With Ties to a Top Donor and a Trail of Gifts, the Epstein Scandal Reaches Into Jewish Philanthropy

The Ramaz School in New York City received $500,000 from Epstein in 2007. Photo: Cornerstones of New York/Flickr/ CC BY-NC 2.0

The Ramaz School in New York City received $500,000 from Epstein in 2007. Photo: Cornerstones of New York/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

The tentacles of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s wrongdoings continue spreading into the Jewish philanthropic world, as information about his relationships with influential people and institutions becomes public. It is leading to soul searching on the part of those with whom Epstein worked closely, like billionaire businessman Leslie Wexner; it’s also influencing policy changes in at least some of the beneficiaries of Epstein’s own philanthropic largesse.

But so far, no one is talking about returning money received from Epstein, as is the case of some recipients of Sackler family money. The most recent significant gift Epstein gave to a Jewish organization was a $50,000 donation to UJA-Federation of New York in 2017.

Ties to a Top Philanthropist

A recent New York Times article focused on the intense relationship between Wexner and Epstein, and the reliance the Ohio billionaire—founder of The Limited, Bath & Body Works, and owner of Victoria’s Secret—came to have on the man who was his “personal money manager.”

Epstein, now 66, is being held without bail after being charged with two federal counts of sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy. He allegedly ran a years-long ring that procured and sexually exploited underage girls. 

The Times reported that Epstein “had developed an unusually strong hold on Mr. Wexner, one of the country’s most influential corporate titans… Within years of meeting Mr. Epstein, Mr. Wexner handed him sweeping powers over his finances, philanthropy and private life, according to interviews with people who knew the men, as well as court documents and financial records.”

Epstein’s new arrest, and the public revelations about his relationship with Wexner, have shaken up those at the Wexner Foundation, which runs multiple programs and funds the training of rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, and professional and lay leaders. 

Wexner has arguably done more than any other individual to cultivate present and future leaders of the American Jewish community. Thousands have benefited from Wexner Foundation programs in the U.S. and Israel.

The foundation’s 2016 tax filing, the most recent publicly available, states that it spent about $13 million on its programs that year. Nearly all—$11 million—came from the Wexner Family Charitable Fund. The Jim Joseph and William Davidson Foundations each contributed approximately $1 million to the Wexner Foundation, with the balance from the communities that host Wexner Heritage Fellowships, which raise local money to contribute to the educational lay leadership training program.

Epstein came to be an intimate advisor of Wexner’s, who reportedly boasted about his relationship with Victoria’s Secret to lure young models into private meetings. A 2003 Vanity Fair article reported that the friendship between Wexner and Epstein began in the mid- to late 1980s. In a July 15th note sent by Wexner to his staff and posted on the Wexner Foundation website, the philanthropist said he cut ties with Epstein “nearly 12 years ago.” 

The Times and older Vanity Fair articles suggest that Epstein played the heavy so that Wexner wouldn’t have to.

Jeffrey Solomon was president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, until that endeavor closed down several years ago. Now he serves as senior advisor to Chasbro Investments, Charles Bronfman’s family office.

“Successful people don’t want to be the ones who have to deal with uncomfortable situations,” said Solomon—situations like turning down a request for funding. He surmises that this was part of Epstein’s role with Wexner, as it was his as president of Bronfman Philanthropies. “It was very much part of our job to say no so that they don’t have to,” he told Inside Philanthropy.

If Wexner and Epstein’s relationship ended in late 2007 or early 2008, then the break came after the social-climbing finance expert was indicted in Florida in June 2006 on one count of soliciting prostitution, though the indictment didn’t reflect that Epstein was accused of soliciting underage girls. Later in 2006, the FBI opened a child prostitution investigation into Epstein that spanned multiple states. In 2008, Epstein reached a lenient plea deal with then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, in Florida, which permitted him to serve a 13-month sentence in county jail and sealed the case’s records. During that sentence, Epstein was released from jail to work at his office six days a week.

Who represented him in that negotiation? Attorney Jay Lefkowitz, who introduced Epstein to the modern Orthodox Ramaz School, which was attended by Lefkowitz’s three children. In 2007, when Lefkowitz began negotiating with the feds on Epstein’s behalf, the financier gave $500,000 to Ramaz. That was the largest of dozens of contributions to Jewish organizations Epstein made through his three private foundations, according to a list assembled by the publication Jewish Insider.

