Leaders Urge ADL To Plan for Future After Abe Foxman

By Nacha Cattan

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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Six regional lay leaders of the Anti-Defamation League are urging their organization to begin planning for a successor to replace national director Abraham Foxman.

In a letter to Foxman and key national officers, six top volunteer leaders of ADL’s Chicago region stated that they are “concerned about the future of the League.” Seeming to echo unease among other ADL insiders, who say that Foxman and other officials have failed to groom a successor, the October 26 letter states: “No Chief Executive enjoys life tenure.”

No ADL member is calling for the 63-year-old Foxman to step down. The grumblings are about what appears to be an absence of a second-in-command capable of leading the powerful organization should Foxman retire or become ill. With Foxman arguably the Jewish community’s most prominent spokesman, some members worry that if he departed without a successor in place, the organization’s influence might wane.

“We know for a fact that the concerns we expressed in the letter are shared by many ADL leaders throughout the country,” said Joel Sprayregen, a signatory of the letter and former chairman of ADL’s regional office in Chicago. “This was supposed to be discussed within the leadership of the ADL and not in public.”

But in an interview with the Forward, Foxman said the concern was unwarranted: “When I’m ready to make a decision that I’m ready to retire or do something else, I will notify my lay leadership,” he said. “At that point they will set up, as every organization does, a search committee.”

ADL sources noted that both Foxman and his predecessor, Nathan Perlmutter, were dynamic, well-respected fixtures in the organization before they took the helm. When Perlmutter developed cancer, Foxman was widely viewed as the natural successor to fill Perlmuter’s shoes, which he did in 1987. Likewise, Perlmutter was brought into the organization years before his predecessors, Benjamin Epstein and Arnold Forster, retired.

Aside from Sprayregen, the Chicago regional leaders who signed the letter are Jacob Morowitz, regional chairman; Mark Juster, regional chairman-elect; Melvin Katten, former regional chairman, and Bruce Bachman and Edward Minor, regional officers.

One ADL lay leader, Seymour Reich, said that the Chicago letter reflects “a current of concern that exists in the organization.” But Reich said that it does not reflect his concern.

“As long as Abe is in good health there’s no need to plan for a successor,” said Reich, who is a former president of B’nai B’rith International. “ADL and its lay leadership are strong enough to overcome any momentary vacuum.”

In response to the October 26 letter, three top national lay leaders wrote in a letter of their own, dated October 30: “We agree that a proactive planning is needed and thus convened a group of past national chairs and current national chairs on this very topic three years ago. Several meetings were held and discussion was intensive.” The reply was not signed by Foxman, but by the outgoing national chairman Glen Tobias, chairwoman-elect Barbara Balser and strategic planning chairwoman Pam Schafler.

It continues: “We are fortunate that there is no immediate need to take further action at this time. Please be assured that when needed, we will take all proper steps to assure as best as is possible a seamless transition.”

Two signatories of the Chicago letter, Morowitz and Juster, said they were satisfied with the ADL’s response. “Any dynamic leader tends to mold an organization and staff in his own image. This has been to [Foxman’s] great benefit,” Morowitz said. “But if that leader retires, chooses to leave, or is incapacitated, we have a set of issues to deal with and I wanted to inquire whether it’s being dealt with in the long-term planning process. The answer is ‘yes it is.’ That is totally sufficient.”

“It’s pretty much a non-issue,” Juster said. “We understand some thought had been given to succession planning.”

The other Chicago officers who signed the letter either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.

Foxman said that before each national director retired ADL members fretted over the organization’s future. “They said, ‘how is this agency going to survive?’” he said. “Now it’s Abe Foxman, and they’re saying the same thing. That’s a very healthy thing.”

According to Foxman, the ADL’s budget is between $50 million and $60 million, depending on how grants are computed. Half of the funds raised come from non-Jewish corporate sponsors. The organization boasts a staff of 350 people in 30 regional offices around the country. It also staffs offices in Jerusalem and Moscow and has representatives in Vienna and Rome. The ADL fights bigotry and antisemitism around the world on multiple fronts, including government lobbying, interfaith dialogue, law enforcement tolerance training, court filings, opinion polls and old-fashioned public outcry.

One ADL lay leader who asked to remain anonymous, said: “It could be Abe’s colossal figure that doesn’t let someone rise through the ranks.”

Over the years, Foxman’s bold approach to Jewish defense has earned him both kudos and rebuke. He has managed to rally world leaders and corporate financiers behind the work of ADL, but he was blasted by critics recently for honoring controversial Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi. Some detractors have referred to Foxman as running a one-man show.

Foxman’s managerial style took center stage during a governance meeting at the ADL’s national commission meeting in Manhattan earlier this month. In an impassioned speech in front of his national commission, Foxman accused a handful of members of suggesting that he is trying to wrest more control from the organization, according to individuals who attended the November 7 meeting.

The incident arose when several national commission members argued against a proposal to reduce the tenure of the national chairman to two years from three. But when Foxman took the stage he said dissenters were insinuating that by calling for a reduced term he was trying to diminish the power of the chairman. In response, Reich took the stage and assured the commission that the vote was not about Foxman. In the end, the proposal to reduce the term was shot down.

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