celebrities such as Madonna, has died, according to an announcement made on the Kabbalah Centre’s Web site on Sept. 16.

“Today we believe the Rav has begun to share with us from above, and we will all happily remain connected to and inspired by the Rav’s soul and his vision,” the center said in a statement.

The center did not specify the cause of death, but Berg — who was known as “The Rav” among his followers — suffered a stroke in 2004. He was 86, according to the statement, but the Los Angeles Times reported that public records reveal he was 84.

His wife, Karen, and two sons, Yehuda and Michael, survive him. Berg’s family has been leading the center ever since Berg’s health began deteriorating nearly 10 years ago.

[LISTEN to Jewish Journal publisher and editor-in-chief Rob Eshman discuss
Rabbi Berg at 4:55 and 6:55 p.m. on KCRW, 89.9 FM and kcrw.com]

Born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in New York in 1928, Berg was ordained at an Orthodox seminary in Queens. He sold insurance for a living until a visit to Israel during the 1960s introduced him to kabbalist Rabbi Yehudah Zvi Brandwein, to whom he became close.

After Brandwein’s death in 1969, Berg declared himself the heir to the kabbalistic dynasty of Brandwein, according to a 1997 Journal article by now editor-in-chief Rob Eshman.

In 1995, Berg founded the movement’s Los Angeles headquarters — formerly a youth center — on Robertson Boulevard. The center is one of 40 brick-and-mortar locations that are a part of the movement, a Jewish mystical tradition that combines elements of astrology and numerology with speculation about the creation of the universe, God and the soul.

Over the years, the center in Los Angeles gained worldwide attention as celebrities, including Madonna, Britney Spears and Demi Moore, became involved with it. These endorsements, coupled with Berg’s embrace of new-age teachings, helped draw in legions of followers.

“Thousands of people take its classes, buy its books and tapes, and participate in [its] services,” Eshman reported.

But its success is only one part of the story. Orthodox rabbis have denounced Berg’s methods, arguing that he has been teaching a watered down method of kabbalah, which should be reserved for talmudic scholars, and in 2011, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) began investigating the L.A. center for tax evasion. It is unclear how Berg’s death will affect the ongoing investigation by the IRS, the Times reported.

Additionally, former followers of Berg have provided stories about the center leading to divisions within their families, and Berg’s critics have claimed to be threatened by the organization.

The center did not respond immediately for comment about Berg’s death, but in its statement wrote: “[He] created a path for millions to learn and live Kabbalah … through thousands of hours of teachings, examples of courage that we will never forget, and the comfort of a Kabbalah centre that we can all call home.”

According to the Jerusalem Post, Berg will be buried in the Israeli city of Safed. The historical center of the tradition, Safed is known as the City of Kabbalah.

IRS’ ‘return free’ bad for most vulnerable


As April 15 nears each year, American taxpayers take inventory of their income and expenses and hand over a year’s worth of detail to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Many of us utilize the expertise of accountants to prepare what will become a complex analysis of the many life happenings that impact the sum of the taxes we owe or our refund. Our financial lives are often inherently complex, and they become even more complex when they must be reported and evaluated according to federal and state tax codes.  Tuition payments for our children’s education, contributions we have made to various charities and the cost of caring for our elderly parents are just a few of the deductible expenses that we communicate to our tax preparer. These factors are particularly relevant to our Jewish communities, where education, tzedakah, and caring for the sick and elderly serve as religious and cultural imperatives.

I am deeply concerned to learn about the IRS’ latest fight in Congress. The same federal agency responsible for collecting our taxes and issuing our refunds wants to be responsible for processing our filing information. This means that instead of communicating the countless details of our annual economics to accountants, the IRS wants us to hand over that information directly to them and await their response in the form of a refund and/or a collection notice.  I devote several months to the process of filing my taxes. As a spouse, rabbi, homeowner and contributor to multiple charities, my tax-filing experience is loaded with nuance, and I count on the tremendous detail and accuracy of my preparer to assure that I pay what I owe according to law and not more or less than that. I cannot imagine a scenario where those specific factors become unimportant in a system so large and disorganized that it cannot possibly process my truly individual return.

As an ethicist, I look beyond my own experience and shudder at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society. Lower-income, minority, senior, veteran and disabled people rely on their refunds more than anyone. I am blessed to be concerned about how my charitable contributions will be accurately processed, but there are folks across this city and our nation who rely on their tax refund to pay the mortgage, cover medical expenses, and even keep the electricity and water on at home.