A Key Jewish Funder

The Wexner Foundation funds the studies of rabbinical, cantorial and advanced Jewish studies students via 20 Wexner Graduate Fellowships awarded each year. The Wexner Field Fellowship focuses on mid-career professional leaders of Jewish schools and organizations; the Wexner Heritage program gathers cohorts of people working outside of Jewish organizations who are potential lay leaders for a two-year program of intensive group study and gatherings in Israel and at U.S. resorts for periodic seminars. Started in 1985, the Wexner Heritage program alone now has 34 graduated cohorts with a total of 2,085 alumni, according to Becca Thomas, the Wexner Foundation’s communications director.

Wexner also cultivates Israeli leaders; each year, it sends 10 Israelis working in the public sector to the Harvard University Kennedy School’s one-year, mid-career Master’s program in public administration. There are currently 10 Israelis in the Wexner Israel Fellowship’s 32nd class, and the foundation has an additional, shorter program for senior leaders in Israeli public service.

Epstein’s latest arrest and the newest revelations, made public in unsealed court documents, document the extent of his perversions, alleging that he trafficked underage girls in sex rings. And they have led to personal and institutional soul searching on the part of those previously associated with Epstein.

“I would never have guessed that a person I employed more than a decade ago could have caused such pain to so many people,” wrote Wexner this month in his note. “My heart goes out to each and every person who has been hurt. 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. As you can imagine, this past week, I have searched my soul … reflected … and regretted that my path ever crossed his. 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.”

Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson, president of the Wexner Foundation, wrote in a separate letter sent to Wexner program alumni, participants and faculty that “the Epstein case and his prior relationship with the foundation and with our funder, Les, raises difficult and certainly uncomfortable questions.” 

She focused on the larger issue of justice for Epstein’s victims.

“A call for justice remains loud and persistent. The victims in the case must not be lost in the details being reported about Epstein's personal story and his now well-publicized connections, including a close relationship with our chairman. These women, abused by Epstein when they were girls, deserve their day in court, and Epstein should be punished to the full extent the law will allow. Let us, in the spirit of our tradition’s clarion call for justice, “tzedek tzedek tirdof,” [“justice, justice you shall pursue”] keep this demand front and center. I repeat the sentiment I shared a couple of weeks ago, that Jeffrey Epstein's criminal behavior flies in the face of sacred values. The reports from his victims sicken me,” wrote Abrahamson. She was not available for an interview, according to the foundation’s communications director.

Cutting Off Dark Money

For its part, the Ramaz School has decided not to accept further donations from anyone they cannot identify, wrote its head of school, Jonathan Cannon, and board chair, Dr. Philip Wilner, in a recent letter sent to thousands of alumni, current student families and other supporters.

The Upper East Side Jewish school’s statement on July 24th said that “immediately after learning about the source of the gift, the Ramaz Board of Trustees convened and resolved to implement a policy mandating greater transparency and diligence in relation to significant gifts, including from foundations. We have already determined that the school will not accept gifts from any organizations without identifying the principal individuals associated with them.”

Yet even if institutions like Ramaz change their policies, one expert warns about the ease with which giving can be done anonymously, outside of private foundations. “There are other ways philanthropic money can be dark money when it goes through donor-advised funds,” said Lila Corwin Berman, an associate professor of Jewish Studies at Temple University, the author of the forthcoming book, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The Historical Formation of a Multi-Billion Dollar Institution. (Princeton University Press).

Corwin Berman was herself a Wexner Graduate Fellow, she said.

While gifts directed through donor-advised funds must be reported on tax returns by the public charity that manages the DAF, there is no requirement to reveal who is making the gifts. The donor “may have earned that money through exploiting child labor,” Berman said. “People have donor-advised funds in addition to family foundations so they can give off-mission.”

And what became of Epstein’s $500,000 gift to Ramaz? “Over the past 12 years, Ramaz has spent nearly all of the funds to benefit our students,” the school leaders wrote. They declined to discuss the matter further with Inside Philanthropy.