Were S.F. Jewish leaders bilked

If someone from the Hague calls asking for money, think twice before dipping into your tzedakah bank.

That's what two Jewish community leaders are warning after getting requests for money from someone they now believe may be a smooth scam artist.

The hustle came to light Friday afternoon when Doug Heller, president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, received a call at his office from a man claiming to be a rabbi from the Hague, the seat of government of the Netherlands.

A college-age son of one of his congregants, the man said, had been robbed of his money and passport while vacationing in the Napa Valley.

The Dutch Consulate here is closed for renovations, the caller said, so arrangements had been made for the young man to pick up a new passport at the Dutch Consulate in Los Angeles the next day. The boy would spend Friday night at the Hilton Hotel in downtown San Francisco, the story went, as his mother worked for the Hilton International chain.

The boy only needed money to get to S.F. International Airport, the Hague rabbi said, as well as to get to the Dutch Consulate in Los Angeles once he arrived in Southern California.

Heller, on his way to a meeting at the federation, said he would leave an envelope containing $70 in cash with the federation security guard.

Fortunately, suspicious, quick-thinking Patrice Rodda — assistant to federation executive vice president Wayne Feinstein — called the Dutch Consulate in Los Angeles to confirm that it would, in fact, be open Saturday.

Under no circumstances is the consulate open on Saturdays, a staffer said. What's more, when Rodda called the number that had been left by the so-called rabbi from Hague, it was disconnected.

Rodda then called the San Francisco Police Dept., which informed her it had been on the lookout for the Hague scam artist for some time. Detain him at the front desk when he comes to pick up his money, the police said.

He never showed up.

A month ago, it turns out, Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom also got a call from a man claiming to be a rabbi from the Hague.

"He told me this long song and dance about this person that he knew whose son was from the Hague," said Lew, president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis. The son, apparently, "was very mixed up, stuck in the Bay Area. He needed money to catch a flight to Los Angeles."

Lew arranged for the young man to come to his house, where Lew wrote him a check from his discretionary fund for a small sum.

The recipient of the check — whom Lew describes as "a young man, although he didn't look all that young. I think he had a shaved head" — volunteered to pay Lew back and gave him a series of telephone numbers where he could be reached. Later, when Lew tried the numbers, no one answered. The rabbi never got his money back.

Lew says he thought little of the incident until Heller mentioned it at a federation board meeting Friday afternoon.