Hillel International appears to be distancing itself from one of the American Jewish establishment’s most prominent philanthropists, a development that could shake the foundations of the Jewish philanthropic world.
An internal Hillel investigation, first reported September 12 by the New York Jewish Week, is looking into claims by two Hillel staff members that the hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt, who served on Hillel’s board, made inappropriate comments to them in two separate incidents in 2011 and 2015.
Steinhardt has apologized for the first instance. According to a person close to Steinhardt, he was not told that the second complainant had taken offense at his remarks until this week.
So far, Hillel has been publicly silent about its investigation, but Steinhardt has been removed from Hillel’s online listing of its board of governors, and the Jewish Week reports that the group will not seek renewed funding from his foundation this year.
If the organization chooses to publicly sever ties with the billionaire, it could lead to a substantial reordering of the Jewish communal ecosystem. Steinhardt is one of the original contemporary Jewish mega-donors; if other groups were to follow Hillel’s lead, the financial ramifications for the Jewish communal apparatus are difficult to predict.
Yet today, details of Hillel’s investigation remain hazy. Steinhardt’s own attorney, Tom Clare, said in a statement to the Forward that, contrary to the Jewish Week’s reporting, Hillel told him that its investigation was not focused on Steinhardt.
“When we met with Hillel this week, they told us this was only part of a broader inquiry into Hillel’s operations and practices,” said Clare, of the Clare Locke law firm.
A Hillel spokesman declined to comment while the investigation is ongoing.
A Hillel source close to the investigation said that the outside law firm hired to conduct the probe is not looking into allegations against any person aside from Steinhardt, but the investigation is also exploring how Hillel can improve its practices in the future.
According to the Jewish Week story, the investigation began six weeks ago, though one of the two Hillel staffers whose allegations are under investigation brought Steinhardt’s allegedly inappropriate comments to Hillel’s attention in 2015. The other staffer received a written apology from Steinhardt in 2011 over inappropriate comments made in 2010, according to the Jewish Week.
A person close to Steinhardt asked why Hillel had taken three years to tell Steinhardt that an employee had taken issue with his comments. “He would have gladly and eagerly apologized if he had actually been told,” the person said.
The person said that Steinhardt hasn’t been told if he is currently on or off the Hillel board of governors. He is no longer listed on Hillel’s website as a member of that board.
Clare, the attorney representing Steinhardt in the matter, is a prominent defamation attorney with a long roster of high-profile clients. According to the Daily Beast, his firm specializes in aggressively countering investigative reporting on its clients, who have included former “60 Minutes” producer Jeff Fager and former NBC newscaster Matt Lauer, among others.
Steinhardt’s influence over American Jewish life in recent decades would be difficult to overstate. He currently serves on the board of American Hebrew Academy, is a life trustee of New York University, is the honorary chairman of the board of the American Friends of the Israel Museum, and is on the honorary board of the Birthright Israel Foundation. He is a founder of Birthright Israel, which has sent hundreds of thousands of Jews on free trips to Israel since its inception in 1999.
Through his private foundations, he is a major donor to the Jewish Education Project, Yeshiva University, and American Friends of Tel Aviv University, among others. Institutions at NYU and Brandeis University bear his name.
Neither the American Hebrew Academy, NYU, the Birthright Israel Foundation, the Jewish Education Project, or American Friends of Tel Aviv University responded to requests for comment. A spokesperson for YU could not immediately answer the Forward’s queries. American Friends of the Israel Museum referred the Forward for comment to a person who said that they did not represent the organization.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story described Steinhardt both as a member of Hillel’s board of directors and as a member of its board of governors. He is a member of the board of governors, not the board of directors.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.