The IRS’ proposed “Return Free” program proposes to experiment with its new concept on the lowest income bracket of our nation, guaranteeing that the fallout will impact those who need the most support. Many of the same individuals and families who will suffer as a result of being issued inaccurate refunds under this program are also the people who will encounter the most significant barriers in rectifying that unfairness. 

If Congress allows the IRS to go through with this plan, I will likely have to hire accountants and attorneys to revise what will be an inaccurate return and then to get the IRS to accept the revisions. I am fortunate enough to have the money and knowledge to do that, but there are so many Americans who will never be able to repair the mistakes of the IRS. Language barriers, mistrust of government and centuries of discrimination will make reparation impossible for the most targeted and at-risk victims of this proposal.

What is the motivation of a United States federal agency to pursue such a flagrant conflict of interest as making the tax collector also the tax preparer? Doing so will compromise the accuracy and integrity of the American tax system and will, according to the Government Accountability Office, open the doors to the most frightening economic and privacy issues the United States has ever faced.  As it stands, the IRS answers at least one in five tax-related questions incorrectly. As is stands, the IRS often returns error-ridden tax paperwork, with sensitive personal identification information, to the wrong address. With stakes as high as basic annual budgeting and the security of our private information, how could the IRS possibly imagine that they could handle the accurate processing of every single American tax return?

We need to contact our Congressional representatives to urge them to stop this IRS plan before it starts.


Rabbi Elliot Dorff is rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University.

Is Obama George W. — or even Nixon? The secrecy factor


The Obama administration has in recent weeks suffered a 1-2-3 scandal outbreak:

– The Benghazi tragedy-as-fiasco gained legs when internal emails emerged suggesting a massaged timeline of who knew what, when;

– The IRS owned up to focusing on conservative groups in delaying approval for tax exempt status in the last election;

– The AP furiously revealed that for two months last year the Justice Department had tracked its phone calls, apparently in a bid to track down government leakers in a story about the thwarting of a Yemen-based terrorist plot.

So the emerging narrative is, is President Obama another George W. Bush or (gasp!) Richard Nixon? And will this finally lose him the liberals?

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center is already on the record with fairly no-holds-barred outrage regarding the IRS story:

Reports that the IRS focused attention on applications for tax exempt status from groups with apparently politically conservative names and ideologies are deeply concerning. The IRS must establish neutral guidelines for its work that do not favor or disadvantage any political ideology. Abiding by these guidelines will ensure the IRS upholds the non-partisan status that is key to maintaining public trust in its work.

No individual or organization should incur extra attention from the IRS solely on the basis of political ideology and no entity should feel implicit or explicit pressure to alter its mission or actions based on fear of politically-motivated action from the IRS – or any other government agency.

We look forward to a full explanation from the IRS as to how this situation developed and how it will be prevented from occurring in the future.

Jon Stewart had fun last night with the 1-2-3 meme:

And naturally, we’re already deep into Nixon comparisons.

The Nixon years are an inverse of the old 1960s encomium: Anyone who misremembers them so badly can’t have lived through them. Nixon made rivals into enemies, tried to make enemies into criminals, and made the Constitution confetti along the way. Obama, so far, is a long way from there.

But the Bush comparisons seem to have legs, and not least because it has been Obama’s defenders who over the last couple of days have raised them. The Bush era IRS in 2004 went after the NAACP, they have noted, and the Bush administration sought New York Times and Washington Post phone records under the same terms that the Obama DOJ did the AP.

Which raises the question: How does this square with a president who campaigned on a vow not to be Bush, particularly as it related to government secrecy?

One caveat: The Bush administration sought to criminalize the gathering of information, not merely its leaking. It tried to set a precedent that ultimately would have criminalized the journalists in these cases, not just the leakers.

JTA covered the story, naturally enough — the “leakees” in this case were two former AIPAC staffers. And notably, one of Attorney General Eric Holder’s first acts was to shut the case down.

Worcester, Mass., synagogue, day school building seized by IRS


A building housing a synagogue and Jewish day school in Worcester, a city in central Massachusetts, has been seized by the Internal Revenue Service.

Yeshiva Achei Tmimim synagogue and Yeshiva Academy day school in Worcester were seized for “nonpayment of internal revenue taxes,” the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported. The yeshiva owes $435,235.31 in federal taxes, dating back to 2004, most in payroll taxes, according to the newspaper, citing the IRS and the Worcester County Registry of Deeds. A public auction has been scheduled for Jan. 4, with sealed bidding starting at $472,000.

