Conference Fails To Live Up to Name

Presidents Keep Minor Groups in Fold, Exclude Key New Ones

Popes and Presidents: Malcolm Hoenlein, right, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue meet with Pope Benedict XVI. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is supposed to be an umbrella group of the biggest communal organizations. But a closer look reveals that’s no longer really the case.
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Popes and Presidents: Malcolm Hoenlein, right, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue meet with Pope Benedict XVI. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is supposed to be an umbrella group of the biggest communal organizations. But a closer look reveals that’s no longer really the case.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 05, 2012, issue of March 09, 2012.
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And while small organizations enjoy the status of being a “major” group, some obvious players are not on the list. Chabad-Lubavitch, with a network of hundreds of synagogues across the country, is absent, as is Agudath Israel of America, a leading ultra-Orthodox movement. These groups chose not to join because of concerns that accepting a majority opinion on certain issues could contradict their religious beliefs. American Jewish World Service, an extremely active and high-profile group, is not in the Presidents Conference, nor are the groups representing Jewish Democratic and Republican interests.

“It is imperfect because the people and groups representing American Jewry continue to evolve, but the Conference does a pretty good job in reflecting the community’s views,” said Alan Solow, former chairman of the Presidents Conference.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, did not respond to inquiries from the Forward on this issue. The organization did not provide the Forward with an account of the criteria for becoming a member organization. Efforts to reach Richard Stone, the current chairman of the Presidents Conference, were unsuccessful.

According to tax filings, the organization had revenue of $603,000 in 2010, all from dues paid by member organizations, and a deficit that year of $240,000. In addition, the group is supported by an affiliated fund that raised $1.7 million in 2010 from donors. Altogether there are eight employees.

Former key members of the Presidents Conference pointed to several requirements for being admitted to the umbrella organization: The applying group must be at least 5 years old; it must demonstrate a source of funding, and it has to be a membership organization. It is clear, however, that not all current members meet these requirements. The Development Corporation for Israel/State of Israel Bonds, for example, is an organization that sells securities issued by the government of Israel and is not a membership-based group. Still, it is part of the Presidents Conference.

Several years ago, a small dovish organization, Meretz USA, applied for membership and was turned down because it could not convince the Presidents Conference that its membership and financial resources were sufficient. Political considerations are not supposed to play a role in deciding on membership, although Americans for Peace Now had to struggle in 1993 to get accepted.

The next challenge for the Presidents Conference could be whether to accept J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby. J Street has yet to apply, since it is not yet 5 years old. If and when it does, the Presidents Conference could find it hard to deny the request, given J Street’s large membership base and its substantial financial resources.

Despite these anomalies, most Jewish groups believe that the Presidents Conference provides a fair picture of the American Jewish organizational world, thanks to an unofficial system of checks and balances and the fact that it reflects the rightward slant of Jewish organizational leaders as opposed to the more moderate views in the general Jewish public. “It is a reflection of the organized Jewish community, which is overwhelmingly to the right of center,” Foxman said.

“By and large, it is representative” of the organizational world, added Rabbi Eric Yoffie, outgoing president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “I don’t think there is a grave injustice in the sense of who gets to be represented.”

Yoffie is far from being a defender of the Presidents Conference. As a longtime leader of its largest group, Yoffie has fought to reform the decision-making process so that large groups like his own get more of a say than marginal ones. “Why should a group with 10,000 members have the same weight as an organization with a million members?” he asked. Yoffie’s suggestion to form an executive committee in charge of daily policy decisions was, however, turned down.

Members of the Presidents Conference usually convene for meetings with top officials, either American or Israeli. “It is very rare that something will be brought to a vote,” said a member who asked not to be named because of his organization’s policy of not talking to the press about the Presidents Conference. “Usually the chairman will issue a statement with Malcolm [Hoenlein] that reflects the sense of the organization.”

In recent years, the Presidents Conference has increasingly turned to the use of task forces on specific issues, such as Iran, delegitimization of Israel and the Palestinian statehood bid, as a means of focusing on programs and issues without making decisions that require the full forum of members.

Instead of a voting process, the Presidents Conference resorts at times to an informal procedure in which key members are consulted privately on issues deemed sensitive. “Malcolm will call up [Abraham] Foxman or [AJC Executive Director] David Harris and consult with them, maybe with a few others,” a member of the Presidents Conference said. These consultations usually succeed in keeping all groups in line, but not always. Recently, members of the Presidents Conference spoke out against a decision made by Hoenlein to meet with a controversial European Jewish organization. During the 2008 presidential campaign, some complained that the Presidents Conference showed preference to the Republican side.

But for those inside, the conference is still seen as a needed communal tool. “Many times we need to sit together and reach a consensus and present one voice,” Yoffie said. “And the authorities appreciate that.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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