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Newsdesk October 17, 2003

UJC Launches Search

A search process has begun to find the next president of the United Jewish Communities, widely viewed as the toughest job in American Jewish communal life.

While the process is still in its initial stages, speculation is focusing on Robert Aronson to become the next top professional of UJC, the roof body of North American Jewish federations. Aronson is currently the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and reportedly the highest paid federation professional.

But, sources said, the hunt of mid-October is far from over. The current president and CEO of UJC, Stephen Hoffman, is set to complete his three-year tenure in June 2004. Until then, said Robert Goldberg, the co-chair of the recently formed search committee, “we have no time limit” in which to choose a successor. Goldberg, who is UJC’s board chair, said that candidates have not yet been named, but he acknowledged that the search committee has convened at least once.

A flock of popular federation executives are also said to be in play for the prestigious, if not always coveted, position. They include Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago; John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York; Max Kleinman executive vice president of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest in New Jersey, and Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

UJC was created in 2000 through a merger of three national charities, the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal. It serves as a central coordinating and service body for some 160 local federations of Jewish charities.

The focus on local federation executives is in keeping with a prevailing view among UJC officials that an insider is the best person for the job. This appears to be the latest defeat for several architects of the UJC merger, most notably philanthropist Charles Bronfman, who sought outsiders to change the priorities of an entrenched fundraising establishment.

Several UJC sources said that most of the would-be candidates are reluctant to leave their hometowns, where they are treated as heroes, to head an organization beset by internal bickering and what critics say is an overall lack of vision. Aronson, however, is said to be positioning himself for the job, according to UJC sources. But in an interview with the Forward he denied any interest. “I’ve never spoken to anyone about it,” Aronson said.

The Detroit federation dipped deeply into its unrestricted reserves during the last five years, causing the rainy-day fund to plummet from $50 million to $20 million. Some have partly blamed the recent loss of 70 communal jobs and a $6.2 million deficit on the excessive spending. On the other hand, Aronson’s federation continues to be one of the biggest givers to overseas welfare agencies and was awarded four stars for efficiency by Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog.

This year, Aronson has pared down his work for the Detroit federation to three days per week. He divides the remainder of his workweek between working as a philanthropic consultant for Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and for Detroit magnate Bill Davidson.

Barry Shrage, the maverick chief executive of Boston’s federation, seemed to all but nominate Ruskay of New York: “John is one of the most competent, visionary professionals in Jewish life. He could certainly do this job.”

Blind Accusing the Blind

A Maryland-based interest group for blind Jews is claiming that a major publisher of Jewish texts in Braille is discriminating against the blind and is no longer producing or providing them with material in braille.

The National Federation of the Blind in Judaism is accusing JBI International, formerly known as the Jewish Braille Institute of America, of altering its mission to serve the blind and instead only provides recreational reading on cassette for Jewish seniors in nursing homes who have poor vision. The Maryland group has called on donors to withhold contributions to JBI. Representatives of the group were to announce their charges at a press conference in New York on October 15, which is National White Cane Safety Day.

The Maryland group accuses JBI of forcing the resignation of two blind board members, thereby removing all blind members from its board. It claims the institute gave away its 70,000-volume braille library of Judaica to the Library of Congress and has refused to provide three blind children with Braille material for bar and bat mitzvahs. The Maryland group is a member of the National Federation of the Blind and is chaired by Harold Snider of Rockville, Md.

Officials of JBI strongly denied the allegations. They said they are producing more Jewish Braille books than ever and are now publishing large-print texts such as Haggadas for the visually impaired. They said that a series of Braille books are made available to all bar and bat mitzvah students and that no board member has been forced out. In fact many volunteers on the board are blind. JBI officials maintain that giving their collection to the Library of Congress has made the text more widely available. “We have not altered our mission to serve the blind, we have broadened our mission to do outreach to the multitudes” of visually impaired Jews, said Ellen Isler, JBI’s executive vice president.

Nobel Winner Blasts Jews

Nobel laureate José Saramago said that the Jewish people no longer deserve “sympathy for the suffering it went through during the Holocaust.” Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, said Monday in Brazil that “living under the shadows of the Holocaust and willing to be forgiven for anything they do on behalf of what they have suffered seems abusive to me. They didn’t learn anything from the suffering of their parents and grandparents.” A regular critic of Israel, the Portuguese novelist also compared the West Bank city of Ramallah to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. “The spirit of Auschwitz is so present in Ramallah that now,” he said, the Israelis “are building walls that remind us of the ghettos.”

