In the wake of allegations against Jeffrey Epstein of sex trafficking and sexual abuse of minors — a scandal that has touched on Epstein’s money-managing client and famed Jewish philanthropist Leslie Wexner — an intense discussion is emerging among fellows and alumni of the Wexner Foundation fellowship over how to respond to disturbing reports about the relationship between the two men.
As new information about Epstein and his relationship with Wexner has come to light, alumni of the fellowship — tapped as some of the best and brightest minds in Jewish communal life for a prestigious leadership training program — are soul searching about whether the Wexner name will be tainted. Wexner has not been accused of any wrongdoing but his close relationship with Epstein has raised suspicion. The Wexner alumni are considering scrubbing his name from their resumes, wondering if organizations that receive Wexner Foundation funding should return the money or should contribute to a victims’ compensation fund.
For current fellows in the program, the dilemma is even more fraught as they continue to benefit from Wexner’s foundation in the form of tuition assistance and financial support.
“For current fellows, we’re asking whether there’s a responsibility on our part to be returning the funding or to be turning down this fellowship, whereas for alumni it’s a question of, is this a line I have to take out of my bio or urging the foundation to be taking action in some way,” said one current fellow who asked to remain anonymous. “There’s a real financial difference; there’s something at stake for current fellows that’s not necessarily the case for alumni.”
The Wexner Foundation, founded in the 1980s, hosts the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, which selects 20 fellows each year in its four-year program. Fellows receive funding for graduate studies in Jewish professional fields and frequently go on to hold positions of leadership in Jewish organizations and communities across the country.
The graduate fellowship is one part of the Wexner Foundation’s wide reach in the Jewish community. Other programs include the Wexner Field Fellowship, a leadership development program for Jewish communal professionals; the Wexner Heritage Program, a Jewish learning and leadership program for volunteer leaders; and the Wexner Israel Fellowship, for leadership development program for leaders in Israel’s public sector.
What do you do when you’ve taken in dirty money but already spent it?
The question of how to respond, or even whether to respond, has been playing out in recent days on a listserv for Wexner Fellowship alumni, known as Wexnet, and in conversations among alumni. Alumni of the fellowship and current fellows told The Jewish Week that they grappled with both the information they possessed about the relationship between Wexner and Epstein as well as the many questions that remained unanswered about that relationship. (According to The New York Times, Wexner funneled $21 million into a charity run by Epstein, who had been a trustee of the Wexner Foundation. Epstein’s foundation reportedly donated to several Jewish causes, including the Ramaz School, UJA-Federation of New York and YIVO.)
A recent alumnus of the program, speaking anonymously, questioned the benefit of returning money to the organization after graduating from the fellowship: “So for most alumni, the question of should I return the money is not on the table and you have to ask yourself, OK if I return the money, where is that money going to go? What’s the benefit of returning it. … I’ve already gained the leadership training that the Wexner Fellowship had to offer, I can’t give that training back.”
“There certainly is some conversation about should we all pull together to make some massive donation to some organization,” she added. “What do you do when you’ve taken in dirty money but already spent it? It’s not clear that you can do more than commit to doing anything but doing better research in the future.”
Several alumni wondered if they should remove the mention of the fellowship, and the Wexner name that is attached to it, from their professional biographies and resumes. “Do I want to walk through the world with the Wexner name attached to mine?” the recent alumnus wondered.
According to a statement from Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, president of the Wexner Foundation, “Mr. Epstein was, at one time, a trustee of The Wexner Foundation. The Wexner Foundation and Jeffrey Epstein cut ties more than a decade ago. As reported, Les severed ties at that time as well. This is an individual who utterly twisted and tossed aside that sacred notion [the fundamental tenet that all human beings are created in God’s image]. We are sickened by Mr. Epstein’s behavior.”
In a statement earlier this month, Wexner wrote: “I severed all ties with Mr. Epstein nearly 12 years ago. I would not have continued to work with any individual capable of such egregious, sickening behavior as has been reported about him,” wrote Mr. Wexner in a statement earlier this month. “When Mr. Epstein was my personal money manager, he was involved in many aspects of my financial life. But let me assure you that I was NEVER aware of the illegal activity charged in the indictment.”
