Epstein, Wexner, and Our Communal Reckoning with Dirty Money

In the wake of the recent resurfaced allegations against alleged child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, much attention has been given to the people around him who for many years enabled his well-known sexual abuse of children. Perhaps most notable among these enablers is Leslie Wexner, whose foundation has issued many scholarships to some of the Jewish community’s most influential up-and-coming leaders, and donated to many institutions across our community. When the allegations of Wexner’s complicity arose, we all knew that a reckoning was imminent, but it seems that Mechon Hadar has beaten everyone else to the punch, and not in a good way.

Above I’ve shared screenshots of an email conversation my friend Ike Brooks Fishman had with the Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, regarding an email Ike sent to the Hadar community listserv. Ike had emailed the listserv to start a communal discussion about how the community would and could respond to its entanglement with Les Wexner in light of his close partnership with alleged international sex-trafficker and child rapist, Jeffrey Epstein.

It should also be noted for general context going forward that Wexner stands accused not only of being Epstein’s only public (and very wealthy) client despite almost undoubtedly knowing of Epstein’s horrific crimes, but also of allowing Epstein to sexually abuse women in his Ohio home. This was not raised in Ike’s emails, but it is relevant to the general conversation about how the Jewish community in general will have to contend in the coming months with Wexner and his various philanthropic endeavors.

Leslie Wexner is the founder and CEO of L Brands (formerly Limited Brands), which among many other things, owns Victoria’s Secret. This is notable because Epstein is accused of posing as a talent scout for Victorias Secret as early as the mid-90s, and using that as a pretext to lure models back to his hotel room for auditions, where he would sexually assault them. L Brands was allegedly made aware of this at the time and did not sever its relationship with Epstein, nor did it seem to take any steps to make Epstein stop representing himself as their employee.

He allegedly was also sent underage models to be sexually assaulted by a modelling agency used by Victoria’s Secret. Victoria’s Secret continued using that modelling agency despite allegedly being made aware of those allegations. As mentioned above, Wexner is also alleged to have done nothing after Epstein allegedly assaulted Maria Farmer at his Ohio home.

The closeness between Wexner and Epstein and his ever-growing list of accusers paints a clear picture of either active or tacit complicity on the part of Leslie Wexner in the crimes of Jeffrey Epstein.

The other thing Wexner is famous for, particularly in the Jewish community, is the philanthropic works of the Wexner Foundation, which invests in the future of Jewish leaders and institutions. One of the most sought after scholarships in the Jewish community is the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, which is awarded to 20 promising graduate students every year, and is a very prestigious line on any resume.

What makes the issue of Wexner particularly touchy for Mechon Hadar and Rabbi Ethan Tucker, is the fact that Rabbi Tucker, along with the other two founders, Rabbis Elie Kaunfer, and Shai Held are all Wexner Fellows. The Wexner Foundation website hosts a lot of content created by all three of them. The Wexner foundation has also funded several programs over the years in conjunction with Mechon Hadar. It’s unclear what the total amount of either actual or in-kind contributions Mechon Hadar has received from the Wexner Foundation, but it’s clear that there is a close friendship between the two institutions.

The Wexner Foundation for its part claims that Leslie Wexner severed his connections to Epstein 12 years ago, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Which brings us back to Rabbi Tucker’s reaction to Ike’s initial email to the listserv. When the new allegations against Epstein broke, and Wexner was almost immediately implicated, there was a collective browning of many a pair of pants among the Jewish community and its institutional leadership. Wexner has donated millions over the years, given scholarship to scores of the most recognizable names in our communities, and that realization no doubt caused a panic in many of those people and institutions. Ike no doubt touched an extremely raw nerve with his first email, which is likely what caused Rabbi Tucker’s vitriolic response.

I am ashamed that you were once my student.

You should be deeply ashamed of yourself for doing this and I will do what I can to make sure that you or anyone else who engages in this sort of behavior is considered a pariah in this community until such time as you have done genuine public teshuvah for this.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker to Ike Brooks Fishman

But here’s the thing. This is not Hadar’s problem exclusively. It’s not Rabbis Held, Kaunfeld, and Tucker’s problems exclusively. This is about how we as a community are going to deal with the fact that one of our most prominent philanthropists now stands accused of at the very least enabling the rape and sexual assault of countless children. In the coming months the Jewish community at large will be grappling with questions like whether or not to scrub Wexner Fellowships from resumes, whether or not to return unspent Wexner Foundation grants, how to address the connections between the Wexner Foundation and community institutions, and whether or not the Jewish Community as a whole should turn its back entirely on Wexner, his foundation, and his money.

These conversation must be had in public. They must be had broadly among members of the affected communities. Silence is what allowed Epstein to continue committing his crimes against children. Silence is what enabled the shameful plea deal reached between Epstein attorney Jay Lefkowitz and then US Attorney Alex Acosta. Silence is what enables the abuse of children every day in our communities. Silence encourages impunity.

The faculty, student body, alumni, and communities surrounding Mechon Hadar have a difficult conversation in their collective future, but so do many other institutions and communities. Perhaps we in the broader Jewish community should all have known better. Perhaps we all turned a blind eye the first time Epstein was accused. Perhaps in the past we’ve been enticed by Wexner’s money, and the good things we believed we could do with it. But that era is over. We know too much to remain silent any longer.

I’m not going to pile on Rabbi Tucker and hold him uniquely responsible for disavowing Wexner and distancing himself from anything connected to him. That responsibility falls on all of us. What I will say is that this is a teachable moment that we shouldn’t allow to slip by unnoticed. The way Rabbi Tucker responded to Ike’s email while understandable is entirely inexcusable. The response to calls for transparency and reflection around the issue of sexual abuse can never be silence.

I wish Mechon Hadar, its leadership, its community, and all the institutions and communities within the Wexner foundation orbit much luck in the coming months as they address how best to disentangle themselves from his money and influence.

One thing is for sure. I and many others will be watching very closely.

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