For the past year, Malcolm Hoenlein has been quietly planning to cut back his day-to-day responsibilities as executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and assume a different role once a successor was chosen, a move that was revealed by the organization’s chairman in an email to members last week.
The email caught members by surprise and was worded in such a way that the chairman, Stephen Greenberg, and Hoenlein felt compelled to send out a second email to clarify the first.
“We have received many inquiries, expressions of concern and disbelief, and requests for clarification, stemming in part from misrepresentation and distortions of the memo that Stephen Greenberg sent yesterday by some media sources,” it read. “Hopefully, this will serve to clarify any misunderstandings. Malcolm is not stepping down.”
It went on to say that before the formal search for Hoenlein’s successor was launched — as well as a new chair of the organization — Hoenlein suggested that members be notified.
“Malcolm initiated these discussions some months ago and we agreed that it was the proper responsible and forward-thinking approach,” the email said. “We hope we can limit public speculation about candidates for chairperson or the professional position and let the processes proceed.
Hoenlein told The Jewish Week that he plans to remain “very involved in the conference” once a successor is in place. He did not say what role he expects to play.
In his initial email, Greenberg wrote that Hoenlein would “focus on external relations as well as plans to structure the conference for the years ahead.”
Hoenlein said he has been “planning this for a year already. I will be 75 next year. … We need an orderly transition. We need to be fair to them. Some organizations don’t plan ahead. I have been in this position 33 years and I want this organization to continue to be strong and vibrant. There has to be a process.”
Few Jewish leaders have had as much influence over a longer time than Hoenlein, whose group is a coalition of more than 50 Jewish organizations from across the ideological spectrum. The group’s purpose is to provide consensus on hot-button issues and in approaching the Executive Branch, and in doing so tends to reflect the positions of the Israeli government in power at the time. While volunteer chairs are selected every two years, Hoenlein is a constant presence and is perceived as a key interlocutor between political leaders and the Jewish community.
Prior to coming to the Presidents Conference, Hoenlein served as the founding executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York, and as the founding executive director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry.
A delegation from the organization visits government leaders from other countries each year. Last year, the group visited with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and this year it visited the United Arab Emirates, which Hoenlein described to JTA as a member of a “moderate Sunni Arab world” that sees the “American Jewish community as an important voice with common interests. And we are able to have our voice heard because we are clear in our intentions from the outset; we make it clear that we do not represent the governments of the United States nor Israel.”