“What is different in this particular case, nobody accuses Leslie Wexner of mistreating girls. … The claim is he helped enable him [Epstein] by being a close friend,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “But whatever one concludes, I think it’s very important to distinguish this case from [Bernard] Madoff, from Epstein himself, where they were the direct perpetrators and not just friends of alleged enablers.”
For several alumni, the conversations about Wexner and Epstein’s relationship has given way to frustration with the philanthropic system that powers much of the Jewish community’s institutions.
“The research that I’ve done has led me to feel like the consolidation of power in the hands of a few in the American Jewish philanthropic system, in the American philanthropic system, and in the American economic and political system is all connected and is not healthy for individuals and is not healthy for society,” said Lila Corwin Berman, an alumnus of the Wexner Fellowship and a professor of Jewish history at Temple University. She is currently working on a book about Jewish philanthropy. “This case is simply emblematic of a broader problem that we have.”
“I think for some people, this issue has been about recognizing that there are systems at play that make scandals like this possible,” said the current fellow. “There’s something wrong in the world of philanthropy if this is possible in the first place, and what do we need to be doing to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
… This entails a responsibility to exercise leadership with integrity even when that is challenging and uncomfortable.
At Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva founded in 2006, the Epstein-Wexner issue exploded in messages posted in an alumni listserv earlier in July.
“I would like to propose that 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,” wrote Isaac Brooks Fishman, a former student at the yeshiva, in a message to the Hadar listserv of several hundred alumni. “This is especially important for us, I think, because the halakhic egal world is saturated with Wexner fellows.”
The email prompted a private response from Rabbi Ethan Tucker, a founder of the school and an alumnus of the Wexner fellowship, which Fishman then shared publicly in a Facebook post. (Rabbi Tucker told the Jewish Week that the emails were made public without his consent.) “We can debate whether this is at all a reasonable position to take regarding Wexner,” wrote Rabbi Tucker before berating Fishman for writing his message to the full listserv instead of approaching the faculty privately. “I am ashamed that you were once my student,” he wrote.
In subsequent emails and a public Facebook post, Rabbi Tucker apologized for the harshness of his email.
In an email to The Jewish Week, Rabbi Aviva Richman, a faculty member at Hadar, said she was working on a response to the news about Wexner when Fishman wrote his message to the listserv.
“It is an incredibly destructive misrepresentation for a student to publicly post that Hadar intended to silence a conversation about ties to sexual assault in the Jewish community and Hadar specifically, out of financial interest in the Wexner Foundation,” wrote Rabbi Richman. “We are proud to be a community that confronts these concerns directly. Sexual assault is an issue I have been dedicated to for years. I gave a lecture series at Hadar on sexual assault, community leadership, and Jewish texts in January 2018. And to be clear, Hadar receives no funding from the Wexner Foundation.”
An alumnus of the Wexner Fellowship herself, Rabbi Richman wrote a response to the Hadar listserv on Monday in which she described the preceding week as “shocking and confusing” for herself and fellow alumni. After raising several questions about how to interpret the information available and how to act on it, she noted the significance of Wexner in the Hadar community.
…It’s a time for reevaluating how our system works and using this as an occasion to think about how we can make it better moving forward.
“I raise these questions here because many people in the halakhic-egalitarian community have been lucky enough to benefit from the Wexner Foundation’s resources. And in addition to gratitude, this entails a responsibility to exercise leadership with integrity even when that is challenging and uncomfortable,” she wrote.
All Wexner fellows and alumni of the program who spoke to The Jewish Week emphasized that they wanted more information about the Wexner-Epstein ties, but doubted they would learn more.
A current fellow said, “I think there’s a question for me of what did Wexner know and did cutting his ties with Epstein over a decade ago absolve him of any responsibility he might have, was that enough?”
“The answer might not be that we have to disavow any relationship with the Wexner foundation,” said the current fellow. “But we can recognize that it’s a time for reevaluating how our system works and using this as an occasion to think about how we can make it better moving forward.”