Ex-bookkeeper Charged with Embezzling from Reform Seminary

The former fiscal administrator for the Los Angeles campus of the Reform movement’s seminary has been arrested and charged with embezzling $1.179 million.

Jean Thorbourn, 61, forged numerous checks between 1989 and 1997 using a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion dean’s signature stamp and apparently applied a considerable part of the money to finance production of independent films, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Thorbourn, who also doubled as bookkeeper, had considerable latitude in her job and her supervisors were slow in detecting the embezzlement, said Gary Judge, a senior investigator in the D.A.’s Office.

The alleged thefts first came to light in September 1997, when Rabbi Lewis Barth, who had been named dean of the HUC campus two months earlier, questioned Thorbourn about an expected but overdue payment of $381,000.

Thorbourn said she had given the money to a friend, but a month later admitted that the money was used to finance a film titled “Jamaica Beat.”

Barth said he immediately notified authorities and Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, president of HUC, which encompasses campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Jerusalem and Los Angeles.

Thorbourn was fired after her admission, but at the request of the district attorney the case was not made public while his office investigated the matter in depth.

Thorbourn has now been charged with 13 counts of forgery, one count of grand theft and four counts of filing false state tax returns.

She is being held on $1.179 million bail, the exact amount she allegedly embezzled. She was to have been arraigned last Friday, but her appearance was postponed until this week.

Her attorney, Stephen Jones, was not available for comment.

Thorbourn has apparently returned some of the money used in the film production, and Zimmerman said in a statement that additional funds have been recovered through the college’s insurance carrier.

He emphasized that no dues from Reform congregations or from private donations were affected by the alleged embezzlement.

HUC’s Los Angeles campus has an enrollment of 673 students and operates on an annual budget of about $3.5 million.

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