Letters For Rapfogel

Letters For Rapfogel

April 13, 2015

William Rapfogel, the city’s legendary giant of the Jewish nonprofit world and good friend of indicted ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, is in prison for looting $9 million from the organization he ran for two decades, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

A reverse Robin Hood for poor Jews, the 59-year-old Rapfogel, who pocketed $3 million and was caught with $420,000 in cash, appeared unlikely to prompt much support when he pleaded guilty last year. Exploiting a mine lode of public subsidies funneled mostly through Silver, Rapfogel admitted to financing what court papers called “a lavish lifestyle” by taking up to $30,000 a month from an insurance company his organization deliberately overpaid. Every dollar consumed by this scam was a dollar less for services to the poor.

Nonetheless, 70 Rapfogel backers, including 19 rabbis, several politicians, and some of the city and country’s most prominent leaders of Jewish organizations, petitioned Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to go easy on Rapfogel, who The New York Times said was frequently called the “prince of the Jews.” The letters—sent shortly before his April guilty plea—were obtained by City & State (C&S) under the Freedom of Information Act. They are a triumph of congeniality over conscience, with the call of the club taking precedence over the betrayal of the mission. The Jewish poor are invisible in this correspondence.

Asked if the letters had any effect on the A.G. or the court’s handling of the case, a Schneiderman spokeswoman, Elizabeth DeBold, emailed C&S that they “had no impact” partly because “it was clear from the substance of the letters” that Rapfogel had “concealed the full extent of his misconduct from the letter writers.” In fact, the letters were written six months after Rapfogel’s arrest, a period clogged with one juicy news story after another detailing his misconduct. It’s hard to imagine the letter-writers didn’t see them.

Schneiderman took five weeks to provide slightly redacted copies of the petitions, which were submitted by Rapfogel’s attorneys. Schneiderman’s office said it had no records related to a fund created by Rapfogel that raised much of the $3 million he was required to pay in restitution, a part of his plea deal with Schneiderman. No explanation of what happened to the $3 million he stole was ever made public. Since Rapfogel was not required to name the beneficiaries whose generosity to this fund allowed him to minimize his personal financial accountability, it’s impossible to tell if the letter-writers also donated.

The letters credited Rapfogel for acts of kindness that he was paid $410,000 a year to do at Met Council, and for his devotion to his kids, one of whom got $350,000 of Rapfogel’s criminal booty to buy a house. Many of the letters praised Rapfogel’s “integrity,” paying only passing reference to his crimes. Even if the letters had no impact on the handling of the case, they offer a window into a circle of wink-and-nod philanthropic connections starkly similar to the political culture long occupied by Rapfogel and his wife Judy, who has been Silver’s chief of staff since he arrived in the assembly in 1977.

Three of the letters were written by men who have made the Jewish Daily Forward’s list of the 50 most powerful Jews in America in recent years—Julius Berman, the chair of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division, and Shmuel Lefkowitz, the chief lobbyist for Agudath Israel of America. Lefkowitz, who personally appealed to Schneiderman on the basis of their own long-term relationship, explained Rapfogel’s misdeeds by writing: “We are all only human.”

Genack, the most influential certifier of kosher food in the country, has a track record of questionable ethic endorsements. Years after a massive 2008 federal raid on the largest supplier of kosher meats led to prosecutions of plant supervisors and illegal immigrant workers, Genack did an op-ed that blasted the 27- year jail term for the CEO and co-owner of the plant, Sholom Rubashkin, a member of a prominent Orthodox family. Genack said the fraud case “sullied our justice system” and was “grossly overzealous.” Earlier, he’d called the Kubashkins “good people,” despite the evidence of their use of hundreds of illegal workers, including many children allegedly exposed to chemical dangers at the plant.

Other national notables on the letter list include:

• Howard Friedman, the first Orthodox president of AIPAC;

• Richard Stone, ex-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations;

• Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference of President’s longtime executive director; Grand Rebbe Moishe Rabinowich, leader of the Munkatsh sect;

• Ruth Lichtenstein, publisher of the Orthodox newspaper Hamodia;

• Raphael Butler, former president of the Orthodox Union;

• Steven Weil, current top executive of the Union.

Rapfogel “used his contacts in the political, communal and business communities for every cause that arose,” wrote Hoenlein, including, apparently his own.

Letter writers well known in New York were:

• Joseph Potasnik, president of the Board of Rabbis;

• Michael Miller, who runs the Jewish Community Relations Council;

• David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn;

• Assemblyman Dov Hikind;

• CUNY trustee Jeff Wiesenfeld; 

• Former state Democratic Party executive director Chung Seto;

• NYU city affairs expert Mitchell Moss.

Hikind was acquitted of corruption charges in the late '90s, even though two leaders of a Borough Park charity were convicted of bribing him. Rapfogel swooped in at the time to help Hikind keep the charity’s services going.

