A former synagogue executive director who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from La Jolla’s Congregation Beth El and used the money on personal expenses was sentenced in San Diego federal court Friday to 18 months in prison.

Eric S. Levine

Eric S. Levine, 37, pleaded guilty in April to one count of wire fraud.

Levine served as Beth El’s executive director from July 2007 to December 2013, overseeing the synagogue’s annual budget.

Prosecutors said that starting in February 2008, Levine began embezzling money from the synagogue for his own use.

As part of his guilty plea, the defendant admitted misappropriating nearly $395,000 from the synagogue over the five-year period.

“Mr. Levine embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance a life of luxury for himself while betraying the people who believed in him,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said. “This defendant was a one-man wrecking ball to this congregation, both financially and emotionally, and today the court imposed a fitting sentence for such abhorrent conduct.”

On most occasions, Levine simply used money in the synagogue’s bank account to pay his own bills directly, according to prosecutors.

They said Levine’s mischaracterization of payments made it appear that more of Beth El’s funds were spent on legitimate synagogue expenses than was actually spent.

Instead of legitimate expenses, the funds were used to pay for a variety of Levine’s credit card charges, including trips to Mexico, Hawaii and Las Vegas, as well as $1,400 in charges for a personal trainer.

“The sense of betrayal cannot be overstated,” U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw said as he sentenced the defendant.

Last December, before the embezzlement was uncovered, Levine left San Diego to take a new job as executive director of another congregation in the Washington D.C. area. He was subsequently fired by that congregation.

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.