In the late 1970s the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the New York-based organization that supports Jewish life in small communities around the world, needed someone to head its office in Tehran.
Two JDC staffers told Ralph Goldman, the Joint’s executive vice president, that he should consider Michael Schneider, a social worker in London.
After a four-hour interview with Schneider, a native of South Africa who left his homeland to escape arrest for anti-apartheid activities, Goldman offered him the job in Iran.
Twenty-seven years later, when Schneider stepped down from full-time work at the JDC to become a consultant on special projects, he had served as the Joint’s country director in several countries, helped shepherd the Jewish emigration campaigns from Ethiopia and the Soviet Union, worked on other clandestine activities around the world and succeeded Goldman as the chief professional of the organization that bills itself as the overseas arm of the American Jewish community.
Five years after Schneider decreased his workload, he faces a challenge that will call on all the skills and contacts he developed while working at the Joint. At 68, he is the reported choice of Ronald Lauder — newly elected president of the embattled World Jewish Congress — to serve as WJC secretary general. He is expected to take up the post after being approved by the organization next month.
“Michael has been one of the best and most successful executives in the world of Jewish organizations,” said Steve Schwager, Schneider’s successor as JDC executive vice president.
Schneider, a chief executive who worked in a JDC culture that discouraged personal aggrandizement, will automatically step into the spotlight when he succeeds Stephen Herbits at the WJC.
For the last few years, Herbits and his predecessor, Israel Singer, and Lauder and his predecessor, Edgar Bronfman, were engulfed in a soap opera of accusations and counter-accusations, claims of disloyalty and rumors of financial impropriety. With the viability of the 71-year-old organization in doubt, Lauder, scion of the Estee Lauder cosmetics family, took charge of the WJC with a mandate to clean up its image and its finances.
So far, critics say, there is little sign of change.
Herbits, who earned a reputation as a combative figure, is still in place at the WJC, moonlighting as a liaison to the gay and lesbian community for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. According to media reports, Herbits was responsible for the decision of Dan Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith International’s executive vice president, to decline Lauder’s offer to become WJC secretary general.
Isi Liebler, a former WJC vice president who was often at odds with the organization’s leadership, called Herbits’ continued association with the WJC “inexplicable.”
“Herbits was originally a key element in the cover-up of the financial irregularities and scandals which led to the moral, financial and political collapse of the WJC,” Liebler said.
Schneider, who had not officially accepted the WJC position at press time and had not returned calls for comment from The Jewish Week, has not indicated if he would remove Herbits as part of a wider housecleaning effort.
Schneider, who has served as acting CEO of the World Jewish Restitution Organization — which was established by the WJC — has worked with Lauder since the late 1980s, when the JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which supports the renaissance of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, jointly set up a summer camp for Jewish youth in the Hungarian countryside.
“They had a very good relationship,” said Goldman, now the Joint’s honorary executive vice president. “I can understand why Ronald sought him out.”
Goldman said Schneider has “a sensitivity for political issues,” an ability to work with people from differing and often competing backgrounds and a record of discreetness at the highest levels of foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations.
“He has an analytical mind. He has a way of communicating with people,” Goldman said.
At the Joint, Schneider worked in a spartan office with a plain desk. “I like my office to be simple,” he told an interviewer in 2000. “Who’s the head of Coca-Cola?” he would ask. He rarely heard a correct answer to the question. “But you know Coca-Cola,” he would say. “That’s how I like it” — the spotlight on the organization, not the man. “I hate cult.”
“In the JDC, we have low profiles,” Goldman said. If Schneider takes the new post, he may not have to change his style, Goldman said. “The World Jewish Congress doesn’t always need a high profile.”