Exclusive: Special Investigative Report - The Jewish Voice
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The Man Behind the Controversy - Rabbi Shlomo Braum of Borough Park - a major fundraiser for Aleh Foundation in Brooklyn
The Man Behind the Controversy – Rabbi Shlomo Braum of Borough Park – a major fundraiser for Aleh Foundation in Brooklyn
In 1982, ALEH Bnei Brak was a fledgling day clinic for critically disabled children, operating out of a rented apartment. Desperately seeking an alternative to poorly run state hospitals and well-meaning yet ill-equipped convents, which were the only facilities in Israel willing to care for severely challenged children at the time, Eliezer Fishoff, along with four other Bnei Brak families, founded ALEH in an effort to create a loving and compassionate environment in which their children could be offered the best care possible.

By 1988, ALEH sought someone to help meet the ever increasing demand for its services, and Yehuda Marmorstein’s work advocating for Israel’s disabled and disadvantaged convinced the board he was right for the job. Marmorstein’s fundraising and marketing efforts at ALEH Bnei Brak had been so effective that by 1994 he was appointed director general of the entire network of ALEH facilities, which he helped grow from the small day clinic into facilities in Bnei Brak, Gedera and Jerusalem, and later in the Negev, ultimately providing care for 650 severely disabled children in Israel with a total annual operating budget of $30 million.

The road from a small day clinic caring for a handful of children to Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe disabilities has been riddled with bumps, however – the largest and most frustrating of which, according to ALEH, has been Rabbi Shlomo Braun and his Aleh Foundation based in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

Though Marmorstein and ALEH have successfully raised private and public funds in Israel and have won the support of Israeli dignitaries such as Maj. General Doron Almog (res.), whose own son was severely disabled, in 1989, ALEH was virtually unknown outside of Israel. ALEH sought a partner in the United States to help raise funds and establish an “American friends of…” to ease the transaction of money and to put a face to the organization beyond Israel. Through a translator, Marmorstein recounted: “I don’t know English, and to open an office in New York would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We wanted someone with connections in the United States.”

He was introduced to Rabbi Shlomo Braun, a Brooklyn social worker with local political ties and access to wealthy individuals eager to donate to a good cause. Braun set up shop in Borough Park in 1989, and his Aleh Foundation began raising funds ostensibly to be used to support the activities of ALEH in Israel. At first, Aleh of Israel was pleased to accept whatever money Braun managed to raise for them. Like Marmorstein in Israel, Braun had managed to recruit the help of numerous private donors and political figures to support his cause (Braun boasts Senators Joseph Lieberman and Chuck Schumer as board members of his charity).

Unlike Marmorstein, though, Braun would organize lavish dinners at museums and hotels throughout New York, featuring luminaries such as Elie Wiesel and Ehud Olmert as guest speakers, and honoring a seemingly endless list of politicians and figures from the business and medical communities. Throughout their twenty-one year relationship, according to ALEH, Aleh Foundation and ALEH of Israel maintained separate staffs, and mostly worked together on money transactions.

Occasionally, Aleh Foundation would send an American donor to Israel for a sight visit, at which time ALEH staff would provide tours of their facilities. The relationship began to sour, however, after Braun started sending fewer funds to ALEH in Israel, and it became less clear how much money was actually being raised and where it was going. According to an ALEH spokesperson, “In 2010, ALEH decided to split from Aleh Foundation because we began to suspect that not enough money was being used for the benefit of the children. While trying to increase the effectiveness of funds being raised, the board decided to cut expenses that were not generating enough results. The New York office was providing significantly less funds than it had in the past, and providing less information, becoming more of a liability than a help.

The board then decided that it was time to separate in order to ensure that more money was being used for ALEH programming and not overhead.” Another factor contributing to the split was that, according to Marmorstein, “Braun wanted all the fundraising for ALEH Negev to go through him” – a proposition that its chairman Doron Almog, whose son’s struggles with severe disabilities were the inspiration for the founding and naming of Aleh Negev Nahalat Eran in 2003, absolutely refused to go along with. In a conversation with Jewish Voice publisher, David BenHooren, at JNF’s “Tree of Life” dinner at New York’s Pierre Hotel last March, Almog said about Braun, “I have nothing to do with him and I never had anything to do with him.”

