Epstein Ties Trigger Debate Over Ethics Of Wexner Foundation’s Importance
A fraught email exchange posted to Facebook has highlighted one New York yeshiva’s initial attempts to discuss a difficult question: What do Jewish organizations do about the Wexner Foundation?
The Wexner Foundation was created by Les Wexner, the real estate mogul who funneled $200 million to the sex trafficking financier Jeffrey Epstein. It has been used to give money directly to Epstein through his foundations, but it has also been used to enrich American Jewish life. Since 1988 it has offered prestigious fellowships to emerging Jewish leaders, many of whom now lead synagogues, summer camps, seminaries, day schools and other institutions across the Jewish world. It has donated millions to major Jewish institutions of every denomination.
“It’s one of the extraordinary stories of the rise of these Jewish philanthropic foundations,” Dr. Steven Windmueller, an emeritus professor of Jewish communal service at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. (HUC-JIR has received $1.5 million from the Wexner Foundation over the years, according to tax records.) “The impact of their giving capacity has really been phenomenal on the Jewish story.”
Now, former Wexner fellows and the constituents of organizations that have received Wexner money are asking themselves whether his proximity to Epstein — and worry that he may have known about Epstein’s criminal behavior — is reason to shun the foundation.
On Tuesday, an email chain showed how close to home this contrast between Wexner’s good works and his connection to Epstein hits for some Jewish educators. Isaac Brooks Fishman, a former student at Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva, or religious school, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, posted emails sent between him and Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president and head of school for Hadar.
In an email to the Hadar listserv sent earlier this month, Brooks Fishman brought up the deepening revelations about Epstein’s connections to Wexner. Epstein reportedly had power of attorney for a significant portion of Wexner’s fortune, and bought properties from Wexner at below-market prices, including Epstein’s gargantuan Upper East Side townhouse.
Epstein was also a trustee of the Wexner Foundation for at least six years, according to available tax records. The Foundation donated millions to foundations associated with Epstein. In one instance, found in the Foundation’s 2001 tax filings, it gave $9.5 million to an entity apparently controlled by Epstein called Arts Interest Trust, headquartered in the Virgin Islands.
“I would like to propose our community take the lead in dissociating ourselves from Wexner and taking a stand against him being able to buy his way into a good name,” Brooks Fishman wrote. “This is especially important for us, I think, because the halakhic egal[itarian] world is saturated with Wexner fellows.”
Tucker is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, as are Hadar’s president, Rabbi Shai Held, and dean, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer. Other Hadar faculty are also graduates of the fellowship.
Brooks Fishman proposed that all Wexner fellowship alumni delete the credential from their resumes and online bios; leave the alumni listserv; and stop going to Wexner Foundation events.
In a response Tucker says was sent privately to Brooks Fishman, Tucker excoriated Brooks Fishman for starting the conversation without first privately discussing the matter with him and other Hadar leaders. He accused Brooks Fishman of “implicitly tarring” people associated with Hadar, and indicated that Brooks Fishman was not welcome in Hadar’s community until he did tshuvah, or repentance, for his email.
In a second email, Tucker apologized for the tone of his initial response and said he “lost himself” and will “focus on the work cut out for him by this experience.” He also reiterated that Brooks Fishman’s “decision to post the entire list before asking any of the directly affected parties… how we were processing what is obviously a very difficult issue betrays disrespect for us.”
Tucker apologized for the tone of his emails in a public Facebook post published Tuesday evening, after the public posting of the emails garnered wide attention in the Hadar community. In an email to the Forward sent Wednesday morning, Tucker said he regretted the tone of his emails and noted that his emails to Brooks Fishman were posted publicly without his consent.
In a phone conversation, Brooks Fishman said that he regretted that the discussion about Wexner’s ties to Epstein began acrimoniously, but said it was necessary to have. He noted that his email came just days before The New York Times reported that Epstein sexually assaulted women while posing as a talent scout for Victoria’s Secret, which Wexner owns.
“This is gonna keep coming out in the next few weeks, and I’d much rather our community have this conversation now, rather than defending Wexner until he is indefensible,” Brooks Fishman said. “I think that is the wrong side to be on.”
Erasing the name?
The question of how to address Wexner Foundation money is indeed beginning to filter through the Jewish world. Wexner alumni themselves are discussing it on their listserv, multiple alumni said, but requested anonymity and wouldn’t disclose any further information, citing the listserv’s private nature.
The Wexner and Epstein revelations come at a time when major cultural institutions have been grappling with their benefactor’s legacies outside of philanthropy. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is refusing to accept donations from the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company which reap profits from the sale of prescription opioids while knowing of the drugs’ addictiveness. The Louvre in Paris recently removed the Sackler name from one of its wings.
In the Jewish world, accusations of sexual harassment against the billionaire financier Michael Steinhardt have called into question his philanthropic support for efforts to promote Jewish continuity.
The Wexner Foundation’s footprint is significant in American Judaism. Some of the largest recipients of money from the Wexner Foundation are pillars of liberal denominations: The Jewish Theological Seminary has received $1.1 million; the Reconstructing Judaism movement has received $555,000; the liberal Modern Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has received $265,000.
(The Wexner Foundation gave Hadar $25,000 between 2014 and 2015, according to a search of available tax records — a relatively modest portion of the total grants made to Hadar during that period.)
A Wexner Graduate Fellowship can also supercharge the career an aspiring rabbi, nonprofit leader or Jewish educator: It offers a stipend for tuition costs of graduate education; free transportation to Wexner conferences and retreats; and access to a rich alumni network.
As valuable as that is, some, like Brooks Fishman, feel that the Wexner name is no longer welcome in American Jewish life.
“Maybe the Wexner name deserves to be erased from our community’s leadership and institutions, and part of doing that is refusing to give the Wexner Foundation any credit, even if it reflects on peoples individuals accomplishments,” said Asher Lovy, an activist who promotes awareness of sexual abuse in the Hasidic community, and who shared the emails from Rabbi Ethan Tucker and Brooks Fishman. “That’s a conversation each community is going to have to have on its own.”
Others aren’t so sure. They say that it’s still unclear what kind of ties Wexner and Epstein had, and there is no evidence that Wexner was aware that Epstein was allegedly running a sex trafficking ring of minor girls.
“One has to look at the intentions of the donor and his foundation and his work, and simply not paint a brush across everyone who may have had a relationship or connection with Epstein or anyone else of that type,” Windmueller said.
As with the revelations about Steinhardt, some say that Wexner’s connections to Epstein are another case study for the Jewish world to use to investigate the sources of the money that keeps the lights on.
“It’s less about Wexner himself,” said Rabbi Rebecca Schorr, an activist and writer. (She participated in a Wexner summer program while in rabbinical school.) “It’s more a call to all of us in the nonprofit world about, do we care about where our money comes from, and do we want the source of our money to reflect the values we all hold dear.”
Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history and Jewish studies at Temple University, agreed, saying that the Jewish philanthropic system is broken, and promotes the individual behind the donations over the cause.
Berman, who is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumni, declined to speak about the listserv. But she did say that, for her, the prestige of being a Wexner alumna has not been overshadowed by Les Wexner’s ties to Epstein. She doubted, as well, that there was sufficient evidence of Wexner’s complicity in Epstein’s crimes to validate a full-scale repudiation of Wexner support by the Jewish world.
“Most of what the Wexner community has been for me has very little to do with Les Wexner,” she said.
Update, 7/31/19, 9:20 a.m. — This article has been updated with additional information from Tucker.