The school and synagogue are continuing to operate as normal, according to the newspaper.

They have other creditors besides the IRS, according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, including water and sewer charges, and a mortgage, among others.

Last year, a bank foreclosed on a yeshiva dormitory that was purchased by synagogue member Steve Gaval for $61,000, the report said. He and his wife are renovating the property as a private residence. Michelle Gaval told the newspaper, “We wanted someone in the community to keep it, rather than let someone else take it. We just felt like someone Jewish should own it.”

The Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles under IRS investigation


For more information on the investigation visit jewishjournal.com/hollywoodjew.

The Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre is under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal division.

The probe reportedly also involves two charities that are connected with Madonna, the nonprofit center’s most high-profile celebrity supporter. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Internal Revenue Service is looking into whether funds were diverted for the personal use of the Berg family, which has run the Kabbalah Centre for more than 40 years.

Karen Berg, 68, became CEO after her husband, Philip Berg, 81, who had been its head rabbi since 1969, suffered a stroke in 2004. She runs the organization with the help of sons Michael Berg, 37, and Yehuda Berg, 38.

The center’s assets are valued at more than $260 million. Exact totals are unclear, the Times reports, because the center has tax-exempt status as a religious organization and is not required to make its tax filings public.

Raising Malawi, which broke off ties with the Kabbalah Centre in March, is cooperating with the investigation, the Times reports. The children’s charity, which does work in the African nation of Malawi and is headed by Madonna, is the subject of a grand jury investigation in New York alongside the Kabbalah Centre and the Bergs.

In a statement, the Kabbalah Centre said it has received government subpoenas “concerning tax-related issues,” along with a second charity, its Spirituality for Kids initiative. Madonna chaired this charity’s board and donated $600,000 to the organization, according to the Times.

Madonna herself is not named in the IRS probe, the Times reports.

The Kabbalah Centre is credited with spurring popular interest in Jewish mysticism, although it has been criticized by mainstream Jewish leaders. The center grew enormously after Madonna began studying there in 1996 and raised its public profile. It now has branches in 31 countries and includes many celebrities among its followers.

Letters


Mensches, Menschen

The plural of “mensch” has always been “menschen” (“Mensches: Some Big-Hearted Angelenos You Would Be Proud to Know,” Jan. 6). Come Purim, will we read about “hamentasches”?

I was impressed, though, by the dedication of those featured in the accompanying article.

Ruth L. Brown
Los Angeles

I do not profess to be a Yiddish linguist, but I learned my Yiddish in the Sholem Aleichem Folk Shul in Perth Amboy, N.J., about 65 years ago, where everyone knew that the plural of “mensch” was “menschen.” Please tell me whether or not I’m correct.

Marv Frankel
Los Angeles

Ed. Note: According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the plural of “mensch” is either “mensches” or “menschen.” We chose the style closer to English, but feel free to come by and discuss it over some beigelech and blintschikes.

Interfaith Celebrations

We were disappointed by your editorial/news story, “Tis Never the Season for Chrismukkah” (Dec. 23), with its premise that interfaith or intercultural celebrations shouldn’t be tolerated.

The predictable seasonal staple about how children are confused by joint celebrations provided no evidence to support that conclusion. It was a missed opportunity.

Instead of probing how Jewish communities can respond sensitively to the growing number of intercultural or interfaith families, it adopted the contemptuous tone articulated by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who dismisses those who want to combine holidays as “totally ignorant,” misguided and misinformed. By disparaging and discounting non-Jewish members of intermarried families, Jewish leaders put their heads in the sand and push them away.

In our secular Jewish organization, the Sholem Community (www.sholem.org), we’ve welcomed intercultural families who have been made to feel uncomfortable at synagogues.

We don’t ask non-Jewish family members to reject their backgrounds. We discuss how family members can honor each other’s heritages with respect and understanding. We explore common cultural themes in seasonal festivals, and we’ve seen how families can observe loving and warm, respectful celebrations.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone but is appropriate for people whose outlook is cultural and secular. Instead of the my-way-or-the-highway approach, families who honor each other’s cultures and traditions can enrich their own experiences, their humanity and connect themselves and their loved ones to their Jewishness.

