World Jewish Congress: closure and hope for the future

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The World Jewish Congress imbroglio is hopefully now at an end. After three harrowing years of ongoing scandal as layer after layer of corruption was exposed, there is hope that we are now about to enter a new era.

I am currently in New York where delegates to the WJC yesterday elected Ronald Lauder to the Presidency in a stunning landslide victory against his opponent Mendel Kaplan who had been a prime element in the cover ups which led to the seemingly unending scandals of the past three years.

Having supported Ronald Lauder’s candidature for the presidency because of his track record of commitment and devotion to the Jewish people and Israel, I have every confidence that he will conduct the organization in a democratic manner and ensure that governance and financial transparency are applied at all levels.

With the retirement of long standing president Edgar Bronfman, the expulsion of the disgraced Israel Singer, the rejection of the candidacy of Mendel Kaplan, and the resignation of the controversial Secretary General Stephen Herbits, the newly elected president Ronald.Lauder faces the daunting challenge of healing the wounds of the past and trying to restore the World Jewish Congress to its former role as the prime global representative of the Jewish people.

On a personal note, having led the campaign to reform the WJC and introduce governance and transparency, which resulted in the struggle of the last three years, the intimidation and vindictive assaults on my character, not to mention being sued for an unprecedented $ 6 million, I do take personal pride and satisfaction, that at long last, there now is hope that the WJC may indeed have turned the corner.

The WJC elections were a battle to ensure that there would be genuine reform and governance and prevent those responsible for the scandals from continuing to undermine any such efforts.

The new president was elected for the first time in open, fair and transparent elections and is committed to working with and consulting the representing communities around the world.

And aside from American Jewry which is strong enough to stand alone, there is probably a greater need today for a powerful body strong enough to represent the interests of Jewish communities throughout the world than at any time since the Nazi era. If the World Jewish Congress collapsed, escalating anti-Semitism, existential threats against Israel, and the need for coordinated global strategies to confront these dangers would necessitate the creation of a new global Jewish body.

I am therefore delighted that notwithstanding the scandals of the past, there is hope that the WJC can be saved. It will still take time to restore and regain the confidence and support of the Jewish people. But, we should all hope for closure in relation to the scandals of the past, wish the incoming leadership every success in its endeavors, and look towards creating a new era in which the WJC regains its former glory.


The New York Times

June 11, 2007
Cosmetics Heir to Lead World Jewish Congress


Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics magnate, won his bid to become the first elected president of the World Jewish Congress, the tiny nonprofit group that faced down some of the world’s largest banks to win billions for Holocaust victims but is now struggling to recover from scandals resulting from lax financial controls.

Mr. Lauder succeeds another billionaire, Edgar M. Bronfman, whose decades-long patronage of the organization gave it a prominence and prestige that was the envy of most other Jewish organizations.

“A person who built an organization and loves it gets out of the way, and that’s what I’m doing,” Mr. Bronfman said in a speech to the organization’s governing board before it elected Mr. Lauder.

Additionally, Stephen E. Herbits, the organization’s secretary-general who was installed by Mr. Bronfman to effect a thorough overhaul of its accounting and financial processes, announced his immediate resignation.

The Bronfman family, however, will continue to play a pivotal role in the organization since Mr. Bronfman’s son Matthew will serve as Mr. Lauder’s second in command, an arrangement that was brokered to guarantee Mr. Lauder’s win and forestall a bruising fight for the leadership.

Additionally, Matthew Bronfman represents a younger generation of Jews that has thus far shown little interest in embracing the organizations their parents supported.

That indifference has been of paramount concern to Jewish elders around the world, and Mr. Lauder acknowledged the need to attract younger Jews like Matthew Bronfman to the World Jewish Congress.

Einat Wilf, a former foreign policy adviser to Shimon Peres who had put herself up as a candidate but withdrew before votes were cast, said the fact that the organization had held an open election to choose its next leader represented a good first step in what she hoped would be a far-reaching transformation.

“Young people like me experience their Jewishness in a whole new way,” Ms. Wilf said, “and by opening this organization up in this way, I think it demonstrates a commitment to developing the next generation of leaders.”

That task will be easy compared with the immediate challenges Mr. Lauder and Matthew Bronfman will face. A report from Mr. Herbits made clear that the organization still had severe financial and legal problems to overcome as a result of a financial scandal that attracted state and federal regulators.

The scandal involved unexplained movements of the organization’s money around the globe and lavish expenditures on hotels, travel and compensation for Israel Singer, the former secretary-general and close confidante of the senior Bronfman.

The episode ultimately ended their friendship, and Mr. Herbits said in his report to the governing board that Edgar Bronfman was considering suing to recover loans he had made to Mr. Singer to help cover money the latter took from the World Jewish Congress.

The Internal Revenue Service has an ongoing investigation into the organization. The group says it has new information that may result in a violation of a settlement it signed last year with the New York attorney general, who found that Mr. Singer had violated his fiduciary responsibilities and chided the organization for its lack of financial controls.

In his stump speech, Mr. Lauder confessed that he had long been a Jew who “went to synagogue three days a year” but said his experience serving as the United States’ ambassador to Austria in the 1980s had led to an awakening of his Jewish identity.

Since then, he has dedicated time and his fortune to supporting the Jewish community through schools to educate young Jews in Eastern Europe about their faith and history. “I was like a Chabad student compared to these kids,” Mr. Lauder said, referring to a strict Hasidic branch of Judaism that emphasizes scholarship and learning. “Today, 10,000 children are going to school and camp in Eastern Europe and learning to be Jewish, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”

As president of the Jewish National Fund, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring and cultivating land and infrastructure in Israel, Mr. Lauder eliminated an $18 million debt and increased the group’s annual fund-raising to $60 million from $12 million.

The World Jewish Congress needs a similar turnaround, as Mr. Herbits’s report made clear. “The cost of this process over the last nearly three years has been astronomical — to the W.J.C.’s reputation, its legal and auditing fees, its depleted fund raising and in its ability to more fully fulfill its mission,” he wrote.

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