The sight of William E. Rapfogel being hustled into a car by two New York City law enforcement officers September 24 after he was arraigned on charges of stealing millions from the poverty charity he ran for more than two decades was embarrassing enough. The fact that Rapfogel was wearing a yarmulke made it only worse.
Here was a man who positioned himself not only as a political powerbroker, but also as a religious and moral representative of the poor and needy. With his smooth ways and winning smile, Rapfogel grew the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty into one of the city’s most influential social service organizations. Along the way, he was not shy about reminding the affluent of their obligations to the less fortunate, and his admonitions gained extra force by his religious demeanor.
“There’s a tremendous sense of denial in the Jewish community about how many Jews truly need help,” he told the Forward in an interview some years ago, a disapproving edge to his voice.
Now he is charged with stealing $5 million, much of it taxpayer money, from the Met Council, keeping $1 million for himself and sharing the rest with at least one co-conspirator, as well as other politicians and political organizations. Rapfogel did not enter a plea at his arraignment and apologized for unspecified wrongdoing when the Met Council fired him in August.
While the justice system considers his fate, this “breathtaking” scheme, as one state official called it, raises other urgent questions. The indictment said that Rapfogel stashed $400,000 in cash at home, and it defies logic to believe that his wife, Judy Rapfogel, was unaware of what was going on. Since she is the top aide to New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who helped channel millions in state funds to the Met Council, she needs to fully explain her role and that of her boss. So do the politicians on the receiving end of Rapfogel’s alleged largesse, who should return any ill-gotten contributions.
There is never a good time to witness a community leader’s fall from grace, but the Rapfogel scandal comes at a particularly dire moment, as Jewish poverty is increasing, communal funds are stretched and donors may become even more skeptical. It is a painful reminder of the necessity for moral leadership, and the terrible consequences when that leadership fails its most basic, ethical test.