When Orthodox philanthropist Charles Kushner was arrested last month in connection with his political fund raising, he quickly retained a lawyer from within his own world of high-powered Orthodox philanthropists: Ben Brafman.
Brafman has become well known in the Jewish community for his yearly stint emceeing a New York fund-raising event benefiting settlers in Hebron and the West Bank. Each year at Shavuot, Brafman and his wife Lynda send a bouquet of flowers to every single family living in Hebron.
But Brafman, 55, normally does not rely on his connections in the religious world to find his clients, who have included pop musician Michael Jackson, nightclub owner Peter Gatien, and hip-hop artists Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Jay-Z.
In building his lucrative criminal defense firm with a clientele so far outside his Long Island Jewish world, Brafman said he has had to master becoming “comfortable in the environment where my client functions.” At one of Combs’s recent fashion shows, Brafman was sitting at the front of the catwalk, next to Combs’s mother.
Brafman has taken to listening to hip-hop albums during his workouts. “It has a great beat and pulse,” he said. “It drives the rest of my family crazy.”
Sitting with him in his midtown Manhattan office, though, it was easy to see how Brafman, with his slick hair, barrel chest and cool Brooklyn drawl, might have more in common with his rough-and-tumble clients than the with other congregants at his Orthodox shul in Lawrence, N.Y.
Brafman grew up on the mean streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the son of immigrant parents. Both of his parents came from Eastern Europe, where his maternal grandparents died in the Holocaust. The tensions over turf in multi-ethnic Crown Heights were hovering constantly, and Brafman says he came home with bruised knuckles almost every day.
“Trouble would find you without you looking for it,” Brafman said. “I developed a mental toughness.”
He never was a particularly serious student at the strict yeshiva his parents made him attend, which explains why he ended up getting his law degree from Ohio Northern University; he always was interested in things more tangible than grades. Brafman started working at age 12 and spent an entire year saving up for the sleekest racing bike, which was promptly stolen two weeks after he bought it.
There remains in Brafman a clear trace of the young man fighting to prove himself — and it has taken him far. The legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin, has referred to Brafman as “the best lawyer I’ve ever seen.”
When Jackson was assembling his legal team earlier this year, after being charged with child molestation, he reached out to Brafman, even though this meant having a New York lawyer working in California courts.
The relationship with Jackson, which began in January, broke down in April for reasons that remain murky. Brafman says the two parted because it was too difficult to work on the case while living in New York. But Jackson said, at the time, that he fired Brafman and his other lawyer, Mark Geragos, because he wanted to “have the full attention of those who are representing me.”
Jackson, though, is unusual. More typical is Brafman’s relationship with Combs.
In 2000, Brafman won Combs an acquittal for charges that he was involved in a shooting at a New York nightclub. A few months after the trial, Combs invited Brafman and his wife to a New Year’s party at the tony Shore Club in Miami, which Brafman says was for “600 of Diddy’s closest friends.” At the stroke of midnight, Combs lifted Brafman above his head and told everybody that Brafman had saved his life.
The friendship is based on more than gratitude. Both are self-made men who devote a great deal of attention to their public image — particularly through their clothes. While talking to the Forward, Brafman was wearing an impeccably crisp suit with silver paisley cufflinks, and a sparkling silver pin propping up his elaborately patterned tie. When he’s not in a suit, Brafman’s outfits frequently come from Combs’s Sean John line of casual sportswear.
Brafman’s love of clothing came partially from his seamstress mother and a father who worked in the leather industry. He fondly remembers his father bringing home three new ties every Passover. The attorney remains attentive to ties, and during Combs’s trial, he was the source of many of the ties that the rapper wore. He also provided Combs with a bendel bracelet, a slender red string that is said to ward off evil in Jewish tradition.
Brafman wears his own bendel on the opposite wrist from a hulking Rolex; the bendel is the one modest indication of a devout religiosity that Brafman keeps close to the vest. (he does not wear a yarmulke during the week). Brafman keeps the Sabbath — without which, he said: “I would have had a nervous breakdown years ago” — but he is guarded when it comes to speaking about his own private life. He quickly turned the talk to his son, who is studying to become a rabbi at Jerusalem’s famous Mir Yeshiva.
Brafman is clearly better at speaking about others, particularly his clients. Among them have been many from the Jewish world — including, most recently, a 29-year-old Iraqi Jew and Yale graduate, Joseph Braude, who is accused of smuggling artifacts from the Iraqi National Museum into the United States. Kushner became one of Brafman’s newest clients after he was arrested for an alleged extortion scheme involving call girls and political donations. Brafman was hesitant to speak about the pending trial, and said only that Kushner is “one of the great men of our era.”
During the interview with Brafman, the only time his famously fierce courtroom attitude came out was when speaking about Israel.
He bemoaned the “intellectual dishonesty” of the world in dealing with the conflict in the Middle East. He is generally opposed to the death penalty, but when it comes to the Palestinian leadership, he said: “At a certain point, you lose your privilege of living in the civilized world.”
For Brafman, ground zero in the Middle East conflict is Hebron. The roughly 500 Jews holding out against the Palestinian world around them, Brafman said, “are the greatest heroes of our generation.”
“You need to take a stand somewhere,” Brafman said, using the words of a street fighter defending his turf.