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Hias Exec’s Surprise Departure Comes Amid Transition at Agency

July 15, 2005
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Leonard Glickman’s abrupt departure from the helm of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society comes amid a period of transition for Jewish immigration efforts. But the organization’s leadership says it has a strong mission for the future, focused on aiding Jews and other religious minorities around the world.

Glickman stepped down as president and CEO on July 6 after more than seven years with the organization.

HIAS quickly named Neil Greenbaum, a Chicago lawyer and a former HIAS chairman, as Glickman’s successor. It is also working with David Edell, the president of Development Resource Group, a nonprofit executive-recruitment firm, to find a chief executive for the long term.

Jerome Teller, HIAS’ chairman, said Glickman left because of a “difference of opinion on management style,” but he added, “We have the highest respect for Leonard Glickman.”

“It’s not possible to summarize in one sentence all the factors that eventually led to my decision to move on,” Glickman told JTA. “It was not a very easy decision to make, because HIAS was such a great opportunity.”

Glickman faced charges leveled by a senior staff member last year of creating a hostile workplace environment, but he had been exonerated, sources close to the organization told JTA. Others said those charges were unrelated to Glickman’s decision to leave the agency.

At least two senior HIAS staff members have resigned in the past year.

Both Glickman and Teller said a leadership change had been in the works for months.

“The circumstances are not unusual,” Glickman said. “I’ve been in discussions with the lay leadership for some time about transitioning.”

But the move caught many in the Jewish community and within HIAS by surprise. Few knew July 6 was going to be Glickman’s last day, and there was no replacement search conducted before Greenbaum’s ascension. Glickman’s name was taken off HIAS’ Web site on July 7.

Others expressed surprise at a lay leader being named to serve as the agency’s chief professional, if only for three to six months while a search for a long-term executive takes place.

Glickman came to HIAS after serving as the top career official at the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services.

At HIAS, he was credited with moving the organization beyond immigration efforts in the former Soviet Union and toward Africa, Kosovo and other troubled areas. He also helped push the Jewish community to aid other religious minorities throughout the world and was a leader on immigration projects worldwide.

The main HIAS focus in the 1990s was rescuing tens of thousands of Jews each year from the former Soviet Union. It expanded its operations at that time to meet demand.

The operation peaked in 1992, when HIAS resettled 46,379 refugees — almost all from the former Soviet Union, according to its Web site. In contrast, HIAS resettled only 2,305 refugees in 2004, including 1,339 from the former Soviet Union.

The Russia mission was always supposed to wind down at some point, HIAS officials said, and the organization has since focused its attention elsewhere.

As the number of people to be rescued decreases, HIAS is left with a smaller agenda, and it has been struggling to communicate a vision for the 21st century. After broadening its scope to help more non-Jews come to the United States, it has faced criticism from some in the Jewish community who say it should be helping only Jews.

Teller said the organization remains concerned about the plight of religious minorities in Iran, including 30,000 Jews, and it is the only State Department-funded processing agency for Iranians arriving in Vienna, which has served for decades as a migration way station.

Last year, 183 Jews were resettled from Iran, as well as 19 Christians, 88 Bahais and 12 Zoroastrians.

HIAS has also relocated Jews from Argentina — which has faced a severe economic crisis in recent years — to more than 20 different countries.

The organization made headlines in June 2003 when Rachel Zelon, then its vice president for program operations, traveled to Iraq a month after Saddam Hussein’s regime was defeated to meet with the handful of Jews that remain in the country. Zelon has since left the agency.

HIAS currently is working to aid emigrants from Kenya, the Ukraine and Ecuador, Teller said.

He said 80 percent of operational efforts are focused on Jewish migration. But because HIAS receives funds from the Jewish federations — as well as the U.S. government — the broader mission has met with some criticism.

“There are some who have and still believe the organization should focus on Jewish migration,” said Mark Levin, director of the NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

“And there are others in the community who believe it’s important that a well-respected Jewish organization be a part of the larger refugee community and participate in not just crises but the day-to-day problems.”

Some in the Jewish community are opposed to open immigration because of its effect on other domestic issues and because some immigrant communities oppose U.S. support for Israel, said Mark Seal, who served as HIAS’ associate executive vice president from 1992 to 1998.

Seal said HIAS has been criticized in recent years by other Jewish groups because it did not spend enough effort showing how its work — especially on behalf on non-Jews — impacts the greater Jewish community.

“I didn’t get the sense HIAS did enough work on the Jewish grass roots,” Seal said. “They got too focused on Washington.”

Jewish leaders said the organization has been able to build bridges to other religious minority immigration groups, including Asians and Hispanics. Its focus on immigration policy and the plight of non-Jews will strengthen Jewish ties with other religious groups and serves the biblical commandment of “helping the stranger,” they say.

“We don’t operate in a vacuum,” Levin said. “As Jews, we try to take care of ourselves and provide as much support as we need. But as has been demonstrated time and time again, we are much more effective and successful when we can demonstrate a broad-based coalition in support of our community’s goals and aims.”

Teller said the organization must remain alert to any potential threats to Jews around the world. He even suggested that Jews may be in danger in France because of the growth of the country’s Muslim population and a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents.

It’s not inconceivable that French Jews could one day seek asylum in the United States, he said.

“To suggest this is an antiquated need is not consistent with what has happened to us over the last 125 years,” Teller said. “And frankly, it’s naive.”

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