Willie Rapfogel's Downfall in Scandal Means Murky Future for Jewish Programs

Unfolding Kickback Scheme Erases Decades of Connections

Sudden Fall: William Rapfogel took decades building up a political network that delivered funding to Jewish poverty programs in good years and bad. What happens now that he is gone?
met council
Sudden Fall: William Rapfogel took decades building up a political network that delivered funding to Jewish poverty programs in good years and bad. What happens now that he is gone?

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published August 14, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
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Rapfogel used his accumulated influence and his many relationships to attract millions of dollars each year in government grants for his own organization and for the smaller Jewish community councils and Jewish social service groups that rely on the Met Council. Government funds make up between a half and a third of the Met Council’s operating budget each year. The group reported receiving $11.5 million in government grants in 2010 and $15.5 million in 2009.

That’s a lot for a locally focused not-for-profit. The Met Council got $3.6 million in discretionary funding from the New York City Council between 2009 and 2013, more than all but 30 of the more than 3,000 not-for-profits and governmental entities that received discretionary funding in that period.

The Met Council’s own anti-poverty programs include senior housing, family services, and food aid. Those efforts are central to the New York Jewish community’s anti-poverty work, which have gained increased attention since the June publication of a report by UJA-Federation of New York which found that one out of every five Jews in the New York area is poor. The number of poor Jews has nearly doubled since 1991, from 169,000 to 308,000, the report stated.

Rapfogel was a member of the committee that guided the creation of the report. In a June interview timed to its publication, Rapfogel told the Forward of a raft of anti-poverty efforts his organization was pursuing. They included outreach to poor families, job programs, and affordable housing.

While Rapfogel is gone from the Met Council, his power has yet to wholly fade. Rapfogel’s wife continues to hold a highly influential position at Silver’s side in Albany, leaving some wary of speaking on the record about his firing and its implications.

And Rapfogel still has strong public defenders. Heshy Jacob, the third member of the Lower East Side power troika and a highly influential figure in that neighborhood, praised Rapfogel on August 12. “He is one of the most decent human beings in the world,” Jacob said. “This is a man who has helped the poor his entire life.”

Jewish communal insiders almost exclusively reported shock at the news of Rapfogel’s firing and his apology. “That was the last thing I would have expected,” said Ezra Friedlander, CEO of the New York City-based Friedlander Group, a lobbying firm. “The very last thing.”

Despite having been at the helm of the Met Council since 1992, Rapfogel cultivated no obvious successor. Current top executives include Ilene Marcus, the group’s chief of staff, who worked as a special assistant to the Mayor during Rudolph Giuliani’s administration.

The Met Council said on August 12 that no employees besides Rapfogel had yet been implicated in the alleged financial misconduct, though the investigation is ongoing.


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