Billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, co-founder of Birthright Israel and one of the most influential megadonors in the Jewish world, has been accused of a “pattern of sexual harrassment,” according to a report in the New York Times Thursday.
The report details accusations from seven women (six in interviews and one in a lawsuit) who allege that Steinhardt used his professional and financial relationship with them as means to pressure them for sex.
The paper reported that "Deborah Mohile Goldberg worked for Birthright Israel, a nonprofit co-founded by Mr. Steinhardt, when he asked her if she and a female colleague would like to join him in a threesome, she said."
The Times also quoted Natalie Goldfein, who was an officer at a small nonprofit that Mr. Steinhardt had helped establish. She said that Steinhardt "suggested in a meeting that they have babies together."
The Times reported that “through a spokesman, Mr. Steinhardt denied many of the specific actions or words attributed to him by the seven women.”
The New York Times report said Steinhardt also "regularly made comments to women about their bodies and their fertility, according to the seven women and 16 other people who said they were present when Mr. Steinhardt made such comments."
Steinhardt was reported to be under investigation in September 2018 for unwelcome “inappropriate sexual remarks” by two female employees of one of the many organizations he supports.
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The investigation into the 78-year-old former hedge fund investor's behavior was launched by Hillel International: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, according to a report in The New York Jewish Week.
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.
The report noted that Hillel had “quietly” removed Steinhardt's 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.
Sheila Katz was a young executive at Hillel International when she was sent to visit Steinhardt. She told the New York Times that "in her first encounter" with the philanthropist, "he asked her repeatedly if she wanted to have sex with him."
Katz, 35, told the paper that “Institutions in the Jewish world have long known about his behavior, and they have looked the other way. No one was surprised when I shared that this happened,” she said.
Several of the women quoted in the Times story said that they had reported and discussed Steinhardt’s problematic behavior with the Jewish organizations they worked for, but that it was repeatedly dismissed or brushed aside by their bosses.
The Times said that a spokesman for Steinhardt denied some of the behavior outlined in the article, and that Steinhardt himself, in a statement, admitted making bad jokes “that were boorish, disrespectful, and just plain dumb.”
His comments, Steinhardt said, were part of his “schtick” and he apologized for them. “I fully understand why they were inappropriate. I am sorry,” he said.
None of the women in the story, which was reported by both the Times and ProPublica, accused him of inappropriate physical contact, and Steinhardt strenuously denied crossing that line, saying: “In my nearly 80 years on Earth, I have never tried to touch any woman or man inappropriately.”
Steinhardt, who has been described as "Wall Street's greatest trader," was assessed by Forbes as being worth $1.05 billion in 2017. Since the mid-90s, 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, and 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.