Hillel International: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has launched an internal investigation into allegations that one of its biggest donors, Michael Steinhardt, made inappropriate sexual remarks to a female employee of the organization, The Jewish Week has learned. And as the investigation has unfolded, a second female employee has stepped forward to make similar complaints about the mega-philanthropist, according to sources.
Several weeks ago, with the internal probe still ongoing, Hillel quietly removed Steinhardt’s name from the board of governors list on its website.
Debra Katz, a Washington attorney specializing in these types of claims and a founding partner of Katz, Marshall & Banks, confirmed that she is representing one of the two women who has come forward to Hillel with complaints about Steinhardt.
“I can confirm that my client did raise concerns regarding Michael Steinhardt to Hillel and that she is cooperating fully with Hillel’s investigation,” Katz wrote to The Jewish Week in an email. In a follow-up email, she wrote: “My client is not in a position to comment at this time given Hillel’s ongoing investigation.”
Sources familiar with the investigation say that the second woman making allegations received a written apology from Steinhardt, dated Aug. 23, 2011, acknowledging his inappropriate comments made toward her and two male colleagues at a meeting the year before.
A source familiar with the investigation, which began about six weeks ago, says that Hillel had not informed Steinhardt directly about the details of the allegations made against him until Monday, when he was interviewed by two persons from a law firm conducting the probe.
Since giving an initial telephone interview to Jewish Week on July 31, Steinhardt has declined to comment further on the pending Hillel investigation. At that time, Steinhardt, 77, told The Jewish Week that while he had not been personally contacted by Hillel at that point regarding the allegations, he said his daughter, Sara Bloom, vice chair of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, and Rabbi David Gedzelman, president and CEO of the foundation, had been notified of the investigation by Hillel that morning.
According to sources within the organization, Hillel has also informed the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life that it is not soliciting the foundation’s planned $50,000 grant this year intended to support Hillel’s Springboard Fellowship. The Fellowship is a national project that places recent college graduates at Hillel campuses across the country. (The Fellowship is the reimagination of the Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellowship, which Hillel operated from 1994 to 1998.)
Hillel has declined to comment on the investigation, on whether Steinhardt has been removed from its board of governors, and on whether it intends to refrain from soliciting the planned $50,000 grant.
Sources close to the investigation state that the original complaint by a female Hillel staff official took place in 2015, and as a result, Hillel started a practice where no female employee would meet with Steinhardt unaccompanied. Over time, and particularly in wake of the #MeToo movement, Hillel’s leadership was prodded to take additional action, sources said, which led to Hillel’s internal investigation.
Steinhardt, who retired from the hedge fund business in 1995 to devote himself to what he calls “the Jewish future,” has long been known for his outsized generosity and personality. With wealth valued at $1.1 billion, according to Forbes, he is one of the most generous and innovative supporters of Jewish causes in American-Jewish history. He has contributed millions of dollars to Hillel and its affiliates in the last decade. In May 2001, Steinhardt and his wife, Judy, gave a $2.5 million naming gift towards the construction of Steinhardt Hall, the 36,000-square-foot home of the University of Pennsylvania Hillel. The building, dedicated in October 2003, houses operations for nearly 2,000 Jewish undergraduates, according to the Hillel International campus guide. In addition, he has given many millions of dollars to a wide variety of Jewish causes here and in Israel, many of them cutting-edge projects like Makor, the former New York City cultural center on the Upper West Side; the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE); and the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School.
Most notably, Steinhardt was a founder, along with Charles Bronfman, of Birthright Israel, widely recognized as the most successful philanthropic project created by the diaspora, having provided free 10-day trips to the Jewish state for more than 600,000 Jewish young men and women since the program began in 1999. Steinhardt’s original Birthright gift, according to published reports, was $8 million. He estimates that he has given the program about $25 million since its inception nearly two decades ago, according to an April 2018 article in Haaretz.
(Steinhardt has at times over the years given The Jewish Week and its educational projects generous funding, most recently this past spring.)
In the July 31 phone interview with The Jewish Week, Steinhardt speculated on what may have prompted the Hillel investigation.