According to Marmorstein, Braun was not pleased with ALEH’s desire to sever ties, but he had hoped Braun would respect the decision of ALEH’s board. Braun, however, continued to organize dinners and raise money purportedly for ALEH in Israel even after the split, using ALEH’s name and marketing materials to promote his events and fundraising efforts.

On May 14, 2012, The Jewish Voice printed a short piece about an Aleh Foundation dinner on our calendar of events stating: “The Aleh Foundation supports Aleh in Israel, the nation’s largest provider of educational rehabilitative services to severely developmentally disabled children operating in four different cities in Israel.” ALEH claims not to have received a penny from that event. Despite ALEH’s repeated requests that Braun cease and desist using ALEH’s logo, promotional text and color scheme, as well as images of ALEH children and ALEH employees on his website and newsletters, ALEH claims Braun has been unresponsive or has denied the issue.

Braun reported a total of $1,340,102 in contributions to the IRS for the years 2010 and 2011 – $816,945 in 2010, $523,157 in 2011. (Aleh Foundation’s 2012 form 990 that all 501c organizations are required to file is not yet available for public review). The only evidence the Jewish Voice was able to obtain regarding funds sent from Aleh Foundation in Brooklyn to ALEH in Israel, after the 2010 split, were records of money wires for the year 2012, emailed by Braun to the Jewish Voice, totaling $152,000. According to Marmorstein, that $152,000 represents donations that donors specifically asked Braun to provide to ALEH in Israel. ALEH acknowledges that when donors have asked Braun to send their donations directly to any of the ALEH facilities in Israel, Braun has complied. Their concern, however, is the fate of the funds raised by Braun, not specifically earmarked by American donors to be sent to Israel. When Braun was reached for comment at his office in Brooklyn to follow up on the matter, he hung up on a Jewish Voice staff member.

In 2010, Braun inferred that he was branching out into supporting causes other than ALEH in Israel. A press release issued by the Aleh Foundation that year read, “The Foundation is pleased to announce that they have taken the unprecedented step of adding several more worthy Israeli causes to Aleh Foundation’s ‘family’. Now, Aleh Foundation supporters will be able to choose exactly who they want to help from amongst Israel’s neediest.” The additions to Aleh Foundation’s list of beneficiaries might have accounted for some of the money that failed to make its way into ALEH’s coffers in Israel, yet amidst the visual wonderland Braun has created on his website, including an endorsement written by Bill Clinton and a video of Elie Wiesel heaping praise, ALEH of Israel’s logo and color scheme remain ubiquitous.

A slideshow on Aleh Foundation’s site flaunts a photo of a wealthy donor handing a $50,000 check over to Marmorstein. Under the programs tab of Aleh Foundation’s website, donors are offered the opportunity to give up to $5,000,000 to a new state of the art facility to be built by ALEH in Bnei Brak. Nowhere on the site, though, could there be found a categorical statement that Aleh Foundation and ALEH of Israel are two distinct organizations that are unaffiliated.

When asked if Aleh Foundation’s ambiguity regarding its association with ALEH was hindering ALEH’s ability to fund certain projects, an ALEH spokesperson said, “Like all non-profits, we work on an extremely tight budget and depend on donations, which can vary. We are a leader in the field of caring for the disabled, and have sought to take our initiatives forward as best we can due to limited funds. Our staff and volunteers set their sights on new initiatives and activities that we cannot always fund. As such, the lack of funds coming from America because they are going to Aleh Foundation rather than ALEH has been detrimental to our programming and expansion.”

In the opening shots of an ALEH promotional video entitled, “The Gift of Love,” Doron Almog, first sitting in a garden and then over footage of him embracing his severely autistic and mentally challenged son, says, “The moment you understand that your child, your own child, will never ever be a normal child, it’s painful. It’s a punch at your stomach, and suddenly you need to reshape your life.” If the severely disabled children of ALEH in Israel have indeed failed to benefit from the gifts intended for them, then it is they who have suffered the greatest punch of all.

We encourage Rabbi Braun to contact us to clarify exactly where the funds raised by Aleh Foundation of Brooklyn are going.

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