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‘NIF poster boy’?
Brian Lurie, obviously, brings a new tone to the NIF’s public image. His frequent references to Jewish values, his acquaintance with some of the mainstays of Israel’s old establishment, his background in U.S. Jewish organizational life and his empathy for, if not agreement with, some of the criticism that has been leveled at the NIF might earn him credit with many Israelis and American Jews. But at the same time, for some on the left - both Jewish and non-Jewish - Lurie’s approach might elicit discomfort and criticism. Some have already claimed that he was brought in to replace Chazan in order to put a more acceptably centrist face on the NIF. But when I suggest that perhaps he is the “NIF poster boy,” Lurie reacts with anger.
“I’ve heard that said, but I’m too old to be used. I don’t want to sound like Peter Beinart [the liberal American journalist and author of the controversial book “The Crisis of Zionism”], who starts every statement by declaring his love for Israel, but I’ve lived in Israel for several years. I’ve been involved in the life of Israel as much as any Diaspora Jew could be involved. I realize, of course, that my three sons and daughter did not go to the Israeli army, so I’m mindful that there is a degree of difference. But I still consider myself a citizen-at-large of Israel. I don’t need this job. This is not something I sought. I felt I needed to do it because of my concern for Israel. I’m the ‘poster boy’ only because I know we’re in a serious state right now - the State of Israel and the state of the Jewish people. I thought to myself that I had no alternative - ein breirah.”
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Lurie studied at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, during which he spent time in Israel as a volunteer gym teacher in Jerusalem. He was there when the Six-Day War broke out, an experience he has described as “the most powerful in my life.” In 1969, he was appointed assistant rabbi in San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El. In 1972 he accepted a job at the New York Jewish Federation, and in 1974 became the youngest-ever head of a major Federation, in San Francisco. It was a post he filled until 1991, when he was appointed executive director of the UJA, where he served for five years. He lives in San Francisco, is married to Caroline Fromm Lurie, a psychotherapist and the daughter of the late California wine magnate Alfred Fromm, and has four children: three daughters and a son.
Until he was approached two years ago to become its new leader, Lurie has never been formally affiliated with the NIF. He notes, though, that the NIF’s original founders, Jonathan Cohen and his wife Ellie Friedman - an heiress to the Levi Strauss conglomerate - came to consult with him in San Francisco in 1979. “I told them that the idea of a governing board that is half-American and half-Israeli is wonderful and that it will challenge the Jewish establishment with new concepts, and that it will force them to change, because we need change.” The first meeting of the NIF took place in the offices of the San Francisco Federation that year, and Lurie was invited.