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Lauder Struggles To Gain Traction at WJC

With his personal wealth estimated at close to $3 billion, it may be safe to assume that cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder is unaccustomed to hearing the word “no.” But when Lauder, the newly elected president of the World Jewish Congress, tapped a highly respected Jewish professional to help him right what is by most accounts a rudderless ship, that was just the answer he got.

On August 3, Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, officially turned down Lauder’s offer to become the WJC’s secretary general. In recent weeks, Lauder had offered Mariaschin a generous salary package — nearly double his current pay — to help draw him to the WJC, where Lauder had hoped he would replace Stephen Herbits, a controversial figure within the organization.

Lauder’s failure to entice Mariaschin to join him at the WJC underscores what some observers describe as the new president’s difficulty implementing changes at the troubled organization. In mid-June, Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund, was elected interim president of the WJC after Edgar Bronfman unexpectedly stepped down. Two months into his tenure, Lauder has yet to hire a new staff for the WJC, and he has made little progress on any policy fronts. While Lauder ran on a platform of cleaning house — both at the WJC and at the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — the WJC continues to remain adrift, observers say.

“In 2007, nobody knows what the WJC does, or should do,” said Jerome Chanes, a faculty scholar at Brandeis University and long-time observer of Jewish organizations. “The congress needs a mission and a mandate.”

Mariaschin, who has worked at B’nai B’rith for nearly 20 years, attributed his decision to remain at the 164-year-old advocacy organization to his dedication to his work. “Upon reflection, I realized how much a part of my life, as well as my career, BBI is, and I chose to stay,” he said in a statement.

Some sources close to the WJC said that Herbits, the current secretary general, may have been responsible for Mariaschin’s decision to reject the offer. Herbits, the sources said, made it clear to Mariaschin that he would have an uneasy tenure if he took the job.

Lauder, however, disputed claims implicating Herbits as the reason for Mariaschin’s reluctance to sign on with the WJC. “I respect [Dan’s] decision to remain with B’nai Brith, which was not about Stephen Herbits or anyone at the WJC,” Lauder said in a statement. “The fact is, Mr. Herbits was not involved in the selection, negotiation or final decision regarding Dan. Any other comment about Mariaschin would be a distortion of the facts.”

On the policy front, Lauder’s major push during the WJC election was to reform the Claims Conference, the Holocaust restitution body founded in 1951. In a June article in The New York Jewish Week, Lauder said that he was running in part to restore “transparency” to the Claims Conference. The Claims Conference hotly disputed Lauder’s assertion that there was any lack of transparency, noting that all of its assets and allocations are published on its Web site.

As one of his first official acts, Lauder attended the annual meeting of the Claims Conference last month. According to participants at the two-day event, Lauder struck a quiet note, rarely participating and failing to affect any of the big changes he had promised.

At least one WJC observer defended Lauder, saying that it was too soon to tell whether he might be able to effectively chart a new, reformist course at the WJC.

Yaakov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis, said that Lauder is “taking over an organization that is basically in shambles, and he has to rebuild it from scratch.”

Over and above the past allegations of impropriety, the WJC is now in dire financial straits. A recent WJC financial report shows that the organization will run a deficit of more than $1.7 million this year.

Despite the WJC’s ongoing struggle to balance its checkbook, Lauder has not held back when it comes to making hefty salary offers. Had Mariaschin accepted the post, he would have become one of the highest-paid professionals in the Jewish organizational world.

Documents obtained by the Forward show that Lauder had offered Mariaschin $400,000 a year for five years, with an annual raise of 5% and a potential performance-based annual bonus. According to B’nai B’rith’s 2006 tax returns, Mariaschin currently earns $242,460 annually.

An August 6 e-mail obtained by the Forward, said to be from Lauder to members of the WJC steering committee, noted the urgency of replacing Herbits. The e-mail suggested Michael Schneider, a former executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as a possible alternative to Mariaschin.

“Both Matthew [Bronfman] and I agree that before we approach Mr. Schneider to inquire as to his availability and willingness to join the World Jewish Congress, we would like to hear your thoughts and comments concerning Mr. Schneider as a potential chief executive,” the e-mail stated, referring to Edgar Bronfman’s son, the WJC’s newly elected chairman.

When reached by the Forward, Schneider said, “I heard noises, but nobody has approached me.”

“Quite frankly I haven’t given it a great deal of consideration either way,” Schneider said.

With reporting by Nathaniel Popper.

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