“If I were to guess,” whoever made the allegations “can’t be accusing me of anything other than words,” he said. “Words are not necessarily innocent,” he continued, but noted that they are not in the category of “touching or grabbing.”
“I tend to be provocative and say what I think,” he continued in the July 31 interview. “And I kid around,” including in public settings, “like offering people a million dollars if they find a husband” for a fellow major donor who has been widowed for many years.
Steinhardt has long been known to make politically incorrect comments in public, seen by many as sexist or patriarchal, and has often focused on encouraging young men and women to mingle, marry and produce Jewish babies, ensuring Jewish continuity.
Charles Bronfman, a mega-philanthropist and co-founder of Birthright Israel with Steinhardt, told The Jewish Week Sept. 4 that Steinhardt is “a dear friend” and valued figure in Jewish life who “has a habit of teasing men and women about their sexual proclivities. He’s done it all his life.” Bronfman said Steinhardt knows some people are embarrassed by these comments but “in Michael’s opinion, it’s harmless, he’s kidding around. All of a sudden it’s a big deal.”
The “big deal” may be a result of the impact of the #MeToo movement on society, as debates continue to rage over where to draw the line between inappropriate, even boorish comments and those seen by some as a form of harassment.
‘But You Know I Was Joking’
In the rarefied air of high-priced art collecting, in which Steinhardt is a major player, there have also been allegations lodged against him of unwelcome sexual comments. (Steinhardt is a collector of antiquities; the estimated worth of his art collection is $200 million, according to an August 2017 article in Bloomberg. He is a member of Christie’s American advisory board, according to the auction house’s website.)
In May 2017, Molly M., a Chicago-based antiquities and art consultant, flew to Manhattan to discuss a potential $2 million sale with Steinhardt. (Molly requested that initials be used for her last name to protect her privacy.)
For Molly, who had launched her own art consultancy business in 2016 after several years of working for Christie’s auction house, working with Steinhardt as a client was a career high point. She knew Steinhardt personally, having gone to high school with his daughter, Sara, at the Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She had been to his home many times as an adult. She had visited his famed private zoo of exotic animals, housed at his Bedford, N.Y., estate, with her children, and dined privately with Steinhardt and his wife, she told The Jewish Week.
Still, the May 18, 2017 visit to Steinhardt’s Manhattan office — confirmed by email records sent to her husband six days after the visit — was one of the few times she had met with him without being accompanied by a colleague. According to Molly, when she entered Steinhardt’s office, he was finishing a meeting with another visitor, whom she described as an Orthodox rabbi whose name she did not recall.
Steinhardt was eager to see the piece of art Molly had brought; she recalled unwrapping it carefully and placing the work on his desk. “It was a big moment for me,” Molly said. “This was my personal business, and I was hoping to make an important sale.”
According to Molly, Steinhardt said he would buy the piece for the asking price of $2 million if Molly agreed to have sex with the rabbi in a room at a nearby hotel. In her email — titled “an unfortunate meeting last week” and sent to her husband days after the alleged incident — Molly described Steinhardt “repeating the proposal” several times. “I tried to change the subject, to bring it back to the piece and my purpose for being at his office that day, but Michael would not let the conversation go,” she wrote in the May 24, 2017 email.
According to Molly, Steinhardt then pushed the piece across the desk towards the rabbi; the piece was a life-size mask, with a large open hole around the eyes and nose. She alleged that Steinhardt instructed the rabbi to “pull down your pants and put your schmeckle through it,” gesturing to one of the eye holes. (Schmeckle is a Yiddish slang word for penis.)
Molly relayed her account to two family members immediately after the alleged incident and in emails she sent days later.
In an email to her husband, she describes feeling “incredibly humiliated.” She wrote, “I have never experienced such a blatantly sexist and offensive client meeting — nor have I ever felt so objectified in a business environment.”
Molly sent a follow-up email to Steinhardt on May 30, 2017, at the advice of a mutual friend, in which she referenced the conversation that “began with you and your guest regarding this work of art that took a turn toward an inappropriate nature.”
