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Regional leaders of JNF endorse Lauder for president

NEW YORK, Jan. 22 (JTA) — Leaders of the Jewish National Fund of America from across the country have endorsed Ronald Lauder, cosmetics heir, philanthropist and former U.S. ambassador to Austria, as the next president of the organization. If the board approves, he could be installed as early as next month, replacing Milton Shapiro who said he is willing to step down before his term expires in December. The endorsement of the high-profile, highly respected Lauder reflects an effort to restore confidence in the organization. JNF was badly shaken last fall after an internal probe and an independent audit turned up a host of fiscal and management problems. A series of reforms were undertaken in November to remedy the problems. One of the most startling findings was how little of the money donated to JNF actually arrives in Israel from an organization historically devoted to reclaiming the land and planting trees there. In addition to the endorsement of a new president, one of the clearest signs of change was the recent announcement by JNF national officials that the organization would appoint by the end of next month a new executive vice president. Meanwhile, during the holiday weekend, the lay leaders gave their blessing to the reform process pledged by the charity. In doing so, they appear to have overridden dissent from at least one regional chapter, which had threatened to disband in protest of the problems and what were deemed inadequate measures to correct them. About 18 lay regional presidents gathered at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for what had been billed as a decisive meeting to assess whether the reforms were proceeding as scheduled. Several other leaders participated by telephone. Alan Blumenfeld, president of the New Jersey region and national community campaign chairman, said a “consensus” had been reached. The presidents were “fairly satisfied as a group that changes taking place” were consistent “with the commitments taken by the organization in November,” Blumenfeld said. “Things are being done in a timely fashion,” he continued, emphasizing that the charity’s “entire reorganization” is under way. Last year’s disclosures of problems at JNF shook confidence in the charity, triggering profound concern that they would hurt its ability to raise funds. A slight decline in contributions has been reported. At the same time, volatile rhetoric by at least one of the regional leaders had heightened the stakes of the Chicago meeting. Michael Lipof, president of the New England chapter, had earlier called the reforms a “sham” and threatened that his chapter would disband unless JNF leaders stepped down and other key changes were implemented immediately. National JNF officials and other regional leaders countered that it was unfair to make any such judgment until after a Jan. 9 meeting of the heads of a newly formed task force on priorities and reorganization and of several subcommittees. Lipof was persuaded to wait until the Chicago meeting before taking any action. He reportedly attended the Monday meeting and left early, but he could not be reached for comment. Meanwhile, JNF officials announced a timetable for its reform program at the conclusion of the Jan. 9 meeting: * A new executive vice president will be appointed by March 31. Samuel Cohen has moved from that post to the position of senior executive vice president, but has provoked some anger by those who say that as a member of the old guard, he should not continue to have day-to-day oversight of the reforms. * A new slate of officers is set to be presented by March 31. * The findings on the subcommittees on program priorities, restructuring, fund raising and increasing allocations to Israel, are scheduled to be submitted by March 31. * The report by the overarching task force on reform is due June 30. Meanwhile, Joseph Matz, head of the subcommittee charged with finding ways to send more money to Israel, said he was confident that things were moving in the right direction. But with his report not due for more than a month, he said, it was too early to report on specifics. Last fall’s disclosures showed that roughly 20 percent of funds get there, though Matz claims the figure is higher. He said it is his personal view that the JNF leadership wants to see 50 percent of all revenues sent to Israel. “That is probably the benchmark the leadership considers a necessity,” he said. Meanwhile, Shapiro explained that it was possible that a new president could be installed as soon as next month. JNF’s nominating committee is scheduled to meet the first week of February, when Lauder’s name is likely to be proposed. A board meeting could be called within 10 days, according to Shapiro, with the candidate possibly voted upon and installed soon thereafter.