Orthodox Jews find conflict in enclosure

August 05, 1994|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

Because of Bert Miller, life has been far easier for thousands of Orthodox Jews in Northwest Baltimore for the last 13 years.

It was Dr. Miller who in 1981 spearheaded the creation of the eruv, a special 16-square-mile area in which some of the strict religious rules governing Orthodox behavior on the Sabbath could be slightly relaxed. And it was Dr. Miller who labored strenuously through the years to maintain the boundaries of the eruv and to publish a directory of its residents.

In light of that unquestioned record of service and effort, a grateful community never bothered to examine the internal operations of the eruv or to question Dr. Miller's decisions. Until now.

Last week, the Jewish Times revealed that the eruv directory had paid $40,000 to Dr. Miller's wife Rachelle, owner of a graphic arts business, for work she was performing on the directory this year. As a result of that disclosure, Dr. Miller resigned Wednesday night after 13 years as the eruv's only president. The eruv's board of directors, which had never been informed of the payments to Mrs. Miller, has also ordered an audit of the eruv's finances.

Avraham Cohen, Dr. Miller's successor as president, said last night that he is not worried that the audit will reveal a misappropriation of money. Dr. Miller, he is convinced, is only guilty of bad judgment.

"My opinion is that he's an honest guy, but he's not a smart guy when it comes to practical matters," Mr. Cohen said. "He didn't think that if his wife was being paid, people would see it as a conflict of interest."

Dr. Miller, a teacher with a Ph.D. in mathematics, was circumspect about the controversy yesterday, although he insisted, "I have never accepted a penny of salary, commission, or any renumeration whatsoever for the thousands of volunteer hours that I spent on behalf of the organization over 19 years."

He added that because of Mrs. Miller's help, the directory had doubled in size in four years.

The eruv is essentially a religious easement, a "legal fiction," in the words of Mr. Cohen. Orthodox Jews believe they are forbidden from carrying objects or even pushing baby strollers outside their homes on the Sabbath, which runs from Friday at sunset to Saturday at sunset. However, their reading of religious texts provides them an out. A special area -- or an eruv -- can be created around a community to essentially expand the boundaries of the home where the carrying of most objects is permitted.

Nearly 20 years ago, Dr. Miller set about creating such an eruv in Northwest Baltimore. It was a Herculean task because the eruv must be surrounded by an unbroken physical boundary -- in this case, fencing, telephone and electrical wiring and even string. It took six years, but finally, in 1981, the eruv was completed.

Every week since then, the eruv has been inspected to make sure there are no breaks in it. There is even a special telephone number to report gaps. The Orthodox community is asked to pay dues to maintain the eruv.

In 1983, Dr. Miller began publishing a directory of the Orthodox community within the eruv. The directory was small at first but has grown to a slick, 432-page book today that is chock full of advertising. "Not a day goes by that people don't use it," said Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Cohen said that the book became profitable about four years ago, around the time Mrs. Miller started receiving pay for it.

But the payments didn't become public until Dr. Miller became embroiled in a conflict with Jonathan Whitman, a software developer who volunteered last summer to computerize the directory. Mr. Whitman said he chafed under Dr. Miller's autocratic manner and also was enraged to learn of the payments to Mrs. Cohen for what he thought was a charitable cause.

Mr. Whitman eventually alerted the eruv's board as well as the Vaad HaRabbonim, the Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore, about Dr. Miller's payments to his wife.

He also raised other questions. Based on his knowledge of the eruv's operations, he estimated that the directory raises around $150,000 in advertising revenues while its printing costs are only around $10,000. The eruv also collects dues ranging from $25 to $100, from its 3,000 members to help pay for the maintenance of the eruv, which Mr. Whitman estimated at less than $15,000 a year.

"I ask, where is the rest of the money?" he said.

Dr. Miller retorted, "The only thing I wish to say is that Mr. Whitman is in no position to know because he was never involved in running the organization."

Mr. Whitman is now suing Dr. Miller in a religious court for $50,000, which he said would cover his work on the directory this year.

Mr. Cohen admits that he does not yet have an accounting of all the revenue generated by the eruv. One reason that he doesn't know is that the eruv board, which was reconstituted three months ago, never met. "I think the feeling was that the thing was running along fine, why bother?" said Mr. Cohen.

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