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Leaders Shocked at Fall of Anti-Poverty Activist William Rapfogel

August 14, 2013 By:
Josh Lipowsky, JTA
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William Rapfogel, left, then the head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg attending the social service agency’s annual legislative breakfast, June 2008. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Council
NEW YORK — The New York Jewish communal world reacted with shock this week to news that William Rapfogel, longtime head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty and a major player in New York’s Jewish community, had been fired for alleged financial improprieties.
 
The Met Council, which provides a range of services to poor Jewish households in the New York area, announced Monday that it had removed Rapfogel from his positions as executive director and chief executive officer after discovering “financial irregularities and apparent misconduct in connection with the organization’s insurance policies,” the organization’s board said in a statement.
 
Rapfogel, 58, had headed the organization since 1992 and was considered a major power broker in the city. His wife, Judy, is chief of staff to Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, one the most important figures in state government.
 
Many communal figures declined to comment Tuesday, but those who did expressed shock that Rapfogel, long a highly regarded figure, could be caught up in a financial scandal.
 
“I was very outraged and shocked,” said Masha Girshin Pearl, executive director of The Blue Card, a New York-based organization that provides emergency funds to impoverished Holocaust survivors nationwide. “For the Jewish community and all the organizations working tirelessly to really do good, it just puts a dark cloud over the Jewish community and the good work that so many organizations like The Blue Card have been doing.”
 
Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, was honored by Met Council in 2010 at the annual Kosherfest food showcase. Genack told JTA he considered Rapfogel a friend and was impressed by his concern for combating Jewish poverty.
 
“I consider him a good person,” Genack said. “Sometimes good people make huge mistakes. I hope things work out as best as possible considering the circumstances.”
 
Exactly what Rapfogel is accused of remains murky.
 
The New York Daily News, citing an anonymous source, reported Tuesday that Rapfogel is suspected of purchasing insurance policies at inflated prices and then pocketing the difference.
 
The insurance firm, the Long Island-based Century Coverage Corp., has made tens of thousands of dollars in political donations, raising the possibility that Rapfogel may have used the scheme to enhance his political clout.
 
In a statement issued Monday through his lawyers, Rapfogel apologized and appeared to acknowledge the accusations against him.
 
“After 21 years at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, I deeply regret the mistakes I have made that have led to my departure from the organization,” Rapfogel said in a statement. “I apologize to our dedicated officers and board, our incredible staff and those who depend on Met Council. I let them all down.”
 
Rapfogel also asked for forgiveness and promised to “do everything possible to make amends.”
 
With a budget of $33 million, more than half of which comes from public state and city sources, the Met Council is a major force in the Jewish social service world, working with Jewish groups throughout the city to provide emergency relief and other services to low-income households.
 
Rapfogel also was known for his political involvement, hosting an annual breakfast that drew many influential political figures. Prior to his role at the Met Council, he worked as an assistant New York City comptroller and as an aide to Mayor Ed Koch.
 
“I am stunned and deeply saddened by this news,” Silver said in a statement sent to JTA. “While there is still much that we don’t know, we do know that the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty has given tens of thousands of New Yorkers of all faiths and backgrounds lifesaving help over the past four decades. Met Council also played a critical role helping our  communities recover from Superstorm Sandy, and its work should in no way be diminished by these developments.”
 
A statement from the Met Council’s board said there has been no evidence that any other current employees were engaged in wrongdoing.
 
The matter is under investigation by the New York state comptroller’s office in cooperation with the state attorney general’s joint Task Force on Public Integrity, a spokesperson for comptroller’s office confirmed.

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