As Old Guard Gives Way, New Challenges Emerge
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Editor's Desk

As Old Guard Gives Way, New Challenges Emerge

Leadership changes at major communal groups as they seek to maintain relevance.

Gary Rosenblatt

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

After years of stability, several prominent American Jewish organizations are undergoing a change at the top, which could make for some significant shifts in direction, creating both immediate opportunities and a host of challenges.

Here are a few examples.

Eric Fingerhut, the former Ohio congressman who encountered a good bit of controversy as CEO of Hillel International these last few years, dealing with progressive Jewish students who challenge the organization’s firm support of Israel, will succeed Jerry Silverman, who is completing a decade as CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America this month. JFNA is the umbrella organization of the federations of North America, whose goal is to “raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually” for social services at home, in Israel and around the world. But many federations are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain high levels of fundraising, especially from younger Jews who are less committed to centralized giving.

Robert Singer has resigned as CEO and executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, the organization led by philanthropist Ronald Lauder. Word has it that the two men differed over Lauder’s desire to make the WJC more activist while Singer felt such a move would hurt the group’s ability to work behind the scenes in dealing with world leaders on issues affecting their Jewish communities.

Will Lauder take over as CEO himself?

Ronald Lauder speaking at the Neue Galerie in New York, June 19, 2015. Getty Images

Trouble is brewing at the top of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the highly respected international rescue, relief and renewal agency active in more than 70 countries. For the first time in its history, which dates back more than a century, there will not be an orderly succession among the lay leadership, with two prominent veterans, businessman Harvey Schulweis and attorney Mark Sisisky, vying for the post of president of the board this fall. The bitter jockeying has divided the board, caused major donors to withhold millions of dollars in funds, and delayed the appointment of a CEO to succeed David Schizer, a former Columbia Law School dean who is slated to return to academia by year’s end after three years in his post.

The Israel Project (TIP), a pioneering non-partisan advocacy group founded 17 years ago “with one thing in mind: securing Israel’s future,” with an emphasis on “informing the media and public conversation about Israel,” closed down last month. Lior Weintraub, who headed the Israel office, wrote on Facebook that he and the group held to an “apolitical bipartisan middle line with all our might … but there were no buyers for anything in the middle ground in 2019 and TIP … became the first victim of the polarization of the pro-Israel system in America.”

That is a sad and worrisome statement about the increasing divide among American Jews over the policies of the Jewish state, with fewer organizations championing dialogue over demonization. And it’s bad news as well for Israel.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, as of Jan. 1, William Daroff, 50, will succeed Malcolm Hoenlein, 75, as the top executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

William Daroff, 50, will take the helm at the Presidents Conference in January, replacing Malcolm Hoenlein, 75.

Daroff has spent more than 13 years as senior vice president of JFNA and directs its Washington office. A major presence on Twitter, he is widely respected for his professionalism and compatibility.

Hoenlein, who has served in the top slot as vice chairman of the Presidents Conference for the last 34 years, is not just a Jewish leader but an institution. He has achieved great influence within and beyond the Jewish world through his knowledge and smarts, his charisma and social skills, relationships with presidents and prime ministers, and his commitment to — and boundless energy on behalf of — Israel and the Jewish people.

Hoenlein has been widely perceived as setting the agenda for the conference, playing an outsized role in determining its makeup and being aligned with conservative political leaders both in Washington and Jerusalem. He is grudgingly admired by critics for his tireless efforts to sustain and improve U.S.-Israel relations, and sometimes feared by admirers for his clout and quick temper.

More than one national leader has confided in me that he tried not to upset Hoenlein so as not to be excluded from occasional White House meetings.

Daroff lacks Hoenlein’s reputation as the ultimate Jewish insider, but he has the opportunity to reshape the conference and address its original mandate: to operate in a way that genuinely reflects the views of the American Jewish community.

One big question is whether Hoenlein is willing or able to step back and let his successor lead. And observers will be looking to see if J Street, the left-leaning lobby for Israel in Washington, will renew its effort to be admitted to the conference — it was rejected five years ago — and if so, if the results will be different this time.

All of these communal successions have one element in common: the key players are men. (The same could be said regarding The Jewish Week.)

Naomi Levine, who was named executive director of the American Jewish Congress in 1972, noted in a letter to The Jewish Week this week that “since that time, not a single woman has been made the director of a major American Jewish organization” aside from women’s organizations. “I do not understand this,” wrote Levine, highly active at 96. “It is a shame and an insult to Jewish women.”

Many would agree that any number of women in our community are highly qualified to fill these roles and offer a fresh approach in dealing with communal conflict and the American Jewish agenda.

Overall, if our major Jewish organizations are to be relevant in the future, they will need to win over Gen Xers and millennials, who have been creating their own alternative institutions. Much of the success of the organized Jewish community over the years is taken for granted, especially the kind of behind-the-scenes work that built an infrastructure of goodwill and cooperation with other religious faiths as well as political leaders and government agencies, leading to support for Israel, other Jewish interests and a host of social service needs.

The next crop of leaders of the Jewish establishment will need to be in touch with a wider swath of the community — more welcoming, transparent and accountable.

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