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Activist Recalls Vietnam, Communal Battles

A quick surf on Amazon or a stroll through the local bookstore suggests that we are living in the era of the political memoir. Anyone with enough time to wade through at least a sampling of the abundant “I was there” autobiographies from Beltway vets will end up not only with a better understanding of how the American policy sausage is made, but also with a more intimate portrait of the public servants who do the actual grinding.

Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of an editor at a Jewish newspaper, our communal leaders traditionally don’t do memoirs. The result is an incomplete record of a community that operates a multibillion-dollar charity network, has helped frame the debate on domestic issues from civil rights to church-state separation, and wields increasing power on the international stage.

The ideal choices to rectify this dearth of insider memoirs would be juicy tell-alls from Abraham Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein. But for now, Dr. Mandell “Mendy” Ganchrow’s recent “Journey Through The Minefields: From Vietnam to Washington, an Orthodox Surgeon’s Odyssey” (Eshel Books) serves as a good first step.

A retired colon-rectal surgeon, Ganchrow arguably has done as much as anyone else to transform the Orthodox community into a growing political force in American and Jewish communal life. From his base in Monsey, N.Y., Ganchrow founded the pro-Israel Hudson Valley PAC, which, under his leadership, became for a time the country’s 100th-largest political action committee. He also helped open the door to significant Orthodox participation in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington. During his six-year stint as president of the Orthodox Union, from 1994 to 2000, he put the organization on the national political map by opening its Washington office and increasing its profile on a range of public-policy issues.

All this, of course, is fleshed out in Ganchrow’s book, as is his role as a leading American Orthodox opponent of efforts by Reform and Conservative rabbis to secure government recognition in Israel. (Of particular interest is his account of a top-secret meeting between representatives of all the denominations and the Israeli chief rabbis, apparently the only meeting in 20 years in which Ganchrow had nothing to say.)

The book’s most dramatic sections come at the beginning and end, with the opening pages recounting Ganchrow’s tour of duty in Vietnam and the second-to-last chapter outlining how he led the O.U. as it was engulfed by a sexual abuse scandal not of his making.

In Vietnam, in 1969, Ganchrow, then a U.S. Army surgeon stationed at the American base at Long Binh, found himself leading a Passover Seder for 400 GIs. Suddenly, in the middle of the meal, enemy rocket fire hit just 500-1,000 yards away. It stopped just as quickly, but no one could be sure what would happen next.

After thinking for a few seconds, Major Ganchrow jumped up onto the table and shouted: “Men, I am the ranking officer in this room. I give you my solemn word that G-d will allow no harm to befall you if you now perform the mitzvah of sitting back down and finishing the Seder.”

Ganchrow would execute a similar maneuver almost a quarter-century later, with the O.U. reeling from an article in the New York Jewish Week alleging that union officials had spent two decades ignoring credible sexual assault allegations against Rabbi Baruch Lanner, its top youth group leader. With some other prominent O.U. board members advocating a closing of the ranks, Ganchrow, who to this day insists he learned of the allegations against Lanner from the Jewish Week article, argued that such a step amounted to organizational suicide. Instead, he successfully pushed for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the scandal and to issue a report.

The ensuing investigation led to the resignation of the organization’s top professional, Rabbi Raphael Butler, and the commission’s scathing report appears to have gone a long way toward rehabilitating the O.U.’s public profile. Still, according to some unofficial estimates, the commission ended up costing $1 million; and some critics on the board still believe that the whole mess could have been settled had Ganchrow simply fallen on his sword and resigned (though this strikes me as a case of wishful thinking). Today, according to Ganchrow, he is essentially a persona non grata in O.U. circles (and the feeling is apparently mutual, judging from his critique of the direction taken by the organization since the end of his two-term stint as president).

Whether one looks at Ganchrow and sees an endearing streak of spunk or a grating case of stubbornness, he has often proved himself an effective Jewish activist and organizational leader. In addition, it is hard to dispute that the O.U. appears to be recovering from the Lanner scandal in large part because of Ganchrow’s decision to create the commission and appoint Richard Joel, now president of Yeshiva University, to be its chair.

Of course, this last point probably wouldn’t come as a surprise to any of the American boys sitting at the Passover table in Southeast Asia in 1969, when the Ganchrow gambit was attempted for the first time.

All the soldiers stayed till the end of the Seder; no casualties were reported.

Ami Eden is national editor of the Forward.

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