“I want you to know that I respect you greatly as a philanthropist, a businessman and a collector — but I do not have any tolerance for this avenue of dialogue or innuendo,” she wrote, stating that though she hoped their business relationship would continue, “such perverse commentary will no longer be a part of our future business meetings and negotiations.” Having made clear that she felt Steinhardt’s conduct was inappropriate, Molly ended her email by trying to turn back to business, letting Steinhardt know that the artwork was still available but that his offer of $800,000 for it was too low.
According to Molly, she received a phone call from Steinhardt on her cell phone shortly after sending the email. “He said, ‘What the f*** did I say?’” she recalled. “He said, ‘But you know I was joking.’” She remembered telling him “very calmly” that what he said was “not funny” and “not something to joke about.” Molly says Steinhardt then complimented her writing, referencing her email, and asked Molly where she had “learned to write like that.” She responded, “At Dalton, with your daughter.” According to Molly, Steinhardt responded that “things were so much easier back in the 14th and 15th century when women weren’t educated.”
“That was the last time I spoke to him,” she said, noting her subsequent decision to cease all future business dealings with Steinhardt.
Responding to Molly’s allegations, Steinhardt stated in an email to The Jewish Week: “When an art dealer pressured me to buy a piece I didn’t want, I made a sarcastic joke when in retrospect the proper thing to do was just politely decline.”
Molly said she did not view his conduct as a joke. “He was trying to make me uncomfortable. He was showing who was ruling the tone of the room.”
‘Keep Him Happy’
Steinhardt’s name has also surfaced in two lawsuits in which women sued their art gallery employer for sexual harassment, alleging, among other things that, as a customer of the art gallery Steinhardt subjected them to inappropriate sexual comments and, in one of the cases, to an unwanted attempted kiss. Steinhardt was not named as a defendant in either case and both cases were voluntarily discontinued without the court ever ruling on the merits of the women’s claims about Steinhardt. In one case, the court found that the complainant had improperly destroyed relevant documents.
In response to questions posed by The Jewish Week, Steinhardt stated in an email that “these lawsuits were never against me, and given [that] the reference[s] to me were false, I am pleased the judge ruled that the main person involved was not credible.”
Here’s the background: In a September 2013 complaint filed in New York State Supreme Court, Karen Simons, who worked for an art dealership called Electrum, asserted that she had been sexually harassed by her then-boss at Electrum, Hicham Aboutaam. Steinhardt was a client of the Electrum gallery, and in her complaint, Simons alleged a number of encounters with Steinhardt in which he engaged in inappropriate sexual talk.
One encounter, according to Simons’ complaint, occurred after Steinhardt and Simons were led by Simons’ boss, Aboutaam, into a room that housed a piece of art Steinhardt was looking to purchase. According to the complaint, Aboutaam asked Steinhardt if he would like him to leave the room and Steinhardt answered “yes.” Once Aboutaam was out of the room, the complaint charges, Steinhardt allegedly “began making sexual remarks” and, when Simons stood up to leave, Steinhardt “put his hands on her lower back and leaned in to kiss her.”
In her lawsuit, Simons accused Aboutaam of engaging in “quid-pro-quo sexual harassment” by terminating her for refusing his — and Steinhardt’s — sexual advances. She charged that when she approached Aboutaam on numerous occasions with complaints about Steinhardt, her then-boss allegedly told her he would not put his sales at “risk” by confronting the wealthy collector, who he said is “harmless.” He dismissed her complaint as based on nothing more than “childish words” by Steinhardt.
“‘He is very important and we must do whatever it takes to keep him happy,’” Simons claimed Aboutaam said about Steinhardt.
Simons further charged in her suit that in a Dec. 6, 2012 phone call, Steinhardt, who had called the gallery, referred to her as “my sexy Israeli” and asked: “How is your sex life? Is your husband keeping you happy in bed? Would you have sex with me?”
The art gallery and Aboutaam denied the charges made by Simons in her lawsuit and countered that Simons “frequently would come into Aboutaam’s office uninvited, give him hugs and back rubs that were unsolicited and unwelcomed, and make sexual comments to him.”
