When Senator Cory Booker LAW ’97 announced his presidential run, the News’ headline announced: “Shabtai founder Cory Booker LAW ’97 to run for president.” Several paragraphs of the article focused on the founding of the Jewish society, originally called “Eliezer,” by Booker — who himself is not Jewish — and other Yale students. The men — all men — founded the society with Rabbi Shmully Hecht, a New Haven rabbi. It is not clear from media reports what Booker’s current relationship with Hecht is. But, even though the senator does not seem to regularly attend Friday night events at the society, many current Yale students and public figures do. It’s long past time to stop doing so.
Shmully Hecht has led Shabtai since its founding. He has built a network of students and alumni and hosted prominent figures, including journalists and politicians. My friends who attend Shabbat dinners at Shabtai tell me that the food is delicious, and I’ve often found the speakers on offer compelling. But Hecht’s leadership, and events associated with Shabtai, should be a powerful deterrent to us.
Hecht’s real estate company, Pike International, is one of the largest landlords in New Haven. Many Yale students who live off campus live in Pike apartments. Many of them have horror stories; reporting by Yale media and by New Haven outlets from the past decade is replete with them. Tenants have had damage to their homes ignored for months, and broken heat has gone unrepaired for weeks in the winter. A 2014 report from the News includes claims that Pike raises rents unfairly because of its near-monopoly on off-campus housing and that their rents are much higher than comparable housing in New Haven. And that’s not to mention the reports of a bad smell that went unaddressed by Pike, a bad smell that turned out to be a corpse decomposing in one of its apartments.
These are all wrongs that have been done to Yale students, many of whom have a relatively strong support network in navigating housing issues and time to address them. But the role that Pike has played in the broader New Haven community has also been toxic — literally. In 2017, Pike settled with the EPA for $121,000 over allegations that they violated lead safety rules, including failure to inform tenants of the presence of lead paint. Lead is a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to children.
Hecht’s exploitative management practices are in themselves a compelling reason for Yale students to distance ourselves from him and his organization. But equally disturbing has been his relationship with Saifullah Khan, who was expelled from Yale in January after the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct found him guilty of committing sexual assault in 2015. Though Khan was acquitted of sexual assault in criminal court, I believe the evidence offered by his accuser in court as documented in the media and trust the decision of the UWC in this case.
According to coverage of Khan’s criminal trial in the New Haven Register, Hecht was one of the two first witnesses called by the defense, alongside Khan’s girlfriend. Khan’s accuser testified that Hecht encouraged students to drink at Shabtai the night of the assault, which is borne out by Hecht’s own testimony; there are questions to be asked here about social coercion around alcohol that leads to vulnerability.
Notably, Hecht testified that “Khan, a friend of his, belongs to the society.” It is not clear whether Khan remains a “friend” of Hecht’s, nor if he still is a member of Shabtai. But Shabtai and Hecht have yet to publicly disavow Khan, who has since been accused of sexual assault by a second person.
In 2011, TIME described Shabtai, then Eliezer, as “a truly free-flowing environment, and world leaders clear their schedules to attend Shabbat dinner.” That environment now seems to be one in which rapists are welcome and exploitation of tenants for profit goes uncriticized. It’s time for all of us — and Senator Booker as well — to commit to not going to Shabtai.
Avigayil Halpern is a senior in Silliman College. Her column runs monthly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Editor’s Note: This online article was updated to reflect editing changes to the final print version of the column on February 28, 2019.