With the future of the World Jewish Congress up for grabs in an election next month, a group of young leaders is making an unexpected bid for control by putting forward one of their own for president.
The fresh candidate for the post of WJC president is Einat Wilf, a 36-year-old Harvard University graduate who has served as a consultant for McKinsey and Co. and as an adviser to Shimon Peres. Wilf’s campaign is being promoted by members of KolDor, a network of Jews between the ages of 25 and 45 that was created in 2003 to bring together young professionals with an interest in Jewish affairs.
The election — which is scheduled to take place during the June 10 meeting of the WJC’s governing board — comes after years of turmoil at the organization that ended early last month with the resignation of its longtime president, Edgar Bronfman. KolDor leaders have said that they will be pushing Wilf’s candidacy in meetings with members of the WJC governing board before the June 10 vote.
“Looking at the recent problems, we said, ‘Maybe they need new blood,’” said Claude Kandiyoti, a 34-year-old commodities trader in Brussels. Kandiyoti is a member of the KolDor executive committee.
“Maybe we need to change the rules of the game,” Kandiyoti added. “We need a candidate who is totally transparent, who will work for openness.”
Wilf, who made an unsuccessful bid for a Knesset seat with the Labor Party in Israel’s most recent elections, is an unexpected addition to a small field of candidates that includes a pair of older billionaires: South African industrialist Mendel Kaplan and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, who officially announced his candidacy this week.
Given the bank accounts that Lauder and Kaplan boast — and the flagging financial fortunes of the WJC — Wilf is clearly a dark-horse candidate.
Her nomination appears to be one of the first efforts by a group of young leaders to take over a major Jewish organization. Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Jewry at Brandeis University, said that the move is possible because this is one of the first times a Jewish organization is holding truly open leadership elections.
“For the most part, our Jewish organizations don’t have real elections,” Sarna said. “The decisions are made by an in-group of trustees. It will be very interesting if there is a real democratic election.”
For most of the past 70 years, two leaders — Bronfman and Nahum Goldman before him — who generally led the organization with a strong hand have run the WJC. The current opening at the top came about after the WJC was torn apart by complaints that the organization was run with barely any financial oversight or attention to the desires of constituent communities.
KolDor was launched in 2003 by a number of young Jewish leaders concerned about the lack of fresh thinking in Jewish communal organizations. About 150 leaders came together to formulate the founding declaration, which emphasized pluralism and the equal status of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. One of the group’s main projects was the creation of an international Jewish Social Action Month, which has been endorsed by the Israeli Knesset and the U.S. Congress.
The organization was respected enough that the WJC’s secretary general, Bronfman loyalist Stephen Herbits, attended a KolDor meeting in 2005 and asked the group to help modernize the WJC. Wilf co-chaired a committee that helped rewrite the WJC’s constitution, though in the end that effort was dropped amid the recent turmoil at the organization.
Wilf told the Forward that she is interested in making the WJC an organization that is more truly representative and that answers to 21st-century notions of democracy.
“You’re seeing that the Jewish organizational structures of the 20th century are creaking everywhere,” Wilf said. “The Jewish people are governed by people put together during the 20th century. We think the WJC has a superb base to become a cornerstone of a more globally governed Jewish people.”
One of Wilf’s main ideas is to replace the WJC’s current funding structure, which has relied heavily on gifts from Bronfman, with a model that depends chiefly on smaller donors. Such a shift would reduce the importance of personal wealth in selecting leaders.
“There should be future candidates who come from merit,” Wilf said. “It shouldn’t be about who can bring their own money to close the deficit.”
Isi Leibler, the Israeli Australian magnate whose criticism of the WJC’s operations and campaign against its leaders sparked the recent changes at the organization, said that Wilf had little chance of winning the election; Leibler, however, described her campaign as a “refreshing development.”
“I don’t think that she or a young group of people are in a position to carry the organization financially or more broadly,” Leibler said. “But I’m happy to see this kind of enthusiastic involvement.”