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Presidents Conference Taps Tisch As Next Leader

America’s central Jewish representative body is naming a billionaire philanthropist and tobacco mogul as its new chairman.

James Tisch, president of Loews Corp. and chairman of United Jewish Communities, was selected by a nominating committee last Friday to become chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. If confirmed by the full conference at its general meeting April 30, he would succeed publisher and real-estate executive Mortimer Zuckerman, who steps down in June after two one-year terms.

The Presidents Conference, a loose association of 52 groups ranging from left to right and Orthodox to Reform, is informally recognized in Washington, Jerusalem and other capitals as the central voice of affiliated American Jews on matters related to the Middle East. It has also taken a high-profile role on some domestic security matters in recent years.

Tisch, a registered Democrat and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell University, told the Forward that he is “pleased and gratified” to have been chosen.

Tisch is a member of a prominent family that owns hotels and other interests, including Lorillard Tobacco Co., CNA Financial Corp. and Bulova Corp. His father, Laurence Tisch, is a former chairman of CBS, and his uncle Preston R. “Bob” Tisch is a former postmaster general of the United States.

Critics say the selection of Tisch to head the Presidents Conference continues a pattern of naming wealthy chairmen because of their access to the corridors of power, without regard to their following among their organizational peers or their familiarity with the communal world they are supposed to lead.

The current chairman, Zuckerman, and his predecessor, Ronald Lauder, were both relative outsiders to the organizational world who became presidents of Jewish groups shortly before taking over the Conference of Presidents. Some critics have charged that their unfamiliarity with the organizational culture limited their ability to forge consensus among the diverse groups within the conference.

Tisch is unlikely to face the same criticism, however. A veteran of numerous hands-on volunteer communal posts, including terms as president of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council and of New York UJA-Federation, he is known for his strong views on the role of umbrella bodies in coordinating the policies of competing Jewish groups.

In 1999, as president of New York UJA-Federation, Tisch spearheaded an effort to redefine the role of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which coordinates the public-policy work of a dozen national Jewish bodies and 120 local federations and community councils. In a letter that was leaked to the press he called the public affairs council “out of touch” for its liberal stance on issues such as tax cuts and educational vouchers.

Since Tisch took over as head of UJC, which controls much of the public affairs council’s funding, some observers have seen a loosening of ties between the two bodies and a growing closeness between UJC and the Presidents Conference.

The “relationship [with the public affairs council] is distant, more distant than at the time of the merger” that created UJC in 2000, said a UJC lay leader, Chicago attorney Richard Wexler. “The relationship with the Presidents Conference is much closer.”

But UJC president and CEO Stephen Hoffman said that Tisch’s accession at the Presidents Conference was not evidence of any trend away from the public affairs council. The council’s own immediate past chairman, Len Cole, himself a candidate to head the Presidents Conference, also praised the choice of Tisch and said he had not seen any weakening of the relationship between the council and UJC.

“The election of Tisch is the election of Tisch,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “People are trying to find esoteric, metaphorical changes. There are none.”

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