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.”
“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.
While some questioned the ability of a new director to fill Foxman’s shoes and maintain the ADL’s high profile and national success, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and an ally of Foxman in many human rights battles, was unconcerned. “Abe has built a strong organization, which I am confident will continue his legacy,” Saperstein said.
Sarna, however, speculated that given Foxman’s failure to groom a natural successor, “they will probably bring in someone from the outside who will inevitably bring about a different culture.”
Foxman will be leaving an organization that, despite some difficulties during the financial downturn, has been raising $50 million a year. The ADL also has an endowment fund of nearly $90 million. Much of the ADL’s success has been credited to Foxman’s personal fundraising abilities. He bonded strongly with major donors, many of whom came from his own age group and background. Critics from within the organization have noted, however, the aging profile of ADL donors as a source of concern for the future.
Foxman’s gripping life story was also part of his unique ability to attract supporters. Born in Nazi-occupied Poland, Foxman survived World War II and the Holocaust thanks to a Catholic nanny who brought him up as a Christian before he reunited with his parents and moved with them to America. This background put a vivid human face on the ADL’s fight against anti-Semitism and bigotry.
But Foxman’s most important quality as a communal leader, friends and commentators noted, has been his ability to speak to all sectors of the Jewish community, and to masterfully represent a diverse community’s collective view — or come as close as possible to doing so.
“He just has this incredible knack for knowing how to do the right thing at the right time,” Shinbaum said. With political and geopolitical savvy, Foxman was, for example, one of the first in the Jewish community to raise the issue of the Kosovo ethnic cleansing, while choosing, a decade later, not to back calls for recognizing the Armenian genocide.
When it came to American politics, Foxman successfully walked a thin line, especially with the Obama administration. He was quick to speak out against Obama’s pressure on Israel to freeze settlements, and was among the first critics of the choice of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. But in both cases, as in many others, initial contentious statements were soon replaced by a practical approach focused primarily on the need to work with decision makers rather than fight them.
“Abe spoke truth to power. With respect, but also with passion,” said Jess Hordes, the ADL’s former Washington director, “but he didn’t play at all the partisan game. He called it as he saw it.”
Foxman’s unique ability to make headlines with the right choice of words and a fair share of alarmism earned him the title of “the most quoted Jew” in America. His spectrum of statements, when discussing what he viewed as offenses to the Jewish people, ranged from “troubling,” to “abhorrent” to “classic anti-Semitic.” The frequency and tone of Foxman’s alerts, as well as the breadth of their reach, triggered the most common criticism against his work, that of crying “gevalt” at the slightest perception of anti-Jewish bias. Foxman, who himself admitted that anti-Semitism in America is in decline, would not let any hint of bias or bigotry go unaddressed.
“Abe fully resisted the growing common thread of finding anti-Semitism where it does not exist,” Saperstein said.
As anti-Semitism subsided, Foxman stirred the ADL to take on a broader human rights agenda, including the fight against Islamophobia and white supremacist extremism. His agenda also embraced equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; women’s rights, and anti-bullying.
“Civil rights issues were important for him more broadly than you’d expect from a guy whose normal posture was ‘Israel right or wrong,’” said Leonard Fein, a Jewish scholar and activist. Fein recalled coming to Foxman with the idea of establishing a task force for helping Arab Israelis gain equality. Foxman bought into the plan without even waiting to hear Fein out.
In broadening the ADL’s agenda and in expanding its operations, a supportive lay leadership that rarely questioned his moves or sought to dictate policy aided Foxman. His successor will face a different reality, with a board less likely to show deference and with Foxman’s shadow still present.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @nathanguttman