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Epstein tainted my Wexner-funded rabbinical studies. Here’s how I’m repenting

I'm 'paying it forward' to help empower young women. All Jewish orgs that received Epstein's dirty money should do the same
Leslie Wexner, left, and Jeffrey Epstein. (Laura E. Adkins/Getty Images via JTA)
Leslie Wexner, left, and Jeffrey Epstein. (Laura E. Adkins/Getty Images via JTA)

The Jewish high holidays are always a time for self-reflection, soul-searching and contemplation for Jews worldwide, and certainly for congregational rabbis, such as myself. And certainly, given all that is going on in world and national politics – from the immigration crisis, hate crimes and institutional racism facing our nation, there is no shortage of issues to consider this year. But this past summer, as I moved my family from Canada back to the United States to serve a new pulpit here and prepare as rabbis do for the upcoming holidays, I was faced with a scandal that, sadly, hit far too close to home.

In late July, the New York Times broke news of philanthropist Les Wexner’s ties to disgraced financier and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, revealing a connection that broke my heart, as I myself belong to the network of Wexner Foundation alumni, a select cadre of emerging Jewish professional leaders across North America who receive intensive professional development and support throughout their years of training. Indeed, my rabbinical school studies were made possible by the tremendous largess of the Wexner Foundation, without which I would not have been able to afford rabbinical school and realize my lifelong dream of becoming a congregational rabbi. The Wexner Foundation blessed me with countless hours of personalized leadership training, furnished me with top-notch professional development, financed my personal community-building projects, including the network of volunteer Jewish matchmaking I manage, and introduced me to some of my most cherished friends, colleagues and mentors, all major leaders in the North American Jewish community.

At the same time, I have always been a proud feminist and a human rights activist. I am proudly a former board member of T’ruah: the Rabbinical Call for Human Rights, where we worked tirelessly on promoting education and advocacy around the exploding issue of human trafficking. Women’s issues in particular are always at the forefront of my mind, especially during these times of heightened misogyny in our society. In Nova Scotia, I co-founded the local Sisterhood Salaam-Shalom chapter to foster healthy dialogue and cultivate meaningful relationships between Jewish and Muslim women and partnered with local communities to raise funds to sponsor and protect refugees, especially young women refugees, seeking asylum in Canada.

These internal contradictions haunted me and caused me to do much soul-searching. As I began drafting my first day Rosh haShanah sermon, I contemplated the medieval line from our High Holiday liturgy, “And penitence, prayer, and charity overturn the harsh decree,” as well as the biblical formula “Justice Justice shall you pursue,” and decided that my message to my congregation this year, and perhaps to the larger Jewish community must be one of action and must somehow serve to ‘overturn the harsh decree’ of the Epstein scandal and pave the way to justice, or at the very least to a more just outcome.

But how?

I decided to develop a three-pronged action plan that would be my personal response to these developments.

First, I would need to come up with a way to “pay forward” the money I received from the Wexner Foundation over the last seven years. In this vein, I have decided to dedicate my annual, personal charitable contributions to help victims of sexual abuse and both create and assist organizations empowering young women. I hope that my personal charitable commitment will serve as an example and inspiration for members of my community and others.

Second, I am launching a program to mentor young women, starting in my own community of Beth El of Bucks County, with an eye towards empowering our young women within the community and partnering with local organizations who champion and empower at-risk young women in the greater Philadelphia area. My vision for the program is to match women of different fields and backgrounds with younger women who are post-bat mitzvah age through high school. Each cohort of mentors and mentees will culminate in a Women’s Empowerment trip to either DC or Israel to meet with prominent Jewish and political leaders who are women. I am thrilled to count among my partners the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism on this exciting new initiative, which we hope to expand nationally after our regional pilot this year.

Finally and very crucially, I want to take this opportunity at the outset of the Jewish New Year to call upon all of the major Jewish organizations who have accepted money from Epstein to do the same – to redirect the dirty money and to strategize intentionally direct ways to empower our young women. I am hereby offering myself as a resource and am happy to brainstorm and collaborate to further this initiative.

We, as a Jewish community, and as a society, have failed our young women.

But this High Holiday season, we can change that narrative.

Who’s with me?

About the Author
Raysh Weiss, Ph.D., is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County, PA. (Author photo by Ann Silver)
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