Menu JTA Search

Prison for synagogue embezzler

PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 2 (JTA) — Barry Wilf has stood before the members of Temple Sinai many times in his life, teaching Hebrew school, leading services and reading from the Torah. But on Oct. 23, he stood before dozens of congregants is a less honorable role, begging for mercy before a judge sentenced him to five years in prison for embezzling more than $1 million from the Dresher synagogue over a seven-year period. “A minor drug offender would get 60 months,” Judge Anita Brody said to Wilf. “I could not give you less than 57.” That was the maximum sentence allowable under Wilf’s June plea-bargain agreement. Wilf’s co-conspirator, 74-year-old Betty Shusterman, was convicted Sept. 30 on 46 counts of bank fraud, mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy, and is set to be sentenced in January. Between 1993 and 2000, the pair stole between $1.3 million and $2 million — about one out of every $10 in the synagogue’s budget — through an elaborate system of forged checks, hidden banks accounts and the overall manipulation of banks, vendors and the synagogue itself. Wilf, 47, asked the court for leniency, arguing that he had to care for his wife, Barbara, who largely is confined to a wheelchair, and the couple’s 15-year-old daughter. Ill for several years, Barbara Wilf, also a former Temple Sinai employee, sat next to her husband throughout the court proceedings, her body slouched to one side of her wheelchair. Wearing dark sunglasses, she shook uncontrollably at times and muttered indecipherably. Wilf told the court his wife has full-body reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a nerve disorder that he said has severely limited her mobility and ability to care for herself. “She feels constant pain,” he said. “She cannot take her own medication safely.” Wilf said he and his wife wake up at 4 a.m. to prepare the first round of the 70 or so pills she takes daily, including morphine. He also said he needs to help his wife shower and perform household tasks. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer, the prosecutor in both the Wilf and Shusterman cases, painted a different picture, describing a meeting he had with Barbara Wilf the previous week. “She was 100 percent different,” he said. “She sat up. She was lucid. She wasn’t leaning over or shaking.” Zauzmer said he has interviewed people who have seen the Wilfs dining together in restaurants, and that he couldn’t find any literature documenting full-body reflex sympathetic dystrophy. “Mr. Wilf knew that his wife was sick, but he still stole the money,” said Zauzmer. “That can’t be tolerated.” Carol Einhorn, former Temple Sinai president, read a letter to the court saying that the congregation was still reeling from Wilf’s betrayal, and that he should receive the maximum sentence. “We are hoping you send the message that needs to be sent,” said Einhorn. Wilf has spent most of his life around Temple Sinai, attending Hebrew school and becoming a Bar Mitzvah there. With his back to the congregation, Wilf repeatedly asked the court for mercy. “The people sitting behind me knew me since I was born,” he said, facing the judge just prior to receiving his sentence. “I’m really, really sorry.” Brody gave Wilf 60 days to arrange for care of his wife and daughter before he begins serving his sentence. “He was a great guy that everybody loved,” said congregant Cindy Wannerman, who was carrying a four-year-old receipt of a donation Wilf had made to the synagogue in her mother’s memory. At the time, she said, she thought it was a wonderful gesture. “That is what hurts,” she said. “I’m sorry that it had to come to this.”