Among the welter of competing religious and ideological options that young Jews are presented with at college, Wayne Firestone has developed a rare ability to calm the noise and create an open space for discussion. Firestone, a former international lawyer, first showed his gift with students as the head of the Israel on Campus Coalition, where he had to defend Israel without falling into defending the orthodoxies that often turn off students. He was so successful that last fall he was named executive vice-president of Hillel, the 80-year-old national Jewish campus organization, and this past spring he was named president of the whole show at the tender age of 42. Firestone’s ambitions for the organization became clear in the five-year strategic plan he presented. He aims to double the number of students coming to Hillel events and to double fundraising. Firestone began his Jewish activism as a student at the University of Miami — and all these successes later, he still carries the youthful idealism of an eager student.
As the top dog in the complicated world of kosher food inspection, Rabbi Menachem Genack usually works behind the scenes. But this year, a series of scandals forced him into the public eye to steady the culinary bedrock of America’s observant Jews. First, Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s worldwide Kosher Division, had to deal with complaints about the treatment of both animals and workers at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, the Iowa-based AgriProcessors. Later in the year, he was pushed into action after it was discovered that a kosher distributor in upstate New York was selling nonkosher meat. Each time, Genack reassured consumers in his quiet, scholarly way, without giving a free pass to the companies in question. The tremendous success of the industry today is largely due to Genack, 59, who has been at his post since graduating from rabbinical seminary in the 1960s. Since then, O.U. Kosher has grown to a company with 550 employees overseeing 400,000 products. The problems of the past year suggest that supervision may not have kept up with the industrialization of the food industry. While it’s too early to tell if Genack’s interventions will heal the problems and maintain public faith, few doubt that if anyone can do it, it will be him.
The scope of David Harris’s global Rolodex became evident this spring when the American Jewish Committee celebrated its 100th anniversary with a weeklong convention in Washington — climaxing in a gala dinner at which President Bush sat next to both Kofi Annan and the president of Germany. Since Harris took over as executive director of the committee 16 years ago, he has burnished the organization’s international credentials and emerged personally as a polished statesman who can come in to heal foreign rifts, mixing quiet diplomacy with judicious displays of muscle. The emphasis in Harris’s public pronouncements and weekly radio addresses this year was on the threat of a nuclear Iran, but Harris, 57, works far beyond the Middle East agenda. The organization is deeply involved in the national debate on immigration, and has taken a lead role in mobilizing the Jewish community on the sleeper issue of energy independence. And this year, Harris opened the committee’s new Africa Institute, which hopes to build on the Jewish activism on the Darfur conflict to create a durable strategy for aiding the bleeding continent.
With Israel’s Gaza disengagement plan implemented, and the second stage, a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, on indefinite hold, Malcolm Hoenlein has worked hard to rebuild the shaky unity that used to prevail among the 52 national agencies that make up the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein, 62, is now in his 20th year as executive vice chairman of the conference. He has overcome countless challenges both at home and abroad, including differences of opinion with various Israeli governments, to maintain his position as the organized Jewish community’s senior voice on foreign affairs. In the past year, Hoenlein has effectively prodded Jewish organizations to speak out together on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, staging protests outside United Nations headquarters and pressing non-Jewish allies to stand firm. At the same time, Hoenlein and the conference were faced this year with a new kind of struggle, when Professors Walt and Mearsheimer published their indictment of the “Israel Lobby.” The Jewish community was quick to dispute the claims, but the article has managed to stir unremitting debate — one that is sure to require Hoenlein’s attention in the year to come.
As executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, Nancy Kaufman, 55, has proved that large numbers of Jews can successfully be mobilized around issues of social justice, in addition to such traditional Jewish causes as supporting Israel and fighting antisemitism. She led the Boston JCRC to play a critical role in mobilizing support for a historic bill to provide nearly universal health care to the state’s residents. The bill passed last spring. Her council was also a founder of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur, which sent one the largest contingents to last April’s rally in Washington. A former state assistant secretary for social and mental health services under former governor Michael Dukakis, she holds a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In the 15 years she has led the Boston JCRC, Kaufman has seen her staff grow from a handful to nearly 30. She has developed a number of widely praised programs, including the Boston Coalition for Literacy, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary. And with the JCRC’s new and growing program to introduce teenagers to social justice work, Kaufman is bringing her dedication to tikkun olam to the next generation.
When two senior employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were indicted on charges of receiving and disseminating classified information, no one expected it would bring anything but grief to the organization. Nobody is celebrating the crisis, but executive director Howard Kohr has steered the lobbying powerhouse out of legal troubles and even managed to ride the wave of grass-roots sympathy — and resentment of government meddling — to build Aipac beyond anything seen before. The group’s membership soared to more than 100,000 members, double what it was just five years ago, while its annual fundraising surpassed the $40 million record set the year before. Aipac is broadening the scope of its pro-Israel advocacy, too. It’s expanding its campus presence and increasing grass-roots Israel-related programs. In the past year, Kohr, 50, has restructured Aipac’s internal operations, combining the legislative and executive lobbying departments and broadening the organization’s lobbying issues to include homeland security and fighting terror. The highlight of the overhaul comes next year, when the lobby will move into its new building in downtown Washington. Still, Kohr faces a difficult year: The ex-staffers are due to go on trial in January, and the executive director is likely to be called to the stand to give, for the first time, a detailed account of Aipac’s practices.
In a year when the entire system of American Jewish federated philanthropies was put to the test by Israel’s war with Hezbollah, the Chicago federation proved its mettle as an unstoppable fundraising powerhouse. With Steven Nasatir at the helm, the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago took in a cool $38 million (and counting), or 15% of the national total — from a community that numbers just 4% of all American Jews. After more than a quarter-century as chief executive, Nasatir, 61, remains at the top of his game. And other federation honchos have started to take notice: After hearing from Nasatir about his innovative strategy for maximizing financial resource development, the heads of the 19 big-city federations asked him to conduct a wider training program for them and their staff members. In July, 110 federation staffers descended on the Windy City to learn Nasatir’s secrets. Nasatir continues to innovate in the funding of day schools. And this year he started front-loading payments, a system whereby financial pledges are paid in one full sum rather than taking 10 years to fulfill the obligation.
Within a few days of the first Hezbollah rockets falling on northern Israel, Carole Solomon was on the ground, in the bunkers, determining just where Jews around the world could best be able to help the besieged Israelis. The Israeli government was widely criticized for abandoning the needs of the home front, but Solomon and a few other philanthropic leaders made sure there were charitable dollars to fill at least some of the holes. As chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the world’s largest and most broadly representative Jewish philanthropy, Solomon took a lead role in coordinating the worldwide effort. Within a few weeks, she had put together some $300 million in commitments from American Jewish charitable federations — a sum roughly equal to the entire annual budget of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency. Since being elected to her position in 2003 — the first woman to ever take the spot — Solomon has developed a reputation for skillful, low-key consensus-building. That’s no small achievement. Surveys consistently show passion for Israel’s needs gradually declining among American Jews. With deft negotiations, Solomon has ensured that American Jewish dollars haven’t similarly declined.