Abe Foxman, 'Jewish Pope,' Retires From ADL — and Communal World Gasps

Iconic Figure Leaves the Stage After 50 Years

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By Nathan Guttman

Published February 13, 2014.
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“It will be a very different transition than anything the ADL has known before,” said Jonathan Sarna, a prominent professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “There are no historical precedents to look to. Not one of his predecessors was Abe Foxman, and whoever his successor is will not be Abe Foxman.”

The ADL remained tightlipped regarding the timing of Foxman’s retirement announcement. Foxman himself turned down requests for an interview. A well-informed source, however, told the Forward that discussions between Foxman and the ADL’s board about his stepping down have been going on for several months.

In these discussions, both sides agreed that it would be wise to allow as much time as possible for the search committee to find a successor, leading to Foxman’s decision to announce his departure 16 months ahead of time.

“You can’t conduct such a search without setting a date,” said an official close to the ADL, who asked not to be named. The long transition period and Foxman’s agreement to stay on as director emeritus when he departs were designed to allow both an extensive search for a successor and an easier shift for major donors who have cultivated decades-long ties with Foxman.

Still, for some, the announcement came too soon. A Jewish communal professional who has worked with Foxman for years and who asked not to be named argued against the sense of urgency that some on the ADL’s board felt regarding Foxman’s tenure. “Abe is more influential than he ever was, and more active than ever,” he said, comparing Foxman to such leaders as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and Israel’s Shimon Peres.

Finding a new national director will be a harder task for the ADL than for other organizations facing a leadership transition. Foxman made a point of keeping his retirement plans vague throughout the years, and only recently began speaking to the board about setting a date for stepping down. As recently as last May, when the ADL celebrated its centennial anniversary, Foxman brushed off questions about his plans, telling the Forward, “Whenever I find something else to do, I’ll let you know.”

Foxman has also refused throughout the years to groom a successor, although he himself was promoted by his predecessor, Nathan Perlmutter, to deputy national director of the ADL before easing into the top position in 1987.

Foxman’s centralized management style and the prominent role he played in the Jewish community did not leave room for a natural successor to grow up under his shadow. “It’s just how it evolved,” said Myrna Shinbaum, a former longtime spokeswoman for the ADL.

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