It’s hard to get people to talk about Leslie Wexner. Or, more specifically, it’s hard to get recipients of his philanthropy to weigh in on how they feel having benefited from his largesse now that accusations of misogyny, or worse, have marred his reputation.
In some circles, the name Leslie Wexner has been synonymous with uniquely generous philanthropy in support of the development of Jewish leadership and learning. The Wexner Foundation has, for years, underwritten a suite of fellowships focused on the development of Jewish professional and volunteer leaders in North America, and public leaders in Israel. The numbers and the results are impressive.
More than 2,200 North American Jews have participated in the two-year intensive Wexner Heritage Program to learn Jewish history, values and text. Sixty Pittsburghers are part of this group, including 20 emerging leaders who currently are in the midst of a two-year fellowship. And more than 270 Israeli public officials have participated in the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program, which covers a master’s degree in the mid-career program of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Wexner, 82, the man behind this network of support for Jewish learning and leadership, is the billionaire head of Victoria’s Secret. Reports last week suggested that Wexner was in talks to step down as CEO of parent company L Brands, which also owns Bath & Body Works.
Two related causes seem to be a significant part of what is driving Wexner’s departure from the business world. Both can be filed under the heading of toxic misogyny. And the Jewish community is struggling with how to react.
First was Wexner’s relationship with businessman Jeffrey Epstein, who died by suicide in jail last year after his arrest for child sex trafficking. Epstein charmed and used the wealthy and powerful, and he and Wexner became close. Wexner eventually granted Epstein his power of attorney and allowed Epstein wide-ranging access to much of Wexner’s fortune. Wexner now says that Epstein “misappropriated vast sums of money from me and my family.”
Second, in an expose this month, The New York Times reported that Wexner turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and bullying of female employees and models at Victoria’s Secret, and took no action after being informed of the improper behavior.
Some Wexner fellows have reacted to these stories, expressing concern that the reported improprieties might tarnish the very objectives of the Wexner program, which is designed to deepen Jewish character and strengthen the Jewish community. Indeed, JTA reported that some fellows worry that the Wexner name on their resumes will haunt their futures. (See story on p. 2.) Others who have profited from Wexner’s philanthropy, though, remain mum.
We get it. It’s hard to speak out publicly against one from whose generosity you have benefited, regardless of your personal feelings about his character. And let’s not forget, Wexner has not been found either liable or guilty for his supposed bad acts in a court of law. Still, even if the allegations against him turn out to be true, are all his good deeds completely mitigated by those that are bad? It’s a difficult dilemma.
So what should Leslie Wexner do? Some suggest that he continue his philanthropy but remove his name from the programs. Others suggest that he endow his foundation and step aside. But neither of those suggestions provides closure on the question of Wexner’s “role” in either of the tawdry affairs.
We hope that Wexner addresses the allegations head on, and explain his involvements. If, in the process of doing so, he feels that some public acknowledgment or apology is necessary, he will only elevate his reputation through such a public pursuit of teshuva, and, by association, the reputation of his programs’ beneficiaries. PJC