November 21, 2019

Unanswered Questions Over Abrupt Lainer School Name Change

Sinai Akiba Academy students

In the summer of 2017, school officials at Sinai Akiba Academy in West Los Angeles lauded an announced gift as “transformative,” prompting a name change. After nearly 50 years as Sinai Akiba Academy, the educational arm of Sinai Temple began the 2017-18 academic year as the Alice and Nahum Lainer School, named for the longtime supporters of the school responsible for the gift. 

At the time, Head of School Sarah Shulkind didn’t disclose the amount of the Lainer’s gift, but told the Journal it comprised “a significant portion” of her institution’s $40 million goal in its 50th-anniversary fundraising campaign. 

“I am excited that this gift will help secure the school’s future,” Shulkind said back in July 2017. 

Now, less than two years later, the gift has gone bad, a Head of School is set to depart and questions abound. 

In 2017, the temple board voted to accept the Lainer’s gift proposal with limited details given, according to multiple anonymous sources close to temple board members. By the spring of 2018, the temple’s legal independent counsel notified school officials that portions of the charitable gift agreement weren’t in compliance with sections of state law that mandate religious nonprofit organizations. 

“Both the Temple and the Lainer Family Foundation and their legal representatives worked for many months to try to resolve these issues,” the October 2018 community update read. The Lainer Family Foundation is the Lainer’s charitable nonprofit, through which the family has donated generously for many years to the day school, where they’ve sent three children and three grandchildren. 

Sinai Temple then called for a special board meeting on Oct. 22, 2018, to vote again on whether to accept the gift. This time, board members were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) beforehand, a decision that angered many board members, according to multiple sources. In the end, they voted to decline the gift, but details on the vote and what was discussed are murky, to say the least. 

“The School is well-positioned for the future,” the post-vote community update email stated. “Its finances are strong, and its commitment to tuition assistance remains unchanged. With ongoing support from our community, we will continue to invest heavily in faculty, programs and facilities.”

The Lainers didn’t respond to the Journal’s request for comment. Head of School Sarah Shulkind and Rabbi David Wolpe also declined to comment. Wolpe directed the Journal to a statement issued by the Temple’s general counsel: “The mutual rescission confidentiality clause provides that the parties to it will not disclose terms and conditions to the general public or third parties. Notwithstanding that, a party may disclose that the charitable gift annuity (CGA) has been rescinded or terminated by mutual agreement.” 

“It is an amazing professional opportunity, and I am really excited to pursue it,” Shulkind told the Journal after the announcement. She also noted that her Sinai Akiba exit has nothing to do with the Lainer gift episode. 

Sinai community members close to board members, who spoke to the Journal on the condition of anonymity, estimated that the Lainer’s proposed gift was in the $15 million to $20 million range. Upon the 2017 announcement, the school launched a full-scale marketing effort, complete with everything from new signage, printed materials and even staff emails reflecting the name change.  

“They started doing all this stuff without a dollar ever being transferred,” one Sinai parent who asked not to be identified said. “This is coming from a lot of people, from school, from people on the temple board, people from all over. Nobody was happy. People were complaining and they were upset. This school has a 50-year history with its name and nobody was told anything about what was happening.” 

Per a second community email update that went out, the name change back to Sinai Akiba Academy will be complete by the end of June. Diplomas for this year’s graduating class will read “Sinai Akiba Academy.” One person who won’t be there next year is Shulkind, who was tapped as the new head of school at Milken Community Schools in February, effective July 1. 

“It is an amazing professional opportunity, and I am really excited to pursue it,” Shulkind told the Journal after the announcement. She also noted that her Sinai Akiba exit has nothing to do with the Lainer gift episode. 

But not everyone is buying that. 

“One-hundred percent it has to do with this,” said another Sinai parent who asked not to have her name printed. “People here think she looked for another job because this whole situation blew up and she wanted to make an exit. She has a long-term contract. She didn’t need to leave. There was no contractual reason to leave. It wasn’t due to expire for a few more years.” 

Few Sinai parents were willing to go on the record, stating that the community is divided over whether the board’s members, who are handcuffed by NDAs, acted in the best interest of the school in declining the gift. “It was a lot of money to turn down,” one parent said. Parents said they feared retribution for having an opinion linked to them. 

One person in the community who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Journal she heard the decision by the board to decline the Lainer’s gift was partly because the Lainers wanted their name to be on both the school and the temple. However, no one corroborated that rumor.

Danny Brown, 47, who lives in Cheviot Hills and sends three kids to the school, was willing to speak on the record. With close friends on the board and at the school, Brown has heard all the conflicting narratives and, although critical of what transpired, tried to remain optimistic. 

“Regardless of what side of the debate you are on, the entire process was shrouded in secrecy and non-disclosure and there’s no excuse for that at an institutional level,” he wrote in an email. 

“The gift was clearly never appropriately vetted in a professional manner or it would’ve never been announced publicly until all terms were resolved and accepted by both parties.  There’s plenty of blame to go around and it is unbelievable that this could even happen. I don’t know if I’d believe this story if I saw it in a movie. That said, at the end of the day we hopefully learn from our mistakes, make significant adjustments and move forward in a productive manner to build a stronger school and temple.”