Torah Day School closes, but Pils will stay in S.F.

"The moment I find any investor, I'm starting tomorrow," Bentzion Pil said last week, in his first interview with the Jewish Bulletin in more than a year.

He also announced that the year-old Torah Day School — the successor to the couple's Schneerson Hebrew Day School — will not open its doors this fall.

The Pils founded and ran the S.F.-based Jewish Educational Center — the now-defunct and bankrupt nonprofit that once oversaw Schneerson Hebrew Day School.

Despite their hopes, the couple's future remains uncertain. This fall, they may lose their $472,000 home in a civil lawsuit. The JEC's bankruptcy trustee is suing to recover the home, alleging that the Pils illicitly funneled charitable dollars from the used-car auctions toward the home's 1995 purchase.

The Pils also face charges of financial wrongdoing by the state Attorney General's Office. And they are still under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Internal Revenue Service for alleged money laundering.

The Pils have always maintained their innocence.

On their lawyers' advice, the couple showed up Wednesday of last week to watch a court hearing on their house. It was the first time they had appeared at any proceeding since government allegations were made public in June 1997.

At the U.S. Bankruptcy Court hearing, lawyers hashed out the finer points of bankruptcy law and the Pils' constitutional right against self-incrimination.

A review of court records shows the Pils collectively took the Fifth Amendment on more than 300 questions during their initial depositions in May. Most of the questions related to their income and the financing of their house. The depositions will resume before the trial, now set to begin Nov. 9.

The Pils must decide whether they will answer the questions, knowing that they will lose significant portions of their defense if they continue to take the Fifth. Their attorneys openly acknowledge that the Pils are taking the Fifth to avoid providing information that the U.S. Attorney's Office could use against the couple. Generally, once individuals plead the Fifth on one question, they are apt to invoke it on any related inquiry.

Meanwhile, the recently forced-out president of the Jewish Foundation for Learning is not pleased with the decision to permanently close the day school.

JFL, the charity that succeeded the JEC last year, oversaw Torah Day School.

Rabbi Maklouf Benchlouch, who served as JFL's president from January to June, said he felt "very bad" when he learned last week from a reporter the school wouldn't open.

"I am in shock. It hurts. I feel bad to see that happen," he said. He joined the board because he believed in "the mission, the hope to keep that school up and develop it, to have a nice Jewish school, especially for the immigrants."

The school was already on shaky legs last fall when its enrollment dropped from 140 to 30 due to the JEC's financial and legal problems.

Benchlouch, the spiritual leader of San Francisco's Orthodox Congregation Anshey Sfard, said he was forced out after new members with ties to the Pils joined the board.

The new board president is Inge Kulberg. She did not return a telephone call.

The Pils are neither staff members at the JFL nor on the board of directors. Mattie Pil served as a teacher there last year, mostly working without pay due to the school's financial problems.

Bentzion Pil now describes himself as the "volunteer spiritual leader" of JFL, which is still offering some religious and English-as-a-second-language classes.

The rabbi also asserts that he and his wife will remain in San Francisco, despite the bad publicity surrounding their former charity.

"We came here to build," Pil said. "We feel the community needs us. We didn't come here because life is easier…We are looking at ourselves as the spiritual soldiers of the Lubavitcher rebbe."

The couple arrived 15 years ago from New York to bring Chassidic Judaism to San Francisco's burgeoning Russian emigre population. They now have eight children, ranging from age 1-1/2 to 14.

Without Torah Day School, Pil said, all but one of their school-age children will attend Torah Academy, a Lubavitch-run day school in Palo Alto. His oldest child will study in a New York yeshiva.

Pil also said his congregation, the Schneerson Russian Synagogue, is still functioning out of his Richmond District home.

Last week's bankruptcy hearing brought some good news for the Pils. World Savings and Loan Association was seeking to foreclose because the $2,095 monthly mortgage hasn't been paid since November 1997.

Instead, the bankruptcy court judge decided the lawyers should work out some form of payment from the Pils until the trial.

When asked about the family's income, Pil said relatives and friends have been helping out. He added that he received unemployment benefits for a while and his wife received some pay as a teacher at Torah Day School.

"Financially, we're suffering," he said. "But in general, I have more time to spend with my family."

As for the ongoing legal quagmire, Pil envisions a time when it will be behind him.

"I'm just looking like this is a temporary thing."