Close to 400 yeshiva administrators and their accountants participated in a conference yesterday focused on important issues relating to federal taxation laws. The conference, organized by Agudath Israel of America, was the latest in a series of major gatherings for administrators of religious and charitable organizations in the Orthodox Jewish community, and was designed to promote greater awareness of, and compliance with, secular law.The seminar garnered an unexpected degree of interest. According to Agudath Israel of America education affairs director Mrs. Deborah Zachai, the original venue had to be changed to accommodate the number of participants.
Mrs. Zachai, education affairs associate Dovid Tannenbaum and Yehudah Kupfer, an Agudath Israel staff lawyer assisting her in organizing the event, moved quickly in the days preceding the conference to secure a larger hall, Agudath Israel Bais Binyomin in Brooklyn. Reservations continued to come in, though, and even that hall could barely contain the crowd.
The tax seminar for yeshivos was the latest in an ongoing series of gatherings organized by Agudath Israel to promote awareness of the importance of compliance with secular law and to educate the Orthodox community about legal requirements and procedures.
The idea of the series emerged from a large gathering on July 28 in Borough Park that attracted well over a thousand people and whose proceedings were electronically transmitted to thousands more. One of the highlights of that assemblage, which featured speeches from major rabbinic figures and legal experts on the theme “Vi’asiso Hayashar V’hatov” – “You shall do that which is straight and good” – was an address by Rabbi Naftali Weisz, the Spinka Rebbe, who expressed public chagrin over mistakes that he himself had made and issued an impassioned plea for greater sensitivity to the importance of compliance with secular law. Indeed, Rabbi Weisz has been instrumental in helping Agudath Israel channel the community institutions’ determination to comply with applicable laws into the ongoing series of conferences geared for a variety of institutions and efforts.
The first such workshop, for administrators of Gemachs (free loan funds) and similar charitable entities, took place in the Spinka Hall in Borough Park on September 23 and featured lawyers and a CPA, who offered information and advice to the approximately 200 Gemach representatives in attendance. That same day, Agudath Israel of California was one of the sponsors of a symposium focused on the issue of compliance rules for nonprofit organizations.
Tuesday’s conference was the third in the series. Another conference is planned for November 12 in Lakewood, New Jersey, for Gemachs and charitable funds; and plans are being pursued for similar symposia in other cities across the country.
The size of the crowd at Tuesday’s conference not only surprised the organizers but, according to another of the symposium’s organizers, Agudath Israel associate general counsel Rabbi Mordechai Biser, belied the perception of some that yeshivos are less than fully concerned about crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s when it comes to the finer points of the law. “The administrators and accountants dedicated more than three hours from their schedules,” he said, “for one reason only: to ensure that everything their institutions do passes full legal muster.”
The program focused on three general topics: charitable contributions, parsonage and employee benefits.
Addressing charitable contributions was Jay A. Friedman, Esq., Managing Director and Tax Counsel, Goldman Sachs. Among the issues he addressed were deductibility of tuition payments, Chinese auctions and other games of chance, building funds, dinners and substantiation and disclosure.
Jacob I. Friedman, Esq., Partner, Proskauer Rose LLP, took on the parsonage issue, explaining how parsonage is implemented, who is eligible, what expenses can be included and what taxes employees must pay on parsonage allowances.
The third area of focus, benefits to employees, was addressed by Mel Zachter, CPA, Executive Partner, Loeb & Troper; and by Allan M. Blum, CPA, Partner, Loeb & Troper. Mr. Zachter dealt with the issue of qualified tuition reduction plans, and Mr. Blum addressed insurance and child care expenses and retirement plans.
The presentations were followed by questions from the attendees, and they were many, which the presenters fielded with aplomb.
Acting as moderator for the conference was Agudath Israel executive vice president for finance and administration Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin; and introductory remarks were delivered by the organization’s executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel and by Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, the rov of Agudas Yisroel Bais Binyomin.
After Tuesday’s conference, Rabbi Zwiebel noted the significance of the turnout, interpreting the packed hall as evidence that “that those in positions of responsibility at our yeshivos are determined to have the information they need to ensure that their institutions are operated in accordance with all pertinent laws.”
The gathering, he added, “was not only of practical value to the participants; it was a true Kiddush Shem Shomayim.”