Jeffrey Kaye
Katherine James
Alan Blumenfeld
The Sholem Community

IRS Charge

In his opinion piece, “IRS Errs on Endorsing Candidate Charge” (Jan. 6), Rabbi John Rosove correctly observes that the Tax Code prohibits, at the risk of loss of tax exemption, intervention by synagogues and other charities “in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

It does not prohibit all political activities. Charities, including synagogues, can take positions on legislation — that is lobby — so long as their lobbying activity is not substantial. (Positions on initiatives and referenda, as well as positions on nominees to the federal judiciary, are considered lobbying.) Moreover, these organizations can take positions on questions of public policy without limit.

Thus, even had Rabbi Rosove named leaders in his erev Rosh Hashanah sermon in October 2005, he would not have violated the campaign prohibition, since no election was looming. Nonetheless, since he did not mention any leader’s name, Rabbi Rosove could have offered this same sermon just days before an election without any violation of the prohibition.

In unofficial guidance, the IRS has treated discussions of issues of public policy without mention of candidates’ names as falling outside of the category of campaign intervention.

Ellen Aprill
Past President
Temple Israel of Hollywood
John E. Anderson Professor of Tax Law
Loyola Law School

Orthodox Women

I write in response to Amy Klein’s thoughtful article on “Orthodox But Not Monolithic” (Jan. 6). While your reporter generally presented both the spirit and the substance of my remarks on the issue of women in Orthodox Jewish communal life, I was misquoted as stating that no women currently serve on the board of the Orthodox Union (OU).

While I noted that there are currently no women officers in the OU, I did not suggest that there aren’t any women board members. I know better than that. My wife, Vivian, is one of the most active members of the OU’s Board of Governors.

David Luchins
OU National Vice President

Illegal Immigration

Like every apologist for illegal immigration, Rob Eshman makes a case for “assimilation” of the undocumented, while ignoring the wholesale violation of our laws and sovereignty that got us into a fiscal and social quagmire (“The Slop Sink,” Dec. 30).

According to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., the net cost of public benefits and services for illegal immigrants in California is $10 billion a year — a structured deficit that no one in Sacramento is willing to address. L.A. County public hospitals lose $340 million a year providing uncompensated care for undocumented immigrants.

Here’s the kicker: The proposed Totalization Agreement with Mexico will provide Social Security benefits to Mexican nationals and, by extension, illegal immigrants. The price tag: $345 billion over 20 years.

Les Hammer
Los Angeles

Winter Break

Jennifer Garmaise’s article (“Taking Winter Break on Jewish Time,” Dec. 30) did not address the logistical and economic impact that shifting winter vacations to late January has on families of moderate means. Far from “disrupting vacation plans,” moving winter vacation from late December poses a serious challenge to parents who work outside the Jewish community, particularly single parents and those families where both parents must work in order to make ends meet.

Many of these parents hoard their sick leave and vacation time in order to take off for Yom Tov. Taking a week off in January (when alternative forms of child care are not available) in order to care for children out of school poses a financial hardship and, sometimes, a barrier to employment altogether. It is also difficult to see what educational or religious benefit the children gain from this week.

Giving the children a week’s break at Chanukah (as is done in Israel) would not completely solve the child care issue, but at least it has a logical Jewish rationale. Starting winter break on Dec. 26 would comply with Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling, while alleviating the child care situation.

Offering affordable day camps would also go a long way toward addressing the needs of ordinary working parents who sacrifice in order to send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools.

Miriam Caiden
Los Angeles

 

All Saints’ IRS Fight Gets Jewish Support


For a church facing an assault from the Internal Revenue Service, the outspoken clergy of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena acted neither fearful nor repentant Sunday.

The IRS is “welcome in our pews,” said Rector J. Edwin Bacon to loud applause, but “not welcome in our pulpit.”

The IRS has threatened to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status for speaking out strongly on political issues. But Bacon showed no signs of backing down. And based on the reaction from the Southern California rabbinate, rhetorical reinforcements are already in place.

The IRS dispute arose out of an anti-war sermon given by the Rev. George Regas on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. The IRS interpreted the impassioned homily as an endorsement of John Kerry over incumbent President George W. Bush. Tax-exempt nonprofits, such as churches and synagogues, are not allowed to endorse candidates.

Bacon told the packed congregation last weekend that the church is “energetically resisting” the attack on its tax-exempt status. If left unchallenged, the IRS action “means that a preacher cannot speak boldly about the core values of his or her faith community without fear of government recrimination.”

Bacon added that All Saints has received a “surprising outpouring of solidarity” from a “host of other believers.”

Jewish leaders are among those speaking out against the IRS action. They say that their own synagogues, too, could become targets.

