NEW YORK — If you had asked leaders of New York Jewish organizations to name their most effective, influential and respected colleague, William Rapfogel would likely have topped that short list. The news of his firing from the Metropolitan Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, a group on the front lines of serving the neediest Jews in New York, for financial improprieties, left those who know him stunned.
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Rapfogel, 58, who has run the Met Council for the past 21 years as its chief executive officer, is under investigation by the New York attorney general. According to a statement issued by Met Council on Monday, it is for “financial improprieties and apparent misconduct in connection with the organization’s insurance policies.” Through his lawyer, Rapfogel said in a statement, “I deeply regret the mistakes I have made that have led to my departure from the organization…I will do everything possible to make amends.”
While the attorney general has not detailed specific allegations against Rapfogel, The New York Times reported that “Rapfogel might have been overpaying the council’s insurer, Century Coverage Corporation of Valley Stream, N.Y., and then directing the insurer to make political contributions to his favored candidates.”
Rapfogel is politically well-connected, and his wife, Judy Rapfogel, is chief of staff to State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful political figures in the state of New York.
But he is also the person who built Met Council into an organization that directly aids thousands of New York’s most vulnerable people each month, and the executive who would personally respond to calls from local rabbis and others trying to assist people in crisis.
“He was the go-to person for all of us. If someone came to you with a problem relating to poverty, someone who couldn’t pay bills, you could call Willie 24/6 and you knew he would say ‘I’m on it.’ And it would get done. He’s been a role model for us. He was consumed by helping people,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, senior rabbi of Congregation Mt. Sinai in Brooklyn Heights, and the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “That’s why this hurts so much, because we feel that the one who has always helped others is now himself hurting.”
“A lot of people are sad. A lot of people looked up to him. Everybody is very shocked,” said the leader of a Jewish anti-hunger organization who spoke on the basis of anonymity for fear of alienating staff at Met Council, from which his group receives significant funding.
The Met Council is the lead organization aiding hungry and impoverished Jews in New York City — a population that has dramatically grown in size in the last decade, according to a recent report from UJA-Federation of New York, of which Met Council is a core agency. Met Council’s programs help connect needy Jews and non-Jews with public entitlement programs like food stamps, it provides career training and counseling, cash grants to those in crisis, a kosher food pantry, food packages to the hungry and food vouchers.
In an interview in June about the federation poverty study, Rapfogel told Haaretz that the Met Council is spending $120 million a year, most of it from the federal health insurance program for the poor, Medicaid, to provide homecare to the frail elderly — many of them Holocaust survivors, Russian and Bukharian immigrants. He also said that Met Council provides career services to some 7,500 people a year.
The Met Council reported income of close to $34 million in its 2011 tax filing, the most recent year for which it is available. It reported that Rapfogel was paid $340,000 in salary plus $77,200 in other compensation.
Rapfogel has played a unique and pivotal role in New York’s Jewish community, interfacing between powerful elected officials and Met Council’s clients, facilitating the flow of money from government agencies and also, as a modern Orthodox Jew himself with deep ties in the Haredi communities of Brooklyn, able to appeal directly to powerful rabbis there.
He recently helped establish a business loan program in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for instance, so that members of the Satmar community can start their own construction, plumbing and garbage carting companies and thereby be weaned off public assistance.
Usually a very public presence on social media, Rapfogel’s Twitter and Facebook accounts were deleted on Monday.
Rapfogel is the second executive of a major Jewish organization in New York to be fired in as many months. In July Sol Adler, the longtime executive director of the 92nd Street Y, was fired after an affair with a staff member came to light amid allegations of financial kickbacks.
Some say that Rapfogel’s firing should prompt a larger examination of values both inside the Jewish community and out.
“My sense is that this is a story about a person who worked every day to help the most vulnerable rationalizing very bad means towards good ends,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, the president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“The easy way to tell this story is ‘the fall of a good man’ or ‘the continuing problem with integrity in the Jewish community,’ but the more challenging story that needs to be mined over the weeks to come as we learn the details is what is it about our political culture that makes it so tempting, easy, and in the mind and heart of someone we all know did in fact have integrity to engage in financial payoffs to politicians?” Kula said. “How has money so corrupted our political class that even the good guys lose their moral bearings and wind up feeling they need to make illegal contributions to get their job done?”
“The real tragedy beyond the personal and beyond our corrupt political culture is that inevitably people will wind up going hungry as the Met Council will be weakened in its capacity to help the poor.”
Rapfogel’s firing also comes at time when there are vacancies at the head of a number of major Jewish groups. New York’s Jewish federation is searching for a new executive vice president/CEO to succeed John Ruskay, who is retiring next June, and the 14th Street Y, where the executive director recently left.
Ruskay, who has worked closely with Rapfogel for two decades, was not available for an interview, said his spokeswoman, Jane Rubenstein. Instead, she sent a statement from the federation. “We understand that appropriate steps have been taken to investigate these matters. In light of Met Council’s referring the allegations to the authorities and the ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate for UJA-Federation to provide any further comment.”
Rapfogel’s and Adler’s firings “raises the specter of who is the next generation of leadership who will run these organizations with integrity?” said Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. “There’s a lot of anxiety from Jewish professional leaders about who’s going to fill the shoes of the outgoing generation.”
“When you have leadership resigning in scandal it’s a very big opening for the community to ask what types of leaders we want and deserve? It is an opportunity to look at what integrity can look like,” said Kurtzer, who believes the Jewish community needs to consider new models of leadership rather than look to people who already have proven track records steering large organizations. “It’s a teachable moment for the Jewish community to ask what types of assumptions should we be testing. Are we thoughtful about gender? What types of power and authority structures are we looking to embody? There’s some way for these two conversations to be aligned.”