Saudi Role Debated

The departure of three major actors in the war on terror has fueled speculation that the Bush administration was pressured by Riyadh to silence its most outspoken critics.

In recent weeks the American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan, Treasury Department counterterrorism coordinator David Aufhauser and FBI counterterrorism head Larry Medford have all announced their departure. Each official said the decision to leave was theirs, and American officials have stressed that the departures were routine and not politically motivated. But some observers noted that all three had criticized Saudi Arabia regarding its efforts in the war on terror, with most of the speculation revolving around Jordan.

After the terrorist bombings against foreign targets in Riyadh in May, Jordan was quoted in the American media as saying that Saudi officials had ignored American requests for added security. In addition, Saudi opposition press outlets reported in July that Jordan had irked Saudi officials by suggesting that the next Saudi crown prince could be picked from the next generation, meaning that the current heirs to the throne would be passed over.

The opposition media further reported in late September that this had prompted the family to ask for Jordan’s removal. This theory was in a recent policy paper by Simon Henderson, an associate with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A State Department spokesman last month said that Jordan had done an “absolutely superlative job” and was leaving for personal reasons. Greg Sullivan, the spokesman for the Near East Affairs bureau at the State Department, confirmed the information, saying that the State Department had known about Jordan’s intentions to leave in the summer of 2003 since late 2002.

Jordan, a founding partner of the law firm Baker Botts, a major donor to the Bush campaign, is expected to work for the Bush re-election effort, according to Judith Kipper, a scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Greeks Deny Extradition Request

A Greek court refused a Russian request to extradite a Jewish media tycoon. The judge said that the fraud and money-laundering charges against Vladimir Gusinsky are not a crime under Greek statutes. Gusinsky, a media magnate and former leader of the Russian Jewish Congress, has been living abroad since he fled Russia three years ago following a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign against him that many believe was politically motivated.

Deal on Swiss Money

Swiss banks agreed to give some access to dormant accounts involved in a settlement with Holocaust victims. One of the lawyers who represented survivors in the $1.25 billion settlement said the agreement would allow more money from the fund to be released to survivors and their families, The New York Times reported. The agreement comes shortly after the investigator involved in overseeing the fund filed a report critical of the banks for restricting access to documents needed to make payouts. But a representative for the banks said the agreement was reached before the report was filed.

Genetic Testing Bill Passed

The Senate Tuesday unanimously passed legislation that would prohibit insurance companies and employers from discriminating on the basis of genetic tests and would make it illegal to require such tests. The new bill, which is supported by the White House, would also prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor unions from using genetic information to make hiring or compensation decisions.

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which has lobbied for this legislation for seven years, praised the Senate for approving the “Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2003.”

“Today’s historic vote represents a giant step forward for medical research,” said June Walker, Hadassah’s national president. “As science races ahead, individuals are hesitant to submit to genetic tests for fear of health insurance and employment discrimination.”

The bill, which cleared the Senate by a 95-to-0 majority, still has to pass the House of Representatives before going to the White House to be signed into law by the president.

Israeli Urges Senate Action

A senior representative of Israel’s Peace Now movement, Dror Etkes, was expected Wednesday to criticize Jerusalem’s settlement activity while testifying before the Senate Subcommittee for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.

According to a copy of his prepared remarks obtained by the Forward, Etkes planned to ask the Senate to help stop Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank. He also was set to urge American lawmakers to make sure the security fence being constructed by Israel will not creep into the West Bank but follow the contour of the pre-1967 border between the West Bank and Israel.

Claims Conference To Scale Back

The organization responsible for securing and allocating billions of dollars from Holocaust restitution agreements may close its doors within the next year or two, according to an inside source.

One senior official at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany said the organization has “perhaps another year or two.” Claims Conference president Israel Singer said that his organization has accomplished most of its aims and “is a body that will dissolve itself.” Singer said that the dismantling “can and should take place at an early date.”

The executive vice president of the Claims Conference, Gideon Taylor, told the Forward that the 52-year-old organization will be reducing its administrative structure over the next year as it completes payments under some of the compensation programs. “However,” he added, “as long as there is one survivor alive, we will be fighting and negotiating for more payments to survivors.”

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