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In a First, Federation Leader to Be Chairman of Presidents Conference

March 17, 2003
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No sooner had the umbrella group of American Jewish organizations nominated its new chairman than the White House summoned leaders of the 52-member group to an emergency meeting.

The purpose was to give the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations a chance to discuss President Bush’s surprise announcement that he would soon present a “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Contacted en route to last Friday’s meeting, the nominee to head the Presidents Conference, James Tisch, told JTA the delegation would do “more listening than delivering a message.”

The Presidents Conference speaks on behalf of Jewish groups, primarily on foreign affairs.

Tisch is chairman of the board of the United Jewish Communities — the umbrella organization of the North American Jewish federation system — and CEO of Loews Corp.

He was selected to head the group March 13 afternoon by a seven-member nominating committee that included representatives of the three major religious streams, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee and a former chairman of the Presidents Conference.

Other top contenders for the post were Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, and Leonard Cole, former chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“All of the candidates were very strong,” said Michael Bohnen, JCPA’s current chairman, who served on the nominating committee. “Jim was considered, based on his prior leadership positions in the Jewish community, including the leadership of the New York federation and United Jewish Communities, to be the strongest candidate.”

Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Committee for Labor Israel, said Tisch “brings in a local perspective, but he also has a knowledge of how things function on a national level,” Goodman said.

Last Friday’s White House meeting underscores the importance of the group’s role as the United States prepares for a possible war against Iraq and seeks to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As the group prepares to make the transition, many Presidents Conference members told JTA they don’t know Tisch’s personal politics.

“Many of us are not aware of the positions Jimmy Tisch holds on the Middle East, largely due to the fact that he is not a regular attendee at Conference of Presidents meetings,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

“We haven’t had a chance to hear questions he has asked, to get a sense of his position,” Klein said.

The full conference will vote on Tisch’s nomination April 30. If approved, he will succeed Mortimer Zuckerman for a one-year term beginning in June.

When asked his political positions, Tisch said, “my politics don’t matter.”

He pledged to “put my own opinions aside and really reflect the consensus of the organization.”

Given Tisch’s position at UJC, some Presidents Conference members suggested that his ascendancy could give the federation system undue influence over the Jewish organizational world.

But others downplayed the concern.

“We have to be very careful not to confuse the different mandates, as I would call them, of the two organizations,” said Shoshana Cardin, chairwoman of JTA’s board and a former chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents.

Noting that Tisch’s chairmanship would mark the first time a national federation chair would lead the Presidents Conference, she said, “people have to recognize that the two responsibilities are still separate.”

Some, in fact, said the appointment would be a benefit.

Tisch’s control over both the federations and the Presidents Conference would help unite the facets of North American Jewry, said Marlene Post, past president of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

She noted, too, that the overlap between the two positions is small. Tisch will relinquish his UJC post in November.

As UJC chair, Tisch represents an enormous constituency for the Presidents Conference, noted Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s executive vice chairman.

Some Presidents Conference members also say the Presidents Conference appears to favor wealthy candidates. Tisch is the third successive major philanthropist to lead the conference, following Zuckerman and Ronald Lauder.

Then again, several conference members noted, the chair must pay his own way for the extensive travel required for the position, and be financially secure enough to take a significant chunk of time away from his daily job.

Tisch is a scion of the family that owns the Loews Corp., which has holdings in Loews hotels, the Bulova Corporation, and Lorillard, Inc., an American tobacco company that produces major cigarette brands such as Newport, Kent and True.

Tisch’s tobacco connection inspired New York philanthropists Henry and Edith Everett to lobby against his appointment as UJC chair two years ago. Henry Everett is a member of JTA’s board of directors.

The Everetts charged that it was inappropriate for a national Jewish leader to have links to the tobacco industry. But few at the time joined the Everetts’ fight, and the issue apparently wasn’t a factor in the Presidents Conference choice.

“You have a lot of people in the Presidents Conference who smoke,” one member said. “I don’t think it’s a serious issue in terms of blocking Jim Tisch.”

Tisch has been heavily involved in Jewish communal affairs. He belongs to two New York synagogues, Central Synagogue and Kehilath Jeshurun, which are Reform and modern Orthodox, respectively.

He was president of UJA-Federation of New York and president of the Federation Employment and Guidance Service, a beneficiary of the New York federation.

His family has been a major philanthropic force in New York, supporting New York University’s School of the Arts and the university’s medical center.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Cornell University, where he majored in economics, Tisch holds an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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