New Mexico Jewish community fears ‘implosion’ amid harassment, lawsuits over mismanagement

JTA — With his livelihood on the line, Rob Lennick texted the wrong Deborah.

The CEO of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, Lennick sent a message asking for support for an extension of his contract. He was also applying for a $30,000 forgivable loan from the federation to pay for repairs to a house he hoped to buy.

Lennick had wanted to join Deborah Boldt, who was on the federation’s board of directors – but he joined Deborah Albrycht, the federation’s human resources manager.

What happened next sparked a crisis in Jewish community life in New Mexico that many believe could dismantle the philanthropic structure supporting synagogues, elder care for Holocaust survivors, programs for youth and cultural initiatives. The situation is also a source of uncertainty for thousands of people who depended on the federation to help them obtain Spanish nationality under a program of reparations for the descendants of Jews expelled during the Inquisition.

Before receiving Lennick’s errant message, Albrycht was unaware that the board would vote on Lennick’s request at the next board meeting. But she knew that several employees had recently complained to her about Lennick, according to court records. They reported inappropriate behavior such as harassment, bullying and gender discrimination.

After receiving the misdirected text, Albrycht decided it was important to notify Board Chair Sabra Minkus of the complaints ahead of the February 17, 2021 vote. Minkus seemed concerned about what Albrycht had told her. said, and she even hired a mediator to start investigating.

But she also told Albrycht to shut up, and when it came time to vote on Lennick’s contract extension and loan, most board members had no idea his conduct was under scrutiny. an investigation, according to court records. They approved his new contract by a vote of 20 to 1.

An email from two of the federation’s biggest donors two months later revealed what Minkus didn’t have. Donors said they would withhold further contributions because the employees’ allegations were concealed from the board. Other donors quickly followed suit.

Albrycht resigned the following day. By the end of June 2021, 11 board members had resigned. Several would later record their protest in affidavits accusing Minkus and his allies on the board of deception and mismanagement.

Dr. Sarah Koplik, former director of community outreach at the New Mexico Jewish Federation, outside the Hillel House at the University of New Mexico. (Courtesy)

The sequence of events at the federation is drawn from three lawsuits filed against the federation in recent months. Four board members who remained when the 11 resigned are asking a New Mexico court to remove the authority of the federation’s executive committee. They want a court-appointed overseer to step in and check the finances of the federation.

Meanwhile, two of the people who complained to Lennick’s HR have filed separate lawsuits. Sara Koplik and Jordi Gendra have since been fired in what their attorney calls an act of retaliation.

Koplik and Gendra were responsible for a unique federation program certifying Sephardic heritage for applicants for citizenship under Spain’s Law of Return, an effort launched in 2015 to redress the persecution suffered by Jews during the Inquisition. hundreds of years ago. As a rabbi and a native of Barcelona, ​​Gendra would be the first rabbi to be born in Spain since the days of the Inquisition.

The federation had collected more than $1 million in fees from applicants, with additional fees going to a local synagogue whose rabbi had signed certificates, according to court filings. But late last year, certificate holders learned that the federation had abruptly halted its Sephardic heritage program.

At stake in the cascading dispute is the future of Jewish community life in Albuquerque and beyond, according to the lawsuits and interviews with local community members, one of whom said she was “horrified,” calling the situation an “implosion”.

“Under current leadership, the very existence of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico hangs in the balance,” Renni Zifferblatt, the attorney representing the four revolting board members, wrote in a court filing. February 6 statement. Zifferblatt accused Lennick, Minkus and other members of the federation’s executive committee of “wilful and reckless misconduct” that turned the federation into an “autocratic entity”.

To back up these claims, Zifferblatt sought input from Samuel Sokolove, who was the federation’s executive director from 2005 to 2015. Sokolove signed an affidavit for the court describing the “chaos” at the federation. He defended Koplik and Gendra, with whom he had worked, and blamed the disputes on the leaders of the federation. He warned that the federation could “fail as an organization” if nothing was done.

Echoing the same concerns, the Rabbinical and Cantorial Association of Albuquerque called on current leaders to step down, “in view of the clear damage done to the reputation of the conference.”

