Seymour Reich, B’nai B’rith Head, to Chair Conference of Presidents

Seymour Reich, a lawyer and international president of B’nai B’rith, has been elected chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Reich, 55, of Great Neck, N.Y., will begin his one-year term on Jan. 1. He succeeds Morris Abram, who was elected conference chairman in July 1987. Abram agreed to serve an additional six months when the umbrella group’s nominating committee became deadlocked over a choice among three candidates to succeed him.

The other front-runners were Ruth Popkin, immediate past president of Hadassah, and Joseph Sternstein, president of the Jewish National Fund.

According to sources close to the nominating process, Reich represented the candidate most likely to create organizational consensus at a time of heightened differences among the United States, Israel and the American Jewish community.

Israel and the United States are at odds over the U.S. decision to open substantive talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, a move rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his political rival, Vice Premier Shimon Peres.

This fall, the American Jewish community parted past practice and disagreed publicly with Israel over what seemed the imminent passage of the "Who Is a Jew" amendment to Israel’s Law of Return.

The 46-member Conference of Presidents was created in 1955 in order to create a unified voice among Jewish organizations concerning U.S.-Israel relations. Its official stands seek common ground, even when its constituent organizations disagree on major issues.

For example, in response to the U.S. decision to open talks with the PLO, Abram released a statement on behalf of the conference that neither condemned nor supported the U.S. decision.

Instead, it called U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz a "statesman of integrity" and urged that the PLO be made to match its words with deeds.

By contrast, the conference did not take up the "Who Is a Jew" issue, as its Orthodox and non-Orthodox constituents disagree vehemently on the issue.

The conference chairman is sought out frequently by administration figures and the press when they seek the "Jewish reaction" to a particular event or issue.

Reich is a senior partner in the New York law firm of Dreyer and Taub, and was elected B’nai B’rith president in August 1986. He is a former chairman on the civil rights committee of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and has been a strong advocate on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

Last year he was part of a contingent of nine American Jewish leaders who met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, to discuss Jewish concerns over the pope’s meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim.

Reich is deeply involved in Jewish organizational life, but he will lack the close ties with elected officials enjoyed by Abram, a Washington insider who served various posts under four U.S. presidents.

Nevertheless, Reich is a "good choice," said Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

"This is going to be one of the most difficult times in American-Israeli relations," said Kelman. "The conference will require a strong and sensitive leadership to try and present a common front on issues of vital concern."

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