Harriet Schleifer looks to maintain Jewish unity as new Conference of Presidents chair

‘As Jews in America we cannot afford to be divided,’ the former AJC president in her first interview with eJewishPhilanthropy since taking her new role this summer

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (CoP), the largest Jewish organization in the U.S., elected Harriet Schleifer on June 1 as the organization’s new chair.

A former president of the American Jewish Committee, Schleifer has been a member of the Conference of Presidents’ executive council since 2019. She replaced Dianne Lob, who served as CoP chair from June 2021 to May 2023.

Schleifer enters the new role during a particularly fraught period, with rising antisemitism, deepening partisan divisions in both the U.S. and Israel and a growing disconnect between American Jewry and the Israeli government, if not the State of Israel more generally.

Schleifer, a retired attorney focused on education law, whose husband Leonard founded and still runs the Regeneron Pharmaceuticals firm, has been involved in Jewish communal life for decades, along with other philanthropic work.

She is a trustee of Cornell University and Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and serves on the boards of the Jewish Museum in New York and Plaza Jewish Community Chapel. Additionally, Schliefer has held a number of local leadership positions in her hometown of Westchester, N.Y., including positions with UJA-Federation of New York Westchester chapter, Westchester Jewish Council, and she served as president of Bet Torah Synagogue in Mt. Kisco, N.Y.

Schleifer recently sat down with eJewishPhilanthropy to discuss how she plans to unite the Jewish community in her new role as chair of the umbrella organization that represents 50 diverse American Jewish organizations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Haley Cohen: What are your specific plans in the new role? What are a few top areas you plan to focus on? 

Harriet Schleifer: As the new chair of the Conference, my goal and my calling is to bring together the various myriad Jewish voices in the United States to educate ourselves and derive a consensus as best as possible, to promote the Jewish voice on issues of antisemitism, stopping Iran from its interference in state policies and uranium enrichment. We’ve got to come together and have a united voice about the perils, not only the threat Iran poses to Israel but against the free world and the United States.

[I] also seek to come together and help our government implement the White House strategy to fight antisemitism. 

We have to be vigilant about keeping Jewish identity and Jewish pride alive. Our younger generations of Jews have experienced somewhat of a golden age in this country to the extent that we have achieved so much as American Jews, in some respects we may be disconnected or less informed about the Jewish perspective on all the things we hope to achieve to make the world better. The connection is not necessarily front of mind for young people so we’d like to develop opportunities to enhance our identities and that should lead to a connection with Israel. 

Our Israel-diaspora relations need a healthy boost. We don’t always understand each other’s sensibilities. The Conference can play a role in uniting the two largest hubs of the Jewish community. 

Most importantly, is to bring together our 50 member organizations to educate ourselves and to listen to each other because we are not monolithic. We come from various political sensibilities, we come from different cultural backgrounds, we are different genders and different observances. We need to find what keeps us together and celebrate that. My goal is to celebrate what we have together so our future is more certain. 

HC: What do you think the role of philanthropy is in implementing the Conference of Presidents’ goals?

HS: No nonprofit organization can succeed on air and hope. Our member organizations contribute about 20% of our budget, so we are reliant on private philanthropy, foundations and individuals to keep our work vital and to enhance opportunities where member organizations and others become as informed as possible and leverage each organizations’ mission. 

HC: You’ve expressed that improving accessibility for people with disabilities is an area of interest. How do you plan to make the Jewish community more inclusive?

HS: I’m a believer in not leaving people out and that’s been my entire childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The fact that one of my children is challenged to a great degree, almost seemed like it was ordained because I’ve always had an eye for bringing people in. On a personal and professional level, I’ve created opportunities and deserved government entitlements for people with disabilities and also with regard to the Jewish voice. I am adamant that we have to stand up and we cannot leave Jewish voices to the fringes of our world. 

HC: Does the desire for consensus and shared priorities not risk giving hard-line voices a de facto veto on CoP? The CoP is not able to speak out in favor of maintaining the Law of Return (which guarantees Israeli citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent) because the Zionist Organization of American (ZOA) and Orthodox Union (OU) oppose its “grandchild clause.” More recently, while CoP’s CEO William Daroff spoke favorably of Jack Lew, President Joe Biden’s pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, the conference itself does not appear to have released any statement in support of the nominee, even as many of the members — including the OU — came out in favor of him. Was this because of the ZOA’s stated opposition to his nomination?

HS: We would not make a comment on Jack Lew’s nomination but we would put out a statement if he were confirmed. We are nonpartisan and careful not to get involved in support of any particular candidate running, even though Jack is not running. On his confirmation, we will be prepared. It’s not a done deal yet so it’s not ripe for comment right now. 

HC: In an op-ed you recently wrote for The Jerusalem Post, you said that “American Jews constitute a bloc on an important set of issues.” What are those issues?

HS: American Jews constitute a bloc on making sure that antisemitism and any kind of bigotry is to be cut short. We as American Jews not only need to protect ourselves, but we need to ensure that there is pluralism and freedom of expression that our government guarantees. 

We work to express and implement Hillel’s credo that “If I am not for myself who am I? If I am only for myself what am I? And if not now when?” 

I think what American Jews and the Conference seeks to do is make sure that American Jewry, Israel and Jews worldwide are safe, secure, can go about their lives and work with each other in harmony. 

HC: Are there values that you or CoP hold above unity and consensus?

HS: The Conference was organized in 1956 under the Eisenhower administration. The mandate was to come together in one voice regarding policies presented to the administration. 

So our focus is really to educate ourselves, to convene, to listen to each other and unite where it makes sense as much as possible. The focus is to present platforms that our member organizations can stand with, and we don’t judge different missions. The Conference tries to maintain the lane that we were asked to do when we were established. 

We are working very hard to make sure that we have as little divisiveness [as possible]. As Jews in America we cannot afford to be divided. Our legacy is our continued peoplehood and pride. My hope and my calling, [as] a daughter of Holocaust survivors, is to ensure a Jewish well-being for many generations to come. Jewish continuity is in my heart, my head and my kishkes. You can never make whole what was lost, but as I breathe, I’m going to make sure we have a future.