Rabbi and doctor accused of diverting memorial funds

A lawsuit filed April 22 in San Francisco Superior Court accuses Rabbi Shimon Margolin and a local physician of pocketing funds they solicited for a Bay Area Holocaust memorial.

The suit, filed by a group of Ukrainian-born Jews calling itself the Odessa Compatriot Association, charges Margolin and Dr. Vadim Kvitash, a San Francisco allergist, with failing to follow through on promises to build a memorial to Odessa residents killed in the Holocaust. The two have been soliciting donations for the project since 1998.

Margolin, 30, has labeled the suit an effort "to defame and destroy and ruin my reputation. I think the intention is to try to make a scandal out of it."

Added Kvitash, 67, a Ukrainian emigre who has lived in the United States since 1974: "Each of these accusations is absolutely imaginary. Even more, it is delusional."

Kvitash and Margolin — who also emigrated from Ukraine nearly a decade ago and lives in San Francisco — are charged with deceit, fraud and use of undue influence by the Odessa Compatriot Association, which seeks up to $400,000 in punitive damages.

While Kvitash and Margolin say they can account for the roughly $18,000 they say they've collected for the Shoah memorial since 1998, the plaintiffs claim those funds and other charitable donations have never been properly documented, and there's no telling how much money has gone unaccounted for.

The suit claims Kvitash was a former president of the compatriot association and accuses him of unilaterally deciding to turn over funds for several other charitable projects to Margolin's Techiah Foundation in 1998. Margolin established the foundation in late 1997 to aid local Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union.

The lawsuit also claims Kvitash improperly solicited funds from his patients while they were in his office, which he denies.

Finally, the suit alleges that Margolin falsely claimed to have graduated from New Jersey's Rabbinical College of America-Lubavitch, and that he has been misrepresenting himself to the community as an ordained rabbi.

Both Kvitash and Margolin said the lawsuit is the result of a personal vendetta against them by Sam Targan, a board member of the compatriot association.

Targan, a retired San Francisco resident and former civil engineer, denied that charge, stating that he just "wants openness in everything…all people are against them, not just me." He added that the association's 10-member board voted to proceed with the lawsuit, 8-2.

John Weinstein, a lawyer representing the compatriot association, added that Targan and others have been asking pertinent questions for a number of years and were repeatedly rebuffed.

"For several years, [Kvitash and Margolin] have been soliciting these amounts of money from Holocaust survivors for erecting some kind of memorial, somewhere. But all of our attempts to get answers for some basic questions — How much money have you collected? What actual plans do you have to erect this? — he's basically stonewalling us," Weinstein said.

"Basically, where's the money?"

Kvitash and Margolin said, however, that the money is fully accounted for, in a Wells Fargo bank account under the aegis of the Techiah Foundation. Margolin noted that the names of the more than 1,000 donors have been listed in Kvitash's Odessky Listok Russian-language newspaper, as are the fund-raising totals. Margolin claimed $18,053 has been raised thus far.

Margolin also claims he and Kvitash have said all along that it would take no less than $20,000 to obtain a plot and build the monument in the San Francisco vicinity. No timeline was ever attached to the project, and no suitable plot has yet turned up, he added.

Displaying a sheaf of photocopied checks and cash in his Geary Boulevard office, Margolin promised that he could document "every single cent."

Margolin also claimed a competition for the design of the Holocaust memorial is due to be announced next month, which would not be delayed by the pending litigation. Kvitash, however, told the Bulletin there were no plans for a competition next month, as he has had trouble locating a site for the memorial.

Discussing the Odessa Compatriots Association, Kvitash maintained he was never its president but he used to head an organization called Odessa Landsmanship. Targan, however, said these groups are one and the same. The suit claims Kvitash has fraudulently represented himself as the president of the compatriot association since his term expired in 1999.

Regarding Margolin's ordination, the suit claims he has been misrepresenting himself as a graduate of the Rabbinical College of America. Margolin admits he left after only eight months of study, which administrators at the school recently confirmed.

Rabbi Zalman Dubinsky, the rabbinical college's director, noted that his school does not provide ordination. Those seeking to be ordained must attend a second yeshiva or enroll in a rabbinical program.

Margolin does not head a Bay Area congregation, but he serves the Russian-speaking Jewish community, providing High Holy Day services, lifecycle events and spiritual counseling. He also hosts local Russian-language TV and radio shows and publishes a monthly newspaper.

Margolin sent the Bulletin numerous certificates that he said documented his rabbinical education. He also pointed to a diploma on his office wall that indicated ordination had been granted by Yitzchok Yehuda Yaroslavsky, an Israeli Chabad rabbi well known for flying around the world to ordain rabbinical students.

On April 28, Margolin told the Bulletin he received his ordination in 1999. On April 29, he said early 1998. According to the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, Margolin wrote that he was ordained in 1997 on his application.

"If he represented himself as a rabbi when he knew that he wasn't a rabbi, and solicited money on that basis, it sounds like fraudulent representation to me," said Weinstein.

Margolin, however, said he and Kvitash are the victims of a smear campaign, and he noted that it was a common occurrence in the Soviet Union for authorities to attack the Jewish community by slandering its rabbis.

"This is just what is happening to me in the year 2003," said Margolin, who claims he did not know about the lawsuit until questioned about it by the Bulletin on April 28.

"I am very glad this lawsuit was filed. It is going to be determined, publicly, which allegations are true and which are false."

Weinstein, meanwhile, said Kvitash and Margolin could have avoided a suit with just a little bit of cooperation. "Possibly, if these guys had been a little more forthcoming, we would not be in litigation," he said.

"But they weren't, so we are."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.