Lobbyists George Arzt, John LoCicero, Joni Yoswein and Yehiel Kalish also sent letters, as did former elected officials Harrison J. Goldin, Lew Fidler, and Herb Berman. Yoswein, a former assemblywoman, described her and Rapfogel’s joint meeting with a congressman whose views on Israel required massaging, citing Rapfogel’s successful persuasion as a rationale for early release. Ex-City Councilman Herb Berman, who died within months of writing the letter, was the recipient of a $4,500 contribution in 2001 from Rapfogel’s co-defendant, insurance executive Joseph Ross, funneled through Rapfogel, who was the bundler. The donation to Berman was part of $120,000 in Ross/Rapfogel engineered contributions that became part of the Schneiderman probe.

Kalish, the onetime Agudath Israel official who now heads a national lobbying firm, described how Rapfogel helped boost his own career when he came to New York a few years ago. “That’s the real Willie,” he wrote. “That’s the one you should get to know.” Miller contended that Rapfogel’s “righteousness far outweighs his imperfections.” Niederman, who boasts that he controls 11,000 Satmar votes in Williamsburg, cited an example of Rapfogel helping a family in need in upstate Monroe, far away from Met Council’s service area. His organization is a Met Council affiliate.

Some of the petitioners were particularly tied to Silver: Charles Moerdler, a senior partner in the law firm representing the speaker in his criminal case; Simon Pelman, whose nursing home was a Silver donor; Harold Jacob, the manager of the co-op where Silver lives and close Silver ally; Azriel Siff, a Lower East Side rabbi whose father was rabbi to Silver’s father; Nathan Sklar, whose bid for a Lower East Side restaurant site was backed by Silver and Norman Dawidowicz, a financial advisor who chaired the 125th anniversary dinner for Silver’s synagogue, where Silver was honored.

Others were directly connected to Rapfogel. Developer Bruce Ratner attended Rapfogel’s son’s bar mitzvah, partnered with a Rapfogel housing company, gave a million dollars to Met Council on Jewish Poverty, and hired Rapfogel’s son at the same time that Silver and Rapfogel supported his effort to take over a prize Lower East Side site. Harold Jacob, Isaac Stern, Naftoli Solomon, Yaakov Bender and other letter writers are top officers of Chevra Hatzolah, the ambulance service run for years by David Cohen, who pled guilty with Rapfogel in the Met Council case.

Rapfogel backers also included Bernard Hoenig, an attorney retained by the council, and Moshe Weiner, the director of two Brooklyn organizations funded through the council for years who was selected at one point to take Rapfogel’s old job (he eventually withdrew). Weiner was one of ten officers of neighborhood councils affiliated with Met Council to submit letters.

Even top leaders of the organization Rapfogel plundered sent letters. The ubiquitous Jacob once chaired the Met Council board. Another letter-writing board member, Haskell Lookstein, rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, was honored at a 2012 council event sponsored in part by Century Coverage, the insurance company whose owner was convicted in the Rapfogel insurance case. That event was organized by Rhonda Barad, ex-regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center who chaired the Met Council’s Food for Life program and also contributed a letter. Lookstein, the former president of the New York Board of Rabbis, asked for “lenient punishment.” Stone and Goldin were also board members, their loyalty to Rapfogel apparently unshaken by his admitted sacking of their own anti-poverty group.

At least two of the letter-writers were major donors to Schneiderman: Bruce Ratner and his wife gave $37,500 and Jack C. Bendheim, the CEO of Phibro Animal Health Corporation, gave $25,000 since 2013—$10,000 of it at the very time he sent the letter. Perry Weitz and Arthur Luxenberg, the lawyers whose firm employed Silver, gave $225,000 to Schneiderman, putting them among his top donors and signaling close ties between Silver and the A.G. Weitz and Luxenberg did not write letters on Rapfogel's behalf.

Two Rapfogel supporters—Claims Conference chair Berman and Orthodox Union executive Butler—have had their own experience with scandal, unrelated to the Met Council on Jewish Poverty. A shocking 31 people associated with the Claims Conference, including 28 employees, were convicted of stealing $57 million from its coffers over many years, either filing or facilitating false claims, with some awarded payouts though the supposed Holocaust victims were actually born after World War II. Called “one of the greatest scandals of contemporary Jewish life” in a Jerusalem Post op-ed, it wasn’t addressed by Berman and other conference brass for nine years after it initially surfaced.

Berman’s letter said that the council was a “prime beneficiary of the Claims Conference’s allocations for the needy” (the allocation this year is $626,000 for council help for Nazi victims). Berman also pointed to “the increasingly close relationship between the professional and lay leadership” of the conference and Met Council on Jewish Poverty. While this would appear to be a reference to Abe Biderman, a former top city official who’s been both vice president of the conference and the council, he says he doesn’t believe it is. Others, like Rabbi Niederman’s organization, are Met Council affiliates funded by the conference.

Butler was forced to resign as chair of the Orthodox Union after a lengthy investigation found that he had “direct knowledge” of allegations of child sex abuse against a top staffer and took no action for years. The staffer was eventually convicted of abuse. While the case had nothing to do with Rapfogel, it makes Butler a dubious reference at least.

This rally list for Rapfogel plants one overriding and troubling question: Who really stands up for the Jewish poor? 

Wayne Barrett