By Alex Traiman
(JNS) For more than 30 years, Malcolm Hoenlein has served as executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group representing a large and diverse communal structure of 53 Jewish organizations. In that capacity, he has led countless leadership delegations to Israel, and met with key allies of the Jewish state and Muslim nations across the Middle East.
Hoenlein has worked tirelessly to build consensus and present a unified front on vital issues affecting the global Jewish community for a communal structure that oftentimes – as is typical within Jewish culture – can find and magnify causes for disagreement.
At age 74, he isn’t showing signs of slowing down. This past month, the Conference led its largest delegation ever to a Muslim country, bringing more than 70 Jewish leaders to the United Arab Emirates to meet with government ministers and businessmen, before meeting 56-year-old Crown Prince Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, son of Jordanian King Abdullah, in Amman, and then arriving in Israel for a weeklong summit with dozens of Knesset members, government ministers, security experts, journalists and research fellows at leading think tanks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addressed the group, thanking them for their contributions to American Jewry and the State of Israel.
JTA recently reported that Hoenlein was set to retire, following an email outgoing Conference chairman Stephen Greenberg sent to its member organizations, noting Hoenlein “felt that a transition process should be put in place … as we seek an executive to assume responsibility for the Conference’s ongoing operations and activities.”
Following that story, the Conference sent a firm clarification email noting explicitly that “Malcolm is not stepping down,” and that the purpose of the initial memo to Conference leaders was part of a “responsible and forward-thinking approach.”
In an interview with JNS, Hoenlein praised the success of the Conference’s most recent mission while blasting the JTA’s report on what was intended to be an “internal communication to our members to be transparent,” adding that “we tried to be direct and open as possible.”
He said the Conference sent the initial email to its members, laying the groundwork for a transition process “because I think it is the right thing to do.”
Hoenlein noted that the process of finding a new executive to handle the complexities of the position and to get a candidate approved by the diverse conference leaders could take one to two years to implement.
“The Conference is stronger today than ever,” he told JNS. “More and more groups [want] to be a part of it. We want to prepare for the future, and I want to make sure we will have an orderly transition.”
Allen Fagin, executive vice president of Orthodox Union, said “the Conference of Presidents is a unique organization which brings together, under a single roof, 53 of America’s leading Jewish organizations, spanning the totality of the religious and political spectrum of American Jewry, providing a mechanism for this remarkably diverse group to coalesce around issues of common concern.
“The next leader will face the enormous challenge of an increasingly polarized community,” he told JNS, “and will need to continue to foster the common agenda and unity of purpose that transcends individual differences.”
Hoenlein pointed to major changes taking place in the Jewish community, including the fact that “Israel has become the pole of World Jewry,” a testament to the rapid growth of the Jewish state, coupled with increasing assimilation and indifference towards religion and Israel among American Jewry.
According to Hoenlein, major challenges include engaging and preparing Jewish students to become the next generation of Jewish leaders, and making sure that Israel continues to remain a bipartisan issue in Congress as Democratic support for Israel has shown signs of sliding.
He did add that while “people, the media often highlight the differences, the diversity can be a strength.”
William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said “Malcolm Hoenlein has made a lasting and positive transformational contribution to American Jewish life. He will be succeeded, but he will not easily be replaced.”
Hoenlein insisted that even when the Conference selects a new executive, “I am not going to leave. I’m going to hang around.”
According to the initial communication sent to Conference members, “Malcolm will then focus on external relations as well as plans to structure the Conference for the years ahead.”
Hoenlein noted that “next year, I will have been 50 years in formal positions in Jewish communal life,” and that “I didn’t put 32 years in my life into the Conference to see it not continuing to be successful.”
“I will remain, no matter what,” he said, “and I will continue to play a strong role.”