Hillel probe finds donor ‘harassment’ occurred
Claims by women employees found ‘justified’; investigation included Steinhardt; policies revised, expanded
Six months after launching an investigation into claims by staff members of sexual harassment by donors, including billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, Hillel International issued a confidential statement to its professional staff of its findings last Friday that confirmed the allegations.
“In each case, it was found that the complaints were justified, and that the individuals had been subjected to inappropriate comments and/or suggestions by one or more of our donors,” according to the statement, a copy of which was obtained by NJJN. “In one case,” the statement continued, “investigators found that Hillel’s response was not timely, thereby causing additional harm. It pains us greatly that anyone in the Hillel movement could be subjected to any form of harassment. We have apologized to these respected individuals.”
Asked to comment on the findings, Steinhardt responded to NJJN in an email: “If I had been told immediately about concerns regarding anything I said at the time, I would have apologized immediately. I only recently learned about this investigation when Hillel called me about comments I made several years ago. I am sorry and deeply regret causing any embarrassment, discomfort, or pain, which was never my intention.”
The report, which was carried out by an outside law firm, said that Hillel is “committed to providing a safe workplace that reflects” its “high standards” and that its outside investigators “have recommended the adoption of comprehensive changes in Hillel’s policies, practices, and procedures in dealing with claims by employees of harassment or discrimination.”
Among the recommendations that Hillel intends to implement “promptly” are: “revised definitions of sexual harassment; required reporting; protocols for response, including a range of remedial and corrective actions; investigation procedures; publication of policies; training inventory to ensure comprehensiveness; regular awareness events to demonstrate institutional commitment and enhance understanding; and an organizational risk assessment to identify and address high risk areas.”
Hillel’s website (hillel.org) has created a section with “current policies, procedures, and best practices, and will be sharing all changes and additions there,” the statement said, concluding: “We are committed to getting this right and to supporting our professionals, students, and community members.”
In a Sept. 13, 2018, article headlined “Hillel investigating allegations against major philanthropist,” NJJN reported that Steinhardt, who has been one of Hillel’s biggest donors over the years, was alleged to have made “inappropriate sexual remarks to a female employee.” The article also reported at the time that during the course of the Hillel investigation, a second female employee came forward to make similar complaints about him.
Sources familiar with the investigation said the second woman received a written apology from Steinhardt in 2011 acknowledging his inappropriate comments made toward her and two male colleagues at a meeting in 2010.
As reported last September, Hillel quietly removed Steinhardt’s name from the board of governors list on its website and informed the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life that it would not be soliciting the foundation’s planned $50,000 grant for 2018 intended to support Hillel’s Springboard Fellowship.
Hillel’s new statement about its investigation was issued as a private, in-house communication to its professional staff members here and around the world as well as its board of directors, whose members now must sign a code of ethics. The organization intends to keep the report itself confidential, and had no comment in response to inquiries from NJJN.
Sources close to the investigation believe that only a very small number of donors were cited out of thousands who contribute to the campus Jewish organization, and only a very small number of allegations were made from among the more than 1,000 staff members of Hillel here and around the world.
In December 2017, Rhonda Abrams, who at the time was a 27-year-old Hillel executive director in Portland, Ore., wrote in an essay published in JTA that “a prominent donor” in the community “made a blatant grope” of her posterior and other inappropriate gestures and verbal comments during a breakfast business meeting. She credited Hillel and the local federation with “offering extensive support” and “cutting all communication with the donor.”
Sources close to the investigation believe that Hillel is not soliciting or accepting funds from the donors cited in the report, and will keep its options open regarding accepting future donations from donors who have violated its policies, noting that teshuva (forgiveness) is a Jewish value and that each case should be decided on its own merits.
As NJJN reported in September, the original complaint about inappropriate comments made by Michael Steinhardt came from a female Hillel employee in 2015, according to sources. Hillel’s response was to ban one-on-one meetings between female employees and Steinhardt.
Ten months ago, Hillel engaged Sacred Spaces, an organization dedicated to preventing abuse of power by institutions in Jewish communities, for guidance in responding to cases or concerns that emerge.
Shira Berkovits, the founder and CEO of the organization, advised Hillel to launch an independent probe and credited Hillel’s leaders for “voluntarily undertaking an investigation into its own handling of a case,” which she said is all too rare in Jewish life. She noted that organizations tend to “seek consultation in the face of media exposure or a lawsuit, when public pressure makes it more costly not to do the investigation.”
Berkovits said that taking such action prior to any such public exposure, as in Hillel’s case, “is a form of cheshbon hanefesh, or soul searching, for which they should be commended. They simply wanted to do the right thing.”
Gary Rosenblatt is editor-in-chief and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.