San Leandro rabbi fired financial misconduct charged

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Congregation president Elinor DeKoven on Tuesday would only say that Book was dismissed because he had violated his contract. "We told him he was fired for cause," DeKoven said.

But a May 20 letter from the board of directors sent to members of the East Bay congregation stated the rabbi was fired amid "evidence of significant financial misconduct."

Another board member, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the rabbi was accused of misusing his discretionary fund. Book allegedly used the fund to pay for personal expenses unrelated to his job, such as dry cleaning bills and his daughter's university expenses, the board member said.

Book did not return telephone calls but he recently wrote a letter to the congregants denying all of the allegations, according to several sources.

Lee Archer, Book's attorney, called the synagogue's actions a "witch hunt."

"The rabbi has not misused the discretionary fund. Any allegations to the contrary are totally unfounded," Archer said. "Unfortunately, the synagogue board of directors has reached inappropriate conclusions regarding the fund."

Archer said the board violated an agreement to use an outside accounting firm to audit the discretionary fund and thus denied the rabbi due process, as laid out in his contract.

Regarding the checks written from the fund, Archer said, "There are adequate explanations for this." He would not elaborate.

Archer considers the allegations an excuse to fire Book "because Temple Beth Sholom has experienced dwindling financial resources and declining numbers in its congregation."

Book is considering several responses, including filing a lawsuit for breach of contract, Archer said. Beth Sholom's board does not plan to pursue any legal action against the rabbi, DeKoven said.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's done with," she said.

Book's current 7-year contract wasn't set to expire for another 5-1/2 years.

Book, who has led the congregation since 1978, had been honored by numerous organizations over the years including his synagogue, the State of Israel Bonds, the Northern California Board of Rabbis and the Southern Alameda County chapter of the NAACP. He helped found the San Leandro Shelter for Women and Children. He is co-editor of a prayerbook, "Ivdu B'Simcha: Serve the Lord with Gladness."

The rabbi had been on paid administrative leave since mid-March, when the congregation board began investigating an unrelated allegation. The information about the discretionary fund was discovered in the midst of the unrelated investigation, said the anonymous board member.

In an April 25 letter, DeKoven said, Book was asked to provide certain details to the board by May 10.

"He did not meet with us. He did not comply," she said.

But Archer said his client refused to do so because he would have been forced to reveal information about discretionary fund donors and recipients that he was obligated to keep confidential.

The final decision to terminate the rabbi came in a May 9 emergency board meeting, DeKoven said. The vote, taken by secret ballot, was not unanimous, she said.

A May 10 letter of termination informed the rabbi that he had been placed on unpaid administrative leave and would be terminated May 20.

"We did not do this without a great deal of investigation, heartache, loss of sleep and misery," DeKoven said. "We had many emergency board meetings."

The congregation's 240-member households were informed of the decision by mail late last week.

DeKoven said she knows the congregation isn't united behind the decision. "We will lose members," she said.

But she expects membership to grow again when the congregation hires a new rabbi. DeKoven wants the search for Book's replacement to begin before her own term as president ends in June.

Though the 110-year-old synagogue is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Book did not receive his ordination through the movement's Jewish Theological Seminary. He is not a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement's association of rabbis.

He was ordained in 1971 via the Tifereth Israel Rabbinical Academy of America, which is not affiliated with the major U.S. Jewish movements and could not be located.

Book was previously the leader of the now-defunct Daly City Congregation B'nai Israel. He is currently working as a chaplain at the Chapel of the Chimes, an East Bay mortuary.

"After 18 years of faithful service, the rabbi deserved to be treated more fairly," Archer said.