Michael Steinhardt’s staff and son say sexual remarks were examples of his ‘well-known sense of humor’

(JTA) — Michael Steinhardt’s family and foundations responded to a New York Times article alleging a pattern of sexual harassment by the billionaire Jewish philanthropist, saying remarks that women said made them feel debased were made in “jest.”

Seven women in Wednesday’s article, a joint investigation by The Times and ProPublica, alleged that the co-founder of Birthright Israel propositioned women or made inappropriate sexual remarks while the women were dealing with him in a professional capacity.

Two of the complainants were involved in lawsuits that were either settled or discontinued. Hillel International launched an internal investigation into two of the complaints and has removed Steinhardt from its international board of governors, The Times reported.

The article “goes out of its way to leave the false impression that Michael propositioned a handful of women,” according to a statement signed by Steinhardt’s son David and lay and professional leaders of his two main philanthropies. “He, of course, did no such thing. Nor does the article actually claim that he ever tried to have sex with anyone. But the innuendo and purposeful distortions are clearly designed to harm Michael and mislead readers.”

The statement acknowledges that “Michael’s sense of humor can be insensitive, and he has apologized for the unintended bad feelings his remarks have caused. As he said months ago: ‘I am sorry and deeply regret causing any embarrassment, discomfort or pain which was never my intention.’

“To characterize provocative remarks made in jest and in group settings as actual propositions intentionally distorts the context as well as Michael’s intent — in order to fabricate something that never happened,” the statement continues.

It also includes a statement from Steinhardt saying that “I hope my inappropriate banter, which was always meant in a lighthearted way, does not now become twisted into being something it is not.”

Steinhardt’s accusers saw nothing jocular in his remarks. A staffer at Hillel International said he asked if she wanted to have sex with him; a former director of communications for Birthright said he asked her if she and a female colleague would like to join him in a threesome; a rabbi said Steinhardt suggested that she become his concubine.

“He set a horrifying standard of what women who work in the Jewish community were expected to endure,” said the rabbi, Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, now a professor of Jewish thought and director of admissions at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

A former president of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, is quoted in the article saying that he frequently rebuked Steinhardt for making inappropriate comments, and said he left the organization in 2007 in part due to the tension over Steinhardt’s behavior.

The statement on Steinhardt’s behalf was signed by the executive director of The Steinhardt Family Foundation in Israel, Tova Dorfman, and three leaders of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life: vice-chair Sara Bloom; trustee David Steinhardt, the philanthropist’s son; and president and CEO Rabbi David Gedzelman.

“Michael is an equal-opportunity teaser — teasing men and women alike,” the statement asserts. “The reporters apparently overlooked this fact because teasing men and women, alike, doesn’t make for a great story. [We are] evaluating our legal options over this intentionally defamatory article and will keep you updated.”

Gedzelman is a member of the board of directors of 70 Faces Media, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s parent company.