“I would have given the sermon that Regas gave with honor,” said Rabbi Steven Jacobs, of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. He added that he regularly gives sermons that “challenge my congregation” by addressing difficult political issues. If these sermons have reached the attention of the IRS, he doesn’t know about it.

Jacobs said he hopes that the controversy will stir rabbis and other religious leaders to take more chances in their sermons and not cower in face of intimidation.

“There is a great risk to our personal souls if truth has to be suppressed and doubt unspoken, “Jacobs said. “When ‘united we stand’ means everyone must think alike, something is seriously wrong with our democracy. Jeremiah spoke truth to power in the Babylonian times and All Saints is doing it now.”

It was two days before the 2004 election that Regas, All Saints’ former rector, gave a guest sermon in which he imagined a debate between Jesus and then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas harshly criticized the government’s record on poverty, abortion and nuclear arms, but his most pointed remarks concerned the war in Iraq. He said Jesus would have told Bush, “Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine [that] has led to disaster.”

The Sept. 11 attacks did not justify “the killing of innocent people” in Iraq and elsewhere, he added.

In that sermon, Regas also said he did not endorse either candidate, but he asked the congregation to take “all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker” to the ballot box and “vote your deepest values.”

The IRS viewed the sermon as a possible endorsement of Kerry. In June, it sent a letter telling the church that it “may not be tax-exempt as a church” because Regas’ remarks raised questions concerning the church’s “involvement in … political campaign intervention.”

The federal tax code permits tax-exempt organizations to speak out on political issues but not to endorse candidates. The IRS has recently investigated more than 100 nonprofits, including the NAACP, for possibly promoting candidates, according to published reports.

So far, there’s been no public indication that the targets have included synagogues, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. Nevertheless, he and other Jewish leaders have been quick to stand behind All Saints Church.

“I spoke with Rev. Bacon and assured him of our support,” Diamond said. He added that he is working with other rabbis and religious leaders to develop a coordinated response across political and denominational boundaries. “Tomorrow the IRS may well target a conservative Baptist congregation in the South,” he said.

Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus of Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, has an especially close tie to All Saints, where he serves as rabbi-in-residence.

The IRS investigation is a “selective application of the law,” he said, and a “deliberate act of attempted intimidation” against clergy who criticize the administration. “No one’s going to intimidate this church, but some churches and synagogues may be intimidated.”

“I don’t think we give up free speech because the president has chosen to go to war,” Beerman added. “Regas wasn’t telling people how to vote. He was critiquing the lies that brought us into the war and the impact of the war on American and Iraqi life. This fundamental belief in the sanctity of every life lies at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition and is what propels Regas and I to be opposed to war.”

The IRS has denied any political motivation to its tax probes.

As it happens, the joint activism of Beerman and Regas reaches all the way back to a raucous anti-Vietnam War rally in Exposition Park in 1973.

“Regas got up to speak in his Episcopal collar and he put his whole body into the speech,” Beerman recalled. “Immediately we were drawn to each other and we became engaged together in opposition to the war.”

The two have worked together on anti-war and other causes ever since.

For some rabbis, the controversy highlights the duty of Jewish leaders to take risks by speaking out.

“The Jewish tradition teaches that silence is riskier than the wrath of opposition,” said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Whittier. “It’s from the prophets and the rabbinic tradition. Leviticus says you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.”

Nevertheless, “instead of being leaders, most rabbis have decided not to make waves” since the war started, Beliak said.

The sermons of Rabbi Steven Leder generally deal with “more timeless issues of the human condition and spirit,” as opposed to politics. Nevertheless, Leder can see an instance where he would make an exception. He said he would ask his Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregation not to vote for someone like David Duke, the open anti-Semite who ran for office in Louisiana.

During the summer, the IRS offered to settle with All Saints “by having us say that we were wrong and would never do it again,” Bacon said. The church refused.

The IRS’s demand for an admission of wrongdoing “reminds me of something out of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s,” USC law professor Ed McCaffrey said.

The church’s response was the right one, said Diamond: “The settlement offer is very dangerous because the case is truly about freedom of the pulpit. For members of the clergy to be stifled in expressing deeply held religious and moral views is blasphemous.”

“Rather than intimidate rabbis [or anyone else],” he said. “It’s made a whole lot of clergy persons mad as hell.”

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Car Donations May Hit IRS Roadblock


Get rid of your old car, help out a charity and get a
write-off. What could be easier?

With the April 15 IRS deadline drawing near, charities are
tapping taxpayer frustration by increasing their appeals for vehicle donations.
But a proposed government crackdown on the value donors can claim for a donated
vehicle is changing the way programs are being advertised.

