(JTA) — Jewish billionaire and philanthropist Leslie Wexner’s close ties with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and convicted sex offender who was awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges before his suicide in 2019, have long vexed alumni of Jewish leadership programs funded by and named for Wexner.
Yet despite closed-door discussions among recipients of the prestigious Wexner fellowships for graduate students and Jewish professionals, few recipients of the Ohio clothing mogul’s largesse have spoken out publicly, even after reports suggested that Wexner himself had overseen a culture of sexual harassment and bullying at Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie brand owned by his company.
Now a prominent rabbi whose work was boosted by Wexner funding is speaking out — and putting her money where her mouth is.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg announced in a Facebook post on Friday that she had donated a sum to the National Survivor Network, an advocacy group run by survivors of sex trafficking, that she calculated to be 20% more than the foundation had spent on her from 2018 to 2021, when she was a Wexner Field Fellow. The fellowship gave her professional support and mentorship as she worked on her forthcoming book, “On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World.”
“I have been sitting with my unease about this for some time, especially, but not only, given the nature of this book project,” Ruttenberg wrote.
Ruttenberg, who is the rabbi in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, declined to comment further or to disclose the exact size of her donation to the National Survivor Network. But she said in her Facebook post that it was “the same amount” as the advance she received for “On Repentance and Repair,” set for release next month.
Ruttenberg’s book uses traditional Jewish concepts as laid out by Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher, to address contemporary issues of surviving violence, ranging from systemic racism to sexual violence to denial of Native American land rights. It also lays out a framework for making amends that requires action and allows for accountability.
“I have written a book about repairing harm and I am, personally, feeling a dissonance that I must address,” Ruttenberg wrote. “I will continue to speak out and advocate for survivors of sexual violence and work for structural change until we have a world free of sexual violence and exploitation.”
Ruttenberg’s announcement comes amid a new wave of attention to Wexner’s role in multiple scandals. The ties between Wexner and Epstein were the subject this summer a three-part Hulu documentary, “Victoria’s Secret: Angels and Demons,” as well as the viral TikTok song “Victoria’s Secret” that pillories Wexner as “an old dude in Ohio” who was responsible for setting destructive standards for women’s appearance.
Epstein, a well connected financier, killed himself in 2019 while awaiting trial on charges that he sexually abused children hundreds of times over more than a decade. Wexner was at one point Epstein’s only known financial client and trusted him as a money manager and legal representative. Wexner has said he severed ties with Epstein in 2007, a year before Epstein was convicted by a Florida state court of procuring a child for prostitution and of soliciting a prostitute, and later found that Epstein had misappropriated some of the family’s money. A third-party review of the foundation itself found that Epstein played “no meaningful role” there.
In 2020, the New York Times reported that Wexner himself had ignored complaints about a culture of sexual harassment when he led Victoria’s Secret.
Ruttenberg did not post her announcement on Twitter, where she operates one of the most prominent accounts about Judaism and contemporary life and has 162,000 followers. Instead, she shared it on her personal Facebook page, where her friends and followers are largely personal connections working in the Jewish world. Dozens of them responded with kudos.
“Thank you for this Danya, I have not understood why I haven’t heard more responses like this over the last few years,” wrote Ilana Zietman, a Washington, D.C., rabbi. “Thank you for modeling the integrity, transparency and difficult repair this moment deserves.”
Ruttenberg is not the first Wexner beneficiary to announce a formal response to the revelations about Wexner and Epstein. In 2019, Rabbi Raysh Weiss, who had a Wexner fellowship in rabbinical school, said publicly that she would be directing her personal charitable giving to groups that help victims of sexual abuse and creating a program to mentor young women in the Pennsylvania community where she was then working. Weiss also called upon the many Jewish organizations that had received support from Epstein, which include Harvard Hillel and New York City’s Ramaz School, to “redirect the dirty money.”
Ruttenberg wrote that she did not necessarily expect other recipients of Wexner funding to make the same decision she had.
“It took me a while to take action for the same reasons that it takes a lot of people to take action — a desire to stick my head in the sand, uncertainty about next steps, comfort as the beneficiary” of privilege, she wrote. “But it is time for me to take this next step of action. I am sorry that it has taken me this long.”