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When a major local philanthropic organization, the Koret Foundation, pulled $50,000 in scholarship funding from the Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy last year -- funding that had been routinely provided for a decade -- no reason was given.
The two students who constitute the school's alumni association started a worldwide petition seeking reinstatement of the grant. The petition has garnered more than 2,000 signatures of support, some from prominent Jewish figures.
But the foundation still won't talk.
Dr. Sandra Edwards, Koret's chief operating officer and director of grants, has refused to speak or meet with anyone from the academy for more than a year. "We've asked and written, and the whole board refused to meet with us," says Yelena Giderman, one of the two members of the school's alumni association. "They won't explain why."
SF Weekly's questions about funding received the same answer: The Koret Foundation doesn't talk about grant applications and will not comment.
What the foundation won't comment about is complicated and fascinating.
The Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy and the Koret Foundation have been prominent in San Francisco for years.
The only Orthodox Jewish school in the Bay Area, the Hebrew Academy was founded by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, who now serves as dean; it opened its doors in 1969 to just 53 students. The current enrollment is 170 students, ranging from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. The academy serves primarily low-income Russian immigrants, with more than 90 percent of students on scholarship, and many of their families on welfare, Lipner says. "Rabbi Lipner took us in when no one else would," says Yan Brunshteyn, the other member of the school's alumni association.
Established in 1979 with portions of the estate of sportswear magnate Joseph Koret, the Koret Foundation has given more than $300 million in grants over the years. With more than $315 million in assets, Koret makes grants nationwide and in Israel, but its primary focus is the Bay Area. In recent years the foundation has given millions of dollars to educational and cultural endeavors throughout the region, including a $10 million donation to the University of California's Mission Bay campus in San Francisco; $6.2 million to the San Francisco Jewish Community Center; $3.5 million to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum; and $3.25 million to the University of San Francisco's Koret Law Center. In August, Koret pledged more than $1 million toward revitalizing the lagoon at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. (Koret Director and President Tad Taube will also personally contribute more than $1 million to the lagoon project.)
According to the foundation's Web site, Koret has "become a critical partner in the effort to strengthen Jewish life and culture in the region." It gives large annual grants to the Bay Area's three Jewish community federations and all the Jewish schools -- except the Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy.
Koret began giving scholarship funding to the academy in the mid-'90s. Although President Taube refused to comment to SF Weekly, he previously told J., San Francisco's weekly Jewish newspaper, that Koret had supported the academy on and off since the 1990s, giving the school "probably something in the six figures" in total.
But then the academy's grant renewal application was abruptly rejected for the 2004-2005 school year. With an annual budget of $1.3 million, all from donations and grants, the academy was hit hard by the loss of $50,000 in Koret funding. Katherine Lemann, the academy's principal, says the school has a lot of debt. "The rabbi has borrowed a lot of money and has gone into personal debt to keep the school going," she says.
In the absence of an official explanation for the reduction in Koret support, speculation has blossomed.
Rabbi Lipner -- outspoken, political, and unapologetically Orthodox -- thinks Koret cut funding to his institution out of sectarian bias. "This is a liberal city, and there is discrimination and resentment towards the Orthodox community," he says.
The academy is now the only Jewish school in the Bay Area not receiving Koret money. "And we're the only Orthodox school, too," adds Principal Lemann. "So if it isn't about discrimination against Orthodox Jews, then it's just a bizarre coincidence."
Along with many other members of the Jewish community, Kampner alumna Giderman suspects that ethnic discrimination -- the Kampner academy primarily serves Russian immigrants -- is at the heart of the funding cut. When asked if ethnic bias might be the reason for the funding change, Susan Wolfe, the director of communications for Koret, laughed out loud, but then quickly said, "No comment."
There is another, perhaps more plausible explanation for the funding cutoff laid out in legal documents filed in Superior Court.
In 2002, Rabbi Lipner filed a $10 million lawsuit against local philanthropist Richard Goldman and the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, alleging that Goldman, the federation's former president, had defamed the rabbi in a 1992 interview. (Despite the ongoing lawsuit, the federation still provides the academy with $210,000 in annual funding.)
Lipner says the comments, made in an interview that was one in a series of oral histories done by the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, defamed both him and his school. (The Regional Oral History Office is funded in part by the federation.) In the oral history, which is a public document, Goldman says, among other things, that "I don't think [Rabbi Lipner] is an honorable man"; "When he would walk in to the room, the children would stand at attention as if it were the Führer walking in"; and "I think he is self-serving and an embarrassment."