Claims of “highest blue book value” and grandiose statements
about how a car donation will support your favorite charity are giving way to
cautious, increasingly detailed disclosures of the donation process, including
specifics on how much a charity might expect to receive from a donation.

The pressure on advertisers to come clean about the donation
process follows a recent congressional investigation that found many donors
claim the highest “blue book” value on their taxes, while many charities are
typically earning 20 percent or less from the transactions. In some cases,
nonprofits are even losing money on the deal.

Uncle Sam is now threatening to step in and regulate a
system based primarily on the honor system, which provides donors with plump
write-offs and makes car auctioneers a tidy bundle but leaves charities with
little to show.

“There’s clearly been an area where there’s potential abuse,”
said Paul Castro, president of Jewish Family Service (JFS).

While charities might be receiving a small percentage of the
total donation, many are increasingly reliant on the vehicle sales as a funding
source for annual budgets.

JFS, which uses a third party to collect and sell donated
cars, is worried that any changes in the current system will carry a negative
financial impact for charities. Proceeds from the sale of donated vehicles 
account for 22 percent and 33 percent of the budgets for the organization’s
Valley and Santa Monica offices, respectively.

“Obviously, anything that gets into place from a regulatory
perspective that chills the donor is something that’s going to effect us,
because people are going to be more cautious,” Castro said. “On the other hand,
if the charity is forced to get the appraisal, then it’s going to become a
burdensome process, and if the donor is required to get an appraisal, they’re
going to be less likely to donate it.”

The Bush administration, as part of its budget proposal for
2005, is hoping to close this tax loophole, which could save the federal
government billions in estimated savings over the next 10 years by establishing
either a deduction limit or stricter appraisal requirements for used vehicle
donations. However, the change could have a deleterious impact on nonprofits at
both the national and local level.

If passed by Congress, the changes could take effect this
year.

A November 2003 report prepared for the Senate Finance
Committee by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of
Congress, found rampant abuse by taxpayers who donate vehicles to nonprofits.
In addition to taxpayers inflating write-off claims for used vehicles to “blue
book” value instead of fair-market value, the report found that charities often
earn anywhere from 20 percent to 5 percent of the value donors claimed on their
taxes.

The report tracked 54 donated vehicles, most of which were
sold at auction. In one instance, a donor valued a 1987 Volvo 740 at $3,000,
but the nonprofit’s final take was $35. Some charities lost money on the
donation after paying towing, repair and resale costs.

The GAO estimates that tax claims for vehicle donations cost
the federal government $654 million in revenue for 2000, but the report did not
estimate how much the IRS loses when donors use the higher “blue book” value
rather than fair market.

The Treasury Department and several senators are pushing for
stricter requirements.

According to the Treasury, closing the tax loophole on car
donations, as well as a crackdown on deductions for intellectual property and
patents, would raise about $4.8 billion over a 10-year period. Under a plan
submitted by the Treasury, the IRS would require taxpayers to get their vehicle
appraised prior to donation. Current IRS regulations require appraisal only if
the vehicle’s value is greater than $5,000.

“We encourage people to proceed carefully when donating
vehicles,” IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said. “But people should know that
in some cases, the donation is providing little value.”

Before donating a vehicle, the IRS advises that taxpayers
ask questions of the charity to determine how the vehicle will be sold — either
by the charity itself or a private fundraiser, like an auction house — and how
much of the sale price will be used for charitable purposes.

California law requires that nonprofits issue donors a
receipt that lists the mileage and condition of the vehicle for a state tax
deduction. It’s a model the federal government may turn to as a blueprint for
any vehicle donation reform.

While more stringent reporting at the state level has made
the taxpayer more honest, third-party retailers are still behind the curve. A
California study revealed that 80 percent of charities contracting with
fundraisers to run their car donation program received less than 60 cents for
every dollar value of vehicle donated.

However, smaller-scale car donation programs that handle
their own intake and sales, like Southern California Jewish Center or Chabad,
aren’t worried that future regulations will scare off potential donors.

Rabbi Moshe Bryski said Chabad of the Conejo, which recently
sent out an advertisement about its vehicle donation program to congregants,
takes in about a dozen cars every year that are then sold by a volunteer.

“Organizations that primarily get their cars donated from
people who care about the organization, not so much doing it for the tax
write-off but doing it to help Chabad, it’s not going to have an effect on us
at all,” he said.  

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