Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
News

Malcolm Hoenlein Stuns Leaders By Stepping Down As Presidents Conference Chief

The announcement Tuesday that Malcolm Hoenlein was preparing to step down after three decades in one of the most powerful positions in the organized Jewish community took the leaders of his own organization by surprise.

In an internal memo, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations told its members that the organization was beginning a “transition process,” but that Hoenlein would remain in his current role as president until he was replaced, and then continue to serve afterward in a new position.

The announcement surprised even members of the Presidents Conference’s executive committee, which oversees the organization. Though Hoenlein has been in his job for a generation and is past retirement age, he seemed an eternal fixture of the Jewish communal scene, unlikely to cede control of the organization he built.

“We’re all waiting to hear more,” said Cheryl Fishbein, a member of the executive committee and the chair of another Jewish group, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The surprise and confusion in response to the Tuesday memo was so pervasive within the membership of the Presidents Conference that Hoenlein and the board chair, Stephen Greenberg, sent a second internal memo on Wednesday insisting that Hoenlein was “not stepping down,” and that the transition process would take “one to two years.”

Five leaders of Jewish organizations that are members of the Presidents Conference told the Forward that they had not expected the announcement, or that they knew no more than what was in the memo. JTA was first to report on the existence of the first memo. The Presidents Conference did not respond to an inquiry from the Forward.

Hoenlein has led the Presidents Conference since 1986. The organization, which convenes and at times speaks for roughly 50 U.S. Jewish groups, is among the most powerful voices in the American Jewish community, an elite gathering place for leaders of a range of mainstream Jewish groups. It is a place where the Jewish establishment consensus is formed.

Hoenlein’s position at the top of the organization has placed him among the most powerful and well-connected American Jewish leaders. He is also one of the best compensated. The Presidents Conference paid him $452,000 in 2016, according to the Forward’s salary survey.

The announcement of the leadership transition, sent at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, was the first that even top lay leaders at the Presidents Conference had heard of Hoenlein’s intentions. During the group’s annual Israel trip in mid-February, Hoenlein presided over high-level meetings between Israeli and American Jewish leaders.

“It was an amazing trip and he was wonderful and he was his usual self,” Fishbein said.

The group met with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, among other prominent Israelis. In social media content posted by the organization, Hoenlein appeared alongside Israeli military and political leaders.

The Israel trip ended on February 22. The announcement of Hoenlein’s decision to step back came five days later.

In their Wednesday memo, Hoenlein and Greenberg decried media coverage of the announcement, presumably referring to the JTA story that first reported that Hoenlein was stepping down. “We have received many inquiries expressions of concern and disbelief, and requests for clarification, stemming in part from misrepresentations and distortions of the memo…by some media sources,” the two men wrote.

Yet the new memo did little to clarify Hoenlein’s decision. The timing and details of the announcement remain vague. It appears that Hoenlein will remain as the leader of the Presidents Conference until a replacement is hired in one to two years, and that he will then remain on the organization’s staff indefinitely. The replacement will be responsible for “ongoing operations and activities,” while Hoenlein will “focus on external relations.” It’s not clear what that means, or which position would be more senior.

In the followup memo, Hoenlein and Greenberg wrote that “Malcolm initiated these discussions some months ago and we agreed that it was the proper responsible and forward thinking approach.” It’s unclear who the memo means by “we,” as the executive committee does not appear to have been consulted.

“While Malcolm and I have been discussing this for some time, we felt that as we begin the nomination process for the next chair of the conference, it would be the appropriate time to share Malcolm’s intentions,” Greenberg wrote in the first memo. “While Malcolm continues to be a uniquely vital and energetic leader, and an irreplaceable asset, he felt that a transition process should be put in place.”

The Presidents Conference includes legitimately major Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League, and far smaller ones, like the American Jewish Congress. It refused to admit the dovish pro-Israel group J Street in 2014.

This week the Presidents Conference also told members that it is also seeking to replace Greenberg, who has served three years as its lay chairman.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at [email protected] or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis

Engage

  • SHARE YOUR FEEDBACK

  • UPCOMING EVENT

    SKY & SCULPTURE

    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

    6:30 pm ET · 

    A Sukkah, IMKHA, created by artist Tobi Kahn, for the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan is an installation consisting of 13 interrelated sculpted painted wooden panels, constituting a single work of art. Join for a panel discussion with Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Chief Executive Director of the Marlene Meyerson JCC of Manhattan, Talya Zax, Innovation Editor of the Forward, and Tobi Kahn, Artist. Moderated by Mattie Kahn.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.