During the course of the Simons case, the court determined that Simons had improperly destroyed evidence intentionally or due to gross negligence (“spoliation” in legal terms), directed that “adverse inferences” should be imposed against her (meaning that it should be assumed that the facts contained in the destroyed documents were unfavorable to Simons), and ruled that she had to pay the defendant Aboutaam’s legal fees. While the court stopped short of dismissing her lawsuit, its sanctions against her were severe.
Ultimately, the merits of Simons’ charges against Steinhardt and Aboutaam were never decided by the court. In November 2017, the parties filed a stipulation discontinuing the lawsuit.
In October 2012, another sexual harassment complaint was filed in New York State Supreme Court against the Electrum art gallery and Aboutaam by employee Emily Davis. In an affidavit she filed in that suit, Davis alleged that, in addition to Aboutaam forcibly kissing her on a business trip, on another occasion the gallery’s “high valued client,” Steinhardt, asked her sexual questions in front of Aboutaam. According to Davis’ affidavit, the comments were “more than I could bear” and she left the gallery premises early that day because she “could not handle the comments.” She said she ultimately quit her job after two years of “sexual harassment and verbal abuse” by her boss, Aboutaam, and clients of the gallery.
Aboutaam and the gallery denied Davis’ allegations and made a motion to dismiss her complaint. The court granted dismissal of one of Davis’ claims (for “hostile work environment” under the New York State Human Rights Law) because “the clients’ ‘sexual’ questions and comments” claimed by her, “while offensive, were too isolated and occasional” to qualify as a “severe or pervasive” sexual harassment by her employer. But the court permitted her claim for sexual harassment against her employer under the New York City Human Rights Law to proceed because her allegation that gallery clients made comments about her sex life, even if isolated, was sufficiently serious to violate the city’s law if proven at trial.
Like the Simons case, the Davis case was discontinued by a stipulation between the parties, in February 2014, without the court ever ruling on the merits of her sexual harassment allegations.
Neither Davis nor Simons could be reached for comment. The attorney who represented both women in the separate case proceedings did not respond to requests for comment.
‘We Do Not Criticize Donors’
Shifra Bronznick, a New York-based organizational strategist and long-time advocate for the advancement of female professionals, recently recalled the repercussions she experienced 14 years ago when she called Steinhardt out in public for his behavior. He had asked a roomful of participants at a Jewish leadership conference in Los Angeles to vote, by clapping their hands, on whether a leader of the conference in her 40s, who had just become engaged, should have a baby or not.
Bronznick, who was so upset that she left the room on hearing the comment, later returned, took the mic and said that Steinhardt’s comment “did not reflect the value that every person is created in the image of God, and that every person should be treated with deep respect and dignity,” she told The Jewish Week.
The room fell silent. “You could hear a pin drop,” Bronznick said.
The incident, she said, was far less significant than the response that followed. Upon returning to New York, she said she was contacted by a “host” of Jewish communal executives, donors and lay leaders reprimanding her for her response to Steinhardt.
“The overwhelming sentiment was, ‘how dare you cross Michael?’” she said.
Her credibility was “questioned” from all sides; “the question was, ‘can Shifra be trusted,’ not ‘was what Steinhardt said inappropriate,’” she said. “My behavior became the source of scrutiny, not his.” The response made her feel as though she had broken “some perverse but sacred oath of loyalty — ‘we do not criticize donors.’”
In the years since, Bronznick said she has become an “informal address” for hundreds of women experiencing different types of discrimination in the workplace. She said that since the #MeToo movement has taken hold, she has been contacted by a number of women within the Jewish community confronting situations of a sexual nature in dealing with donors and communal professionals.
“If I have learned anything from my own experience, it’s that you can’t just focus on a ‘bad actor’ to fix a problem; you have to shift the limelight onto the context that allows his or her bad behavior to become normalized,” said Bronznick.
Many, she said, will try and tell those who speak up that their words are destructive to the community.
“To the contrary,” Bronznick said. “It is an act of faith in our community to speak up in the face of wrongdoing, no matter the consequences.” PJC
New York Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt contributed to this report. New York Jewish Week editorial intern Avigayil Halpern provided research.