Billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, co-founder of Birthright Israel and one of the most influential mega-donors in the Jewish world, is under investigation for unwelcome “inappropriate sexual remarks” by two female employees of one of the many organizations he supports. The investigation into the behavior of the 77-year-old former hedge fund investor was launched by Hillel International: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, according to a report in The New York Jewish Week published Thursday night.
The Jewish Week story quoted “sources close to the investigation” as saying that since, 2015, when the first complaint by a female employee occurred, it has been a “practice” within the organization for no female employee to have meetings with Steinhardt alone.
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The report noted that Hillel had “quietly” removed his name from the board of governors listed on their website while the organization was investigating the claims. The article also quoted “sources within the organization” as saying that Hillel would not be cooperating with a plan to use a $50,000 grant from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life to support a fellowship for staffing Hillel branches at campuses around the country, in what appeared to be an additional distancing of the organization from Steinhardt.
Hillel did not respond to the Jewish Week's request for comment regarding the allegations.
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Attorney Debra Katz confirmed to the newspaper that she represented a client who had raised “concerns regarding Michael Steinhardt to Hillel and that she is cooperating fully with Hillel’s investigation.” While the claims against Steinhardt took place years ago, it appears to have taken the #MeToo movement to spark an official investigation of his behavior.
The article quoted Steinhardt discussing the charges in a telephone interview that took place on July 31.
“If I were to guess,” he said to the Jewish Week, the women “can’t be accusing me of anything other than words.” While acknowledging that, “Words are not necessarily innocent,” Steinhardt said, should not be equated with “touching or grabbing.”
According to the Jewish Week, since receiving his response at the end of July, Steinhardt has declined to comment on the recent Hillel investigation.
Thursday’s Jewish Week article also related multiple accounts of alleged sexual harassment from Steinhardt in the world of art collecting.
News of the allegations against one of American Jewry’s highest-profile and most generous donors is certain to rock the world of philanthropy. Steinhardt, who has been described as "Wall Street's greatest trader," was assessed by Forbes at being worth $1.05 billion in 2017. Since the mid-90’s, he has devoted most of his time and attention to his philanthropic pursuits, because, he told Forbes in 2014, "I thought there must be something more virtuous, more ennobling to do with one's life than make rich people richer."
Steinhardt’s contribution to American Jewish life has had an impact both in terms of the millions he has donated and in how philanthropy is conceived. A pioneer of the concept that major philanthropists in the American Jewish world create their own projects rather than work through established Jewish organizations, he has not shied away of criticizing the way that existing Jewish organizations functioned, particularly in the field of Jewish education.
He is best known as a co-founder of Birthright Israel, the 10-day free trip that has become a central pillar of American Jewish life, to which he has donated over $25 million. He is also the creator of a network of Hebrew-language charter schools.
In 2017, Steinhardt made history when he was chosen as one of two Diaspora Jews to light an official torch at the Israel Independence Day ceremony.
Last April, Steinhardt made headlines when he clashed with anti-occupation protesters demonstrating in front of a Birthright Israel gala, and was photographed giving them “the finger” as he exited his car. In an interview later, he called the demonstrators “left-wing, stupid young Jews.”
Steinhardt and the other founders of Birthright have been criticized in the past for remarks that appeared to encourage both romance and sexual encounters during the trips as a way of promoting Jewish continuity, even offering free honeymoons and other incentives to couples who had gotten together through the program.
In a 2011 article for “The Nation” called “The Romance of Birthright Israel” reporter Kiera Feldman recounted an exchange with Steinhardt at a Birthright event in which she told him that she had had a boyfriend whom she had met on Birthright.
“‘Is he the man of your dreams?’ Steinhardt asked. “Is he here in New York?” No and no, I answered. “Well, a few months of pleasure is wonderful!” he exclaimed.”
The Jewish Week report also quoted feminist activist and organizational consultant Shifra Bronznick as saying she was harshly reprimanded by Jewish communal executives, donors and lay leaders when she criticized behavior she described as sexist by Steinhardt at a Jewish leadership conference some 14 years ago.
“The overwhelming sentiment was, ‘how dare you cross Michael?’” Bronznick said.