NEW YORK (JTA) – The nomination of June Walker to head the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has placated some critics of the organization but left others wondering where she stands on key issues facing Israel and the Jewish people.Walker, the national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, was nominated April 16 to succeed Harold Tanner as chairman of the Presidents Conference. The conference is an umbrella organization that aims to represent the consensus opinion of American Jewry on Israel and other foreign-policy issues and provide a unified Jewish address with which to deal for U.S. officials.If confirmed as expected by the full membership at the next general meeting, Walker will become only the second woman to lead the conference. Shoshana Cardin held the position in the early 1990s. Walker’s two-year tenure would begin June 1.Walker, a longtime community activist from New Jersey, has filled a number of positions at Hadassah, including president, vice president, treasurer and national chairman of the Hadassah College of Technology in Jerusalem.During her tenure the school grew from 600 to 2,000 students. It also changed from a college offering two-year degrees to a fully accredited institution offering six bachelor’s degrees, with applications in progress for two additional degrees. In addition, under Walker’s leadership Hadassah recently received $75 million toward the construction of a $210 million inpatient tower at its hospital in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, and completed a $48 million emergency-medicine facility in Jerusalem.Reached by phone during a fund-raising trip to Detroit, Walker told JTA her goal is to strengthen the ties between the membership and the conference, making the member organizations fuller partners in conference proceedings and making the conference more of a factor in members’ activities. She identified rising anti-Semitism and maintaining a robust U.S.-Israel alliance as the biggest challenges facing the organization. Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s executive vice chairman, noted that Walker has been involved in the Presidents Conference for several years.”She is familiar both with the issues and the challenges, and will work to enhance the process of consensus building to enable our community to respond to the very serious issues we are facing,” Hoenlein said. “June is a known, experienced entity in the Jewish community,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I think it’s a choice that will be well received.”The conference has come under fire in the past for what some perceive as a rightward drift and its alleged failure to operate in a fully democratic fashion.When Tanner was elected chairman in 2005, the conference also was criticized for choosing someone whose views were relatively unknown to the membership, although he had served as president of the American Jewish Committee. Walker hesitated to criticize the conference in an interview with JTA, but Foxman said she shared his concern that member organizations had not been sufficiently involved in deciding when and how to speak out on controversial topics. “I know she was unhappy in the past when it didn’t happen, so I know she’s sensitive to it,” Foxman said. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said the chairman selection process is essentially undemocratic and nominees’ positions on crucial issues remain unknown.The chairman is selected by a nominating committee and then confirmed by the conference’s full membership. “June Walker is a fine and very pleasant woman,” Klein said. “Nonetheless, I have no idea about her opinions or stances on any of the critical issues facing Israel, except for love and support of Israel in general.”The selection of Walker, a respiratory therapist and former college professor and health-care administrator, is something of a departure for the conference. Its chairmen in recent years have included businessmen such as cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, publishing magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, Loews Corp. CEO James Tisch and Tanner, an investment banker.Tisch, who chaired the nominating committee, said Walker had been chosen from among a number of candidates, though conference officials would not specify who else was in the running. “She’s an absolutely wonderful woman, really well liked, well respected by everybody,” said Stephen Savitsky, president of the Orthodox Union. “I think she’s going to do an outstanding job.”
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Ben Harris is JTA's former associate editor.