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Donor´s arrest pains Jewish groups

WHIPPANY, N.J., July 20 — The arrest of real estate developer Charles Kushner and charges of lurid acts brought by the state’s United States attorney have sent waves of shock and dismay through New Jersey’s Jewish community, where Kushner has long been a leading philanthropist. Members of organizations on whose boards Kushner sits expressed their gratitude to the Livingston resident for his generosity to their agencies and their support for his extended family. Otherwise they encouraged observers to allow the legal system to work its course. In synagogues with connections to the Kushner family and at other centers of Jewish life, individuals similarly emphasized that Kushner had been charged, not convicted. Yet most expressed concern about the negative publicity surrounding so visible a member of the Jewish community. Kushner, 50, CEO of Kushner Companies of Florham Park, was charged on July 13 by a U.S. attorney, Christopher Christie, with conspiracy, obstructing a federal investigation into his finances and political contributions, and interstate promotion of prostitution. The complaint alleges that he arranged for intermediaries to hire a “call girl” to lure witnesses in the investigation to a hotel. One witness rejected a call girl’s advances; the other did not and Kushner is charged with arranging for a secretly made videotape of the encounter to be sent to the witness’s wife. Kushner’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, denied the charges. “Charles Kushner is one of the most respected business leaders in the community and widely known as a very generous philanthropist,” Brafman said in a statement last week. “The charges filed today are entirely baseless. Mr. Kushner is confident that once the facts are fully disclosed in a courtroom, he will be completely exonerated.” According to the Kushner Companies’ Web site, the far-flung business owns and manages more than 24,000 apartment units and has a commercial portfolio consisting of 7.5 million square feet of office space. The Israeli business newspaper Globes reported that Kushner is no longer a bidder for a controlling interest in Israel’s Discount Bank, which the Israeli government is privatizing. Globes reported that the deadline for applications was July 20. Kushner is a top fund-raiser for the Democratic Party, having contributed heavily to campaigns of New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey and U.S. Senators Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg. In recent years, the developer’s political contributions have come under scrutiny. On June 30, Kushner agreed to pay a civil penalty of $508,900 to settle Federal Election Commission charges that he made political contributions through various business partners “without obtaining the agreement of the individual partners to whom the contributions were attributed.” Beneficiaries included McGreevey, Corzine, Lautenberg, former presidential candidate Bill Bradley, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Sen. (D-N.Y.) Hillary Rodham Clinton, and former Vice President Al Gore. In agreeing to pay the fines, Kushner insisted that he did not violate any FEC regulations. Corzine was required to return $50,000 in contributions as a result of the FEC findings but said last week that he will return an additional $38,000 in contributions from Kushner “just to be conservative,” a spokesman for the senator said. Christie was careful on the day of Kushner’s arrest to emphasize that the charge against Kushner was not related to McGreevey. Nevertheless, many observers of the case noted that Kushner’s arrest comes in the wake of other high-profile investigations of state Democratic fund-raisers and McGreevey supporters. Part of the scrutiny of Kushner’s political contributions stemmed from a lawsuit he faced from his brother, Murray, and a former Kushner Companies accountant, Robert Yontef, who alleged that Charles Kushner improperly directed corporate funds into political campaigns. The lawsuit has been settled. Within the Jewish community, the family dispute has often been seen as an unfortunate distraction from the extended Kushner family’s long record of philanthropy and volunteerism. Kushner serves on the boards of several New Jersey Jewish organizations, including the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey, the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, the Daughters of Israel geriatric center in West Orange, and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston which he founded and named in honor of his father, a Holocaust survivor who started the family’s real estate business. Kushner, who also sits on the boards of the Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University and Touro College, both in New York, was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to serve on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, D.C. Kushner’s mother, Rae Kushner, who died in March, was a long-time supporter of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, but Charles Kushner, who lives outside the federation’s catchment