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President Clinton Expected to Appoint Leading Rabbi to Head Holocaust Council

January 26, 2000
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Rabbi Irving Greenberg, an influential scholar and religious leader, is about to take another national position.

President Clinton is expected to appoint Greenberg to head the voluntary council overseeing operations at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, according to White House sources.

A longtime council member, Greenberg is an Orthodox rabbi best known in the Jewish community for his writings on the Holocaust and his leadership at two organizations that promote Jewish pluralism and learning: the Jewish Life Network and CLAL — National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Reached by phone at his home in Riverdale, N.Y., Monday night, Greenberg said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on the expected appointment at this point, but added, “For anybody, it would be an honor and privilege” to be named to such a position.

“This is an extraordinary institution and it obviously has accomplished a certain standing in American life,” said Greenberg.

The 66-year-old Greenberg would replace Miles Lerman, who — saying the organization needed “young blood” — recently resigned after six years as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

Since 1978, Lerman — who is a Holocaust survivor and nearly 80 years old – – was a driving force behind the museum’s creation.

Under his tenure the museum enjoyed a great deal of success. In its six years of operation, it attracted nearly 14 million visitors, 80 percent of whom were not Jewish.

But it also experienced a number of well-publicized controversies that tarnished the federal institution’s reputation. The museum came under fire two years ago for Lerman’s on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to visit the museum.

The subsequent ouster of the museum’s director, Walter Reich, proved to be another public relations disaster and was quickly followed by a barrage of criticism over the museum’s decision to hire Holocaust scholar John Roth to head its Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. Roth was assailed for controversial writings about Israel and ultimately turned down the post.

A study conducted last year, which had been ordered by a congressional subcommittee, concluded that the museum has been stifled by “excessive involvement” of the museum’s governing council in day-to-day operations and specifically criticized what it called Lerman’s tendency to “act unilaterally,” suggesting that he and others let go of the reins and allow the director to assume greater responsibilities.

The current director is Sara Bloomfield.

According to the New York Jewish Week, Lerman recommended Greenberg as his successor.

However, Lerman declined to comment on the appointment until it is officially announced.

The appointment is expected to be made official after a background check.

Although unwilling to speak of his own vision for the Holocaust museum before the appointment is official, Greenberg was full of praise for Lerman, saying that “the focus on controversy in the past year has obscured his contribution to the museum.”

Greenberg is not a survivor himself, but said the Holocaust has played a large role in his thinking. He is the author of “Clouds of Smoke, Pillars of Fire” as well as other writings on the theological implications of the Holocaust.

Like other American Jews, he lost members of his family who had remained in Europe.

He vividly recalls a time when he was a teen-ager and his parents got a visit from distant cousins, a mother and daughter who had survived Nazi mass shootings known as Einsatzgruppen shootings — mass shootings of Jews in the early 1940s — by falling into a pit with corpses then climbing out later.

“I remember my parents going to the other room to talk, and when they came out my mother clearly had been crying,” he said.

The fact that the museum attracts such a large number of non-Jews is a tribute to the “wisdom” of the American people, said Greenberg.

“This is not just a Jewish experience, but about the challenges of modernity and the dangers of power,” he said. “The whole American people senses they have to learn these lessons to prevent pathologies from destroying a culture.”

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