Truly, it is one of life’s secret joys to discover a crumpled $20 bill in the pocket of your old jeans. After all, money found is definitely sweeter than money earned.

So, imagine what it’d be like to slip on your dungarees and find $894 in the back pocket. That’s what happened to San Leandro’s Temple Beth Sholom.

It turns out the Reform congregation’s endowment fund is owed a wad of cash by Bank of the West, and the sum found its way into the state controller’s unclaimed money account. Once the congregation fills out some forms and the state processes them, the money is theirs.

“This is a great surprise,” said Helena Weiss-Duman, Beth Sholom’s endowment chair.

“It’s like a generous donation, and we’re happy to have it.”

The San Leandro temple was alerted by j. celebrity columnist Nate Bloom, who happened to be perusing the controller’s Web page — — when he punched in the search criteria “Jewish.” It turns out scores of California Jewish institutions are owed money, ranging from the $36.26 San Francisco Congregation Sherith Israel could claim to hundreds or thousands of dollars potentially heading to other organizations. Also owed varying amounts of loot: the S.F-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and many others.

“All right! I like it, I like it,” exclaimed Pat Pink, the senior accountant at the Addison Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos, when informed that Pacific Bell owed the JCC $152.97.

“It’s better than calling me up and saying we owe money. It sure is.”

The state is holding on to several billion dollars owed to millions of businesses or individuals in its unclaimed money account. Under California law, any financial asset left inactive for three years or more must be delivered to the controller’s office if a business is unable to contact the potential beneficiary. The state then holds the money in perpetuity.

Most unclaimed money cases involve death or relocation, according to Paul Hefner, a spokesman for the controller’s office.

Potential payoffs include unclaimed deposits from starting gas and electric service, the final refund from homeowner’s insurance or items left behind in a deceased person’s safe deposit box. Oftentimes, individuals’ or businesses’ new addresses slip through the cracks, and notifications of the money they are due reach the wrong people — or are mistaken as junk mail by the right people.

In Temple Beth Sholom’s case, Bank of the West had been sending material to the business address of a former congregant, who has since died.

“You’d think this would never happen. Someone who hasn’t moved and has had no changes in their life, this theoretically shouldn’t happen,” said Hefner.

The $2 billion to $3 billion in the state’s vaults prove, however, that it does happen.

The labyrinthine paths the funds followed before ending up in the controller’s care left many Jewish organizations scratching their heads at how they could possibly be owed money.

“We’ve been in business 50 years or so, and I don’t know how long they have owed us this amount. I have no idea how this debt was incurred,” said Al Batzdorff, the acting executive director of Santa Rosa’s Temple Beth Ami, which is owed $107.72 by Bank of America.

“I know we’re not doing any banking at Bank of America now. But we must have at one time.”

The address listed for Beth Ami in the state’s records also mystified Batzdorff, but he noted that “a few extra bucks is welcome news.”

Sandra Simon, the administrator for the Jewish Home, couldn’t begin to postulate how the senior living facility came to be owed $832.68 by three separate organizations. But, again, “It’s always nice to find out someone owes money to you.”

While many parties owed money felt ashamed at their obliviousness, Hefner points out that, often, beneficiaries are owed refunds, royalties or other payments they simply couldn’t know they deserve, as the businesses they dealt with have lost their contact information.

And, if it makes people feel any better, Hefner discovered he is owed roughly $200 himself.

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.