Despite Allegations, Gala Honoring Political Donor Will Go On

By Miriam Colton

Published July 23, 2004, issue of July 23, 2004.
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Under his bail agreement, Charles Kushner, the real estate mogul and political fund raiser arrested last week for allegedly hiring a call girl in an effort to blackmail a witness, is not allowed to leave his home state of New Jersey. But he will still be one of the guests of honor at a fund-raising gala next month in Israel for Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

Leaders of the American Committee for Shaare Zedek say that unless Kushner is convicted of a crime, they see no reason to pull him and his wife off the roster of honorees. Sources associated with the hospital’s fund-raising arm say the original decision to honor Kushner was made several months ago in appreciation of a large gift to the institution.

The decision to stand by Kushner despite the allegations against him shines a light on the dilemmas that charitable organizations confront when faced with the prospect of high-profile donors engaging in embarrassing or illegal behavior. While leaders of the Shaare Zedek charity say they are relying on the judicial principle of innocent until proven guilty, other Jewish communal leaders counter that in the public realm of organized communal life, the first commitment always must be to safeguard ethical values.

“While I’m not going to comment about what another group does, if my organization were honoring an individual charged with ethical and serious wrongdoings, I would recommend to my board that the honor be deferred,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a resident of New Jersey. If serious evidence exists to suggest immoral or illegal behavior, then “you wait and see.”

While such a stance could cost groups some financial support, Yoffie said, the failure to stand up for ethical values would disillusion members of the community. He added: “If you put realism before ethics you destroy the community, the foundations on which it’s built — Torah and the values we’ve been committed to for 3,500 years.”

Accepting money from donors that have questionable reputations can be complicated and should be dealt with on an individual basis, but honoring them publicly is clearly wrong, Yoffie said.

Kushner will continue to engage in philanthropic activities, according to his lawyer, Benjamin Brafman. “It is fair to say that while the legal issues will take some time to address, the important charities that have for so long relied on Charles Kushner’s generosity will not be impacted,” said Brafman.

Chairman of Kushner Companies, Kushner was arrested last week for allegedly hiring a call girl to cavort with two witnesses, in an attempt to blackmail them with videotapes of the encounter. The two witnesses, one of whom is reported to be Kushner’s brother-in-law, William Schulder, were aiding investigators with a 2003 federal probe into Kushner’s campaign contributions and business dealings. The investigation followed a legal fight with his brother, Murray, that was settled eventually.

Brafman said his client is not guilty of the charges. “My expectation is that at the end of this ordeal, Mr. Kushner will emerge with his honor intact and his head held high,” he said.

Menno Ratzker, president of the American Committee, said that for his organization “it wasn’t a question whether to continue or not to continue…the Constitution says innocent until proven guilty.” He added that his interest is in “raising money for the hospital” and Kushner has been “very generous to Shaare Zedek and other organizations.”

The others being honored at the Shaare Zedek dinner, Fanya Gottesfeld Heller and Howard and Debbie Jonas, could not be reached for comment. The dinner is marking the inauguration of a new department of emergency medicine.

Rabbi Saul Berman, director of the liberal Orthodox group Edah and generally an outspoken leader on business ethics, did not return numerous calls for comment. Kushner’s brother-in-law, Murray Laulicht, is the board president. An administrator at Edah declined to comment on Kushner’s own connection to the organization.

Jeffrey Dekro, president of The Shefa Fund, the Philadelphia-based group that encourages what it describes as ethically and socially responsible charitable giving, said that the community must stop giving criminals or suspected criminals the ability to donate money in an effort to buy back their reputation or reduce their sentences.

“It’s a line the Jewish community has found difficult not to cross,” Dekro said, pointing to a need for funds and networks of relationships that run deep.

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