Met Council Fund Freeze Over William Rapfogel Scandal Could Hit Jewish Poor

Aid to Seniors and Domestic Violence Programs Face Chop

Work in Progress: Alex Chernis, who runs Met Council-funded programs out of a center in Midwood, Brooklyn, says Jewish poor rely on the programs.
josh nathan-kazis
Work in Progress: Alex Chernis, who runs Met Council-funded programs out of a center in Midwood, Brooklyn, says Jewish poor rely on the programs.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published August 26, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.
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Needy New Yorkers may lose out on programs for seniors, emergency food aid and domestic violence prevention as a result of the financial scandal engulfing the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, documents obtained by the Forward reveal.

City officials have suspended at least 30 grants to the Met Council, totaling nearly $1.6 million, or roughly 13%, of the government aid it receives annually.

William Rapfogel
met council
William Rapfogel

The funds will be frozen pending the results of a city investigation into alleged misconduct by William Rapfogel, the group’s longtime executive director. Rapfogel was fired August 12 amid reports of a kickback scheme involving an insurance provider for the Met Council.

The specific programs that were to benefit from the frozen city funds are itemized in a city budget document obtained by the Forward.

The Met Council is hoping to keep the city funding freeze from interfering with its work.

“We have been in contact with the government agencies responsible for awarding our grants and are committed to addressing any concerns,” said Steven Goldberg, an external communications consultant speaking for the group. “We will continue to work with them to ensure that our vital services are provided without disruption.”

It’s unclear how long the funding freeze will last or if the grants might be revoked. A spokeswoman for the office of the city’s Department of Investigation would not comment on the ongoing inquiry. According to the Department of Investigation’s website, the average inquiry by the agency took 164 days.

The office of New York State’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, did not respond to an inquiry as to whether state funding has also been suspended.

The Met Council announced the selection of a new executive director on August 18, a Wall Street veteran named David Frankel who is currently serving as New York City’s finance commissioner.

Rapfogel, who led the massive Jewish social service group for more than two decades, apologized for unspecified misdeeds in an August 12 statement. That apology won’t mean much to the organization’s clients if the programs on which they rely are disrupted.

Those programs include Handyman, a minor home repair service for the elderly and disabled that was slated to receive a combined $284,000 in city aid to install louder doorbells for the hard of hearing and railings for the unsteady.

Another $400,000 in aid for general Met Council senior services, some of which was earmarked for the Handyman program, was also frozen.

Grants totaling $117,000 for the Met Council’s crisis intervention services were frozen. So were grants worth $36,500 for the group’s food aid program, $155,000 for its domestic violence services and a $600,000 grant for general Met Council operating funds.

At a Met Council outpost in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, the site director described referring clients to some of the services threatened by the city freeze.

Alex Chernis, the social worker who runs the Midwood facility, declined to discuss the recent troubles at the Met Council. In describing his office’s work to help clients, however, he mentioned specific programs that would have benefited from the $1.6 million in halted payments.

Chernis and his team serve more than 1,450 clients each year from their cluttered office on Avenue M. Just a few desks and printers one story up from an AT&T store, the office offers legal assistance, benefit enrollment services and a small food pantry.

“You can get all kind of services, from A to Z,” Chernis said of the office, called the Midwood Single Stop. “You always will leave with something.”

An immigration specialist holds office hours here. So does a financial consultant. The five staffers speak English, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and Hebrew, and spend much of their time helping elderly Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants. A shelf of emergency food packages rests on one wall; 100 families rely on food they pick up monthly.

Located in a working-class neighborhood, the Single Stop is at the epicenter of the growing poverty crisis among New York Jews. The Brooklyn neighborhoods of Midwood, Flatbush and Kensington reported some of the highest Jewish poverty rates in the New York area in a 2011 study published by UJA-Federation of New York.

More than half of Jewish households in the area told UJA-Federation researchers that they were having trouble making, or failing to make, ends meet.

Chernis helps neighborhood residents by connecting them to Met Council programs. Some of those Met Council programs were supposed to get city money this year — money that’s now in jeopardy.

Chernis refers clients to Handyman, the home repair program, on a regular basis. That program, which Chernis said once employed 20 people, has shrunk drastically in recent years, he said. It’s possible that the new city money was meant to help ramp it up again.

The funds meant for crisis intervention may also have had an impact here. Chernis’s work as a social worker is considered part of the Met Council’s crisis intervention efforts, and the Met Council’s website lists the Single Stop location as a site offering crisis intervention services.

The food pantry and emergency food aid available at the Single Stop may have benefited from the frozen funds earmarked for the Met Council’s kosher food aid program. And the hold on general operating and domestic violence funds could potentially have an indirect impact on the Single Stop’s services.

The freezing of city funds appears to have done no damage so far, not at the Met Council or at the local Jewish community organizations that the Met Council supports.

“It has not impacted anything,” said Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, an independent organization that belongs to the Met Council’s network. “I’m pretty confident now, with this new director in place, that this will be resolved pretty quickly,” he said, referring to the hiring of Frankel.

Despite the optimistic view, the Met Council relies heavily on government funding, leaving it vulnerable to any cut-off. In 2010, the group reported that 47% of its revenue came from government grants. It’s still far from clear what impact the ongoing scandal will have on that revenue stream.

“The work needs to be done,” said Michael Tobman, a New York City-based political consultant, of the Met Council’s functions. “Those services need to be provided. And they will be.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis


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