‘Jews must always be on guard,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told a small group of business professionals during a recent visit to New York. Those few words sum up the primary message of the international Jewish human rights center he founded three decades ago in Los Angeles, which claims more than 400,000 supporters.
Acknowledging the enormous achievements of American Jewry, particularly after World War II, Rabbi Hier spoke of the need for constant vigilance, stressing the global threat of jihadists seeking sophisticated weapons of destruction, and how we must “stay alert and fight our enemies.”
In his talk, and later in an interview, Rabbi Hier, just named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek for the second year in a row, said he considers Jews today “an endangered species” and that Jews in this country owe a debt of gratitude to the State of Israel for “giving us a sense of pride.”
A forthright, sometimes brash speaker who never seems to go “off the record,” Rabbi Hier noted that some Jews view Israel as a “safe haven for ‘just in case,’” but he says that’s not what Israel should mean” to diaspora Jewry. Rather, American Jews should recognize their interconnectedness with the fate of Israel and do all they can to support the Jewish state.
While Nazi leaders fled at the end of World War II, seeking to save their lives, “today’s jihadists don’t want to live,” he said. “They want Paradise, not Paris. They don’t want to take over this world, they want the next world.”
He worried aloud what will happen when terrorists are able to unleash biological weapons on the U.S., and said his organization is trying to work with moderates, like King Abdullah of Jordan.
A curious blend of New York street smarts (he grew up on the Lower East Side), Orthodox yeshiva training and Hollywood savvy, Rabbi Hier, 68, can shift in conversation seamlessly from talking about Mideast dangers, to quoting Rashi on a biblical passage, to describing his trip to Israel in December with comedian Jerry Seinfeld and entertainment executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.
He said the two men danced with chasidim on Friday night at the Western Wall and that Seinfeld was amazed that he was recognized by a chasid who welcomed him by name.
The rabbi’s high profile in building such a large following through the Center’s membership, his emphasis on the dangers confronting Israel and growing anti-Semitism around the world, and his ability to attract marqee-name stars to his events has made him the envy of other Jewish leaders, some of whom privately criticize him for appealing to glitz over substance.
But Rabbi Hier has never been bothered by such talk, and he can point to a solid list of accomplishments, including a Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles that hosts 350,000 visitors a year, 90 percent of whom are teens and college students, inviting them to confront scenarios of racism and bigotry; a Tolerance Center in Manhattan that trains professionals to deal with prejudice in the community; and a film division that has produced a number of documentary films, including two Academy Award winners.
The Center also plans to build a Tolerance Center in the heart of Jerusalem, but it has been delayed by legal battles for the last two years, prompted by Arab complaints that the site is sacred ground.
None of the Center’s projects have come without controversy, but Rabbi Hier says he is a risk taker who is willing to “buck the establishment,” citing the Patriarch Abraham as a role model. “He didn’t only invite bearded guests” to his tent, he noted.
The rabbi would like to see more Orthodox-trained young scholars, particularly in haredi communities, leave the confines of the study hall and use their knowledge to reach others. He said it was “selfish” to “just learn for yourself. They should be sharing it.”
The Center’s goal is to reach unaffiliated Jews and the larger Christian community “with the message that Jews are vulnerable” and need their support.
Most of those who contribute to the Center, he said, are from small towns and areas with little or no significant Jewish population. “We don’t reach the UJA crowd,” he says, or use synagogue lists in the Center’s sophisticated direct-mail efforts.
“We promote tolerance,” he said, “and while I am optimistic by nature, and theologically, the bottom line is there should be alarm because it could happen here.”