area, is not a donor to the Central federation, according to its executive vice president, Stanley Stone. “This has to go through the judicial process,” Stone said. “We have to deal with what we know are the facts. One of the foundations of this country is judicial process. This obviously is difficult for his family; he has children, too. I had the opportunity to know his mother, Rae Kushner. Both his parents obviously were important members of the community. His mother was very supportive of the federation campaign.” Charles Kushner is also a member of the boards of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth and the YM-YWHA of Union County in Union. Sid Sayovitz, president of Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Kushner Yeshiva High School, told NJJN, “Mr. Kushner is a very important part of the school. He’s been wonderful to this institution. He’s the largest donor.” Indeed, Sayovitz said that when concerned parents call the school, he tells them of Kushner’s generosity toward the institution. A parent with children at Kushner Yeshiva High School, who asked not to be named, said that if, indeed, Kushner did what he is accused of doing, “it’s awful.” “It’s awful for the people around him,” the parent said. “It’s awful for the children.” The parent also said that the use of photographs of Kushner wearing a yarmulke, which appeared in some newspapers, was objectionable. “I think the newspapers do that on purpose,” said the parent. “They couldn’t find a photo of him without a kipah?” UJC MetroWest issued a statement that reads, “United Jewish Communities of MetroWest respects the privacy of the Kushner family at this difficult time. We appreciate the philanthropy of the family, which has assisted many worthwhile causes throughout the world and especially in our MetroWest community and the State of Israel. “We hope and pray that the family will weather the storm and be able to resume their lives and good deeds which have helped so many other people in difficult circumstances.” The statement was signed by Ellen Goldner, president of UJC MetroWest, and Max Kleinman, its executive vice president. In recent years, the legal troubles of other high-profile Jewish philanthropists — including financiers Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, and Marc Rich — led to debates within Jewish organizations about the ethics of accepting money from and extending honors to those facing legal or ethical scrutiny. In the case of Kushner, some organizations felt it was too soon to focus on anything more than Kushner’s philanthropy. “Charlie has done a lot of good here for the Rabbinical College and for other institutions,” said Rabbi Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America, which trains rabbis and scholars for the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement. “It’s too raw and too soon…. We’re not taking any actions. We will not make any decisions hastily. We will have to see. He was not found guilty. We want to let the process go and hope for the best. It’s a painful time.” In interviews with NJJN, individuals in the community used words like “sad” and “awful” and expressed a general incredulity at the charges. Many felt saddened about the allegations because, as one person put it, “He was a man the Jewish community looked up to. He was a real philanthropist, a giver, and a nice guy who would say hello to you.” Members of the heavily Orthodox Jewish community in Elizabeth, where Kushner grew up and where his father founded what would become the family real estate business, said that Kushner’s arrest was a subject of intense conversation. None agreed to speak for publication, with most saying that the charges are yet unproven. Some may look to their rabbis to make meaning of the events. While some rabbis said it was too soon to evaluate the situation in any way, Rabbi Cliff Kulwin of the independent Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston said he was planning to say a few words about the headlines to his congregation this past Shabbat. “It is the rabbi’s responsibility to interpret events in the world around us through the lens of Torah for the community,” he told NJJN. “We should be reminded to view people with compassion and with the expectation that every protection of the system is in place. At the same time, we must recognize that justice must prevail.” Kulwin commented on the sadness and disbelief being expressed in the community. “Mr. Kushner is not just a prominent person in the news for unfortunate reasons, but because he is so much a leader of the community.” The rabbi said the headlines cannot but have a negative impact on how the community at large views the Jewish community. But Kulwin underscored that this is ultimately not a tragedy for the community but a personal tragedy for the family. “If the allegations have any foundation, if they have any foundation at all, then I would hope the motivating factor was not money or greed but mental anguish that drove him to do something otherwise unthinkable,” Kulwin said. “At the same time, none of us, no matter our station, affiliation, or position, is immune to the system of justice.”