Illustrative: University of New Mexico Hillel students. (courtesy)

Meanwhile, Lennick – after pushing for a long-term contract and buying a house locally – announced at a federation meeting on March 23 that he would be leaving in June to pursue a new career opportunity. not specified.

In response to an email seeking comment from Lennick, Minukus and current federation president David Blacher, Blacher wrote that a lawyer had advised them not to comment on pending litigation.

Like the 146 other organizations affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America, the New Mexico Federation raises funds for local Jewish institutions and global Jewish causes. Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of JFNA, acknowledged the recent turmoil, but downplayed its severity.

“We stand with the Jewish Federation of New Mexico as it works to mend the fractures in this community and continues to support Jewish infrastructure, improve Jewish life, serve the most vulnerable and exceed its goals of fundraiser,” Fingerhut said in a written statement.

According to a JFNA spokesperson, “There is no indication that the continued operations of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico are in any way questioned.

The fate of the Albuquerque Jewish Federation matters to the dozens of local causes it supports, but the crisis in the Land of Enchantment is also reverberating across the country and the world.

On the one hand, the issue of hostile workplaces is at the forefront of attention in the Jewish world, with investigations of rabbis recently launched in at least three Reform synagogues.

Lennick, an ordained Reform rabbi, started the New Mexico conference in 2019. He had served as the pulpit of congregations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Florida and Connecticut, often for very short stints. Court filings suggest plaintiffs’ attorneys are reviewing his case at those locations.

Worldwide, some 20,000 people hold certificates of Sephardic heritage from the federation. Some of them have successfully applied for Spanish nationality, but it is estimated that thousands more are still in process. With no dedicated staff available to defend them and answer questions, many certificate holders are feel abandoned. Adding to the sting is that the program was shut down shortly after some critics in the Spanish media and genealogists elsewhere insinuated that the New Mexico contestants were faking their Sephardic heritage.

Fraud allegations have been circulated when the Spanish government last year has tightened its rules for the program. As a result, after years in which just one person was refused and 34,000 approved, 2021 has seen thousands refused and thousands more unable to get a response.

An applicant for citizenship under Spain’s Sephardic restitution law, James Ord traveled to Barcelona in May 2019 to sign papers, experiencing what he calls “one of the happiest days of my life as a ‘adult’ and ‘a huge affirmation of years of research and a spiritual journey’. ‘ (Courtesy James Ord/ via JTA)

James Ord is one of thousands of federation certificate candidates who are in limbo, and he is angry.

“The federation has discontinued the Sephardic heritage program and they have made no statement to defend its legitimacy,” Ord told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “They basically threw us under the bus. The federation has stood idly by and allowed all candidates to have their reputations tainted by wild allegations of fraud as they refuse to stand up to these allegations.

In the first years after the passage of Spain’s Law of Return, few Jewish institutions chose to embark on examining genealogical records and producing the kind of certification needed for applicants to qualify. . But the New Mexico conference became active on the issue early on. This is due to historical circumstances particular to the region it serves.

During the Inquisition, when Spain forced Jews to convert to Christianity or be exiled, many of those who chose to convert continued to practice at least some Jewish rituals in secret. In recent decades, evidence has surfaced that some conversos and crypto-Jews crossed the ocean with the Spanish Empire, eventually settling in what is now New Mexico.

Many members of the oldest Spanish-born families in the state profess customs that would seem odd in a region historically dominated by Catholicism. Ord, whose genealogy goes back 28 generations in medieval Spain, comes from such a family.

“We would have Easter dinner growing up, and we would leave an empty plate at the table full of herbs that were still on the stalk,” Ord said, alluding to a practice reminiscent of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which has takes place around the same time as Easter. “We didn’t know why we did it. No one remembered.

“In New Mexico,” he added, “the more religious someone is, the less pork they will eat.”

A lawyer by profession, Ord says he is among a group of several dozen people who plan to sue the federation.

“There was no legal contract that they would support us through the process,” Ord said. “However, they had assumed a duty of care and therefore legally they owe us.”

Barley Castellano contributed to this story.

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