Not many communal leaders are referred to as the “Jewish pope,” but then not many find themselves regularly on the front page of The New York Times, or have the vice president sing “Happy Birthday” to them in front of a huge conference hall.
This, in part, explains why the news of Abraham Foxman’s retirement next year sent shockwaves through the Jewish community, which had grown used to seeing the 73-year-old national director of the Anti-Defamation League as a kind of permanent fixture of American life. Many see the task of replacing him as an impossible endeavor.
Just how difficult will it be to find a new “Jewish pope”? A special [statement] ](http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/02/11/statement-president-retirement-abraham-foxman) that President Obama issued when news of Foxman’s announcement broke gave some indication. “Abe is irreplaceable,” Obama said succinctly.
In a February 8 letter, Foxman informed ADL board members that he will be stepping down as the organization’s national director on July 20, 2015, exactly 50 years since he joined the group. That includes a tenure of 28 years at the ADL’s helm, a period in which he grew the organization dramatically to make it a powerhouse on all human rights issues, beyond its original mandate of fighting anti-Semitism. Moreover, Foxman himself during this time became America’s “go-to Jewish voice,” as described by many in the community.
Foxman’s retirement announcement surprising even thought it was inevitable. Lay leaders within the ADL have raised the question of Foxman’s future and his possible successor as far back as 2003. And many in the Jewish world have wondered in recent years how the organization could make the transition, given Foxman’s oversized personality and the brandlike merging that has taken place between the leader and his organization.
One indication that ADL has been planning for Foxman’s retirement could be seen in a decision taken at the end of 2012 by the group’s board to award the national director with a $1.5 million retirement compensation package, above and beyond his salary.
In its tax filings, the ADL explains that the supplemental executive retirement plan was provided “in recognition of [Foxman’s] significant value to the ADL …and his fifty years of invaluable and tireless service.”