Talking With Malcolm Hoenlein

imageNow in his twentieth year as executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization consisting of fifty-one national Jewish groups from across the religious and political spectrum, Malcolm Hoenlein, sixty-two, effectively serves as the voice of American Jewry on international and national concerns, representing its interests in the halls of Congress and the White House as well as in the media.

A child of Holocaust survivors, Hoenlein is a proud and knowledgeable Orthodox Jew, perhaps the most visible observant person on the national Jewish scene. Trained at the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, where he studied under Torah giants such as Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, and at Temple University, he did his doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania before pursuing his full-time passion: public service to the Jewish community.

For over three decades, he has been a driving force wherever he planted his flag—from the World Union of Jewish Students to the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry to the Jewish Community Relations Council.

But it is at the helm of the Conference of Presidents that Hoenlein has truly made his mark. Since the group works on the basis of consensus, his responsibility often entails navigating the intricate and knotty waters of Jewish organizational politics—which Hoenlein readily admits, is no easy task.

In a wide-ranging interview in his New York office with journalist Michael Freund, Hoenlein offered a glimpse into the world of high-powered Jewish diplomacy.

JA: Did you always know you wanted to run a major Jewish organization?

Hoenlein: I am a child of survivors who came to the United States from Germany. Most of their families did not make it out. I know that a lot of what I do is motivated by the Shoah. My parents worked very hard to get their families out, but I remember as a child when they got the notices that our loved ones had been killed. Although I was born toward the end of the War, I know that it is a driving force for me, and it always will be.

I knew all my life what I wanted to do, but it was also a calling. Everything that happened to me, every position I held—I believe was bashert. I had a passion for politics from a very young age. I knew that if Jews are going to make a difference, they had to have power, or at least, access to it. One of the reasons the Holocaust could happen is because, as Abba Eban put it, Jews had influence in many places but power in none.

I have always worked in umbrella organizations. I first got involved with the cause of Soviet Jewry in the sixties. I came to New York in 1971, when the Conference was created. We started a movement virtually from scratch, following the initial efforts of SSSJ [Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry] and others. I remember when we held the first solidarity rally for Soviet Jewry; it was against all the odds and predictions. There was so much opposition. Many people said it couldn’t work. But tens of thousands of people came to demonstrate; all of a sudden the event had a lot of mothers. But the success was that we created a broad-based movement, not just another organization. Then, when the JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council of New York] was established, I served as the foundation director. We built it into a very significant agency and pioneered many efforts. There, and later at the Conference, we lobbied on behalf of Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Syrian Jews and Russian Jews, and, baruch Hashem, we were able to play a role in many of the critical developments of the time.

JA: How did you become involved with the Conference of Presidents?

Hoenlein: In 1986, I was offered two positions: chief executive of UJA-Federation in New York and executive director of the Conference of Presidents. I was told I had to make a decision quickly, which extended to ten days. I got calls from everyone, from Israel’s prime minister to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, urging me to take one or the other position. On the day that I had to give the Federation an answer, I remember talking to my son—a young teenager at the time—and he asked me what the decision was all about. When I told him the Federation job offered a much higher salary, he said, “You are never going to do things for money. Go where you are really going to make a difference because that is what will make you happy.” And so I chose to come to the Conference. Now it is twenty years later, and I am still here.

JA: But what makes the Conference important?

Hoenlein: I think that it is very important because you need one table around which people representing diverse views can come and focus on what they have in common. We try to create an atmosphere where we can deal with the differences—with respect. And this doesn’t mean that you compromise on fundamental principles. That is why we do not deal with religious issues—you cannot deal with such issues on a consensus basis.

Our strength as a people rests with our unity. It is the key lesson of Jewish history. The one precondition of every nes [miracle] and every great thing that happened to the Jews was because of achdut, from Har Sinai to the rescue of Soviet Jewry. When Jews stand together, we can overcome every challenge.

The problem is that in the media, our divisions are amplified and the emphasis is always on our differences.

JA: What do you see as the role of the Orthodox Union?

Hoenlein: The OU is a very important body that represents one of the most committed constituencies that we have. And it has always been supportive of all the efforts I have been involved in, Soviet Jewry, Israel or whatever the cause. The OU has been an active member of the Conference since its founding, and its lay and professional leaders have played an important role in the Conference’s deliberations and actions. In fact, a former president of the OU—Julius Berman—served as chairman of the Conference. Whenever there is a need to mobilize the Jewish community, the OU is always at the forefront, as is NCSY, the OU’s youth movement. The OU’s Institute for Public Affairs has also made very substantive contributions over the years to many issues, like the Israeli MIAs, where it took the lead.

JA: At its recent Convention, the OU changed its policy to say that in exceptional circumstances it may differ in public from the policies of the Israeli government….

Hoenlein: Everybody has the right to examine the issues, to explore them, even to comment in a responsible way. But we have to remember that our words have consequences and when you decide to criticize the government of Israel, you have to consider the consequences. Those who don’t matter can say whatever they want. Organizations that count have to weigh their words and actions very carefully.

JA: You spoke before about the need for achdut, Jewish unity. Do you think that it is not just an idealistic goal, but also a realistic one?

Hoenlein: Absolutely. The problem is that in the media, our divisions are amplified and the emphasis is always on our differences. This only serves to drive the divisions deeper. We have to remember that our enemies don’t make the distinctions that we make among ourselves. In more than 90 percent of the cases, we are able to identify a common position.

JA: As you were climbing the ladder in Jewish organizational life, was the fact that you were Orthodox ever an obstacle?

Hoenlein: There were people who were not comfortable with the idea that an Orthodox Jew would assume this position. Many had limited exposure to Orthodox Jews or had stereotypical preconceptions. When I became the executive vice chairman of the Conference, Haaretz ran an article. It didn’t talk about my educational background or anything else. Instead, it said “He wears a kippah,” and readers automatically jumped to conclusions.

The fact is that today, there are Orthodox Jews who are presidents of organizations that aren’t necessarily Orthodox, and increasingly, there are Orthodox Jews who are involved in all aspects of community life.

Nevertheless, there were some people who told me later that they had a hard time digesting the idea that the executive director of the Conference wears a kippah when he goes to see the president of the United States. I had a serious discussion with one leader of the Conference and he said to me: “Don’t worry, that’s the critics’ problem. It will take time, but they will adjust to it.” I knew that it meant I had to prove myself to be more effective and more competent, which, in the end, may have been beneficial. By the way, no president, king or head of state seemed to have a problem with my yarmulke—many, in fact, seemed to appreciate it.

JA: Do your work and your observance ever get in the way of each other? For example, do you ever have to skip davening Minchah because you’re in a meeting with a world leader?

Hoenlein: There are cases in halachah that deal with situations when one is involved in matters that are vital to the interests of the community, and obviously sometimes I am. I have asked she’eilot about certain matters, but it’s a judgment you make on the spot. If it’s feasible to walk out and daven in a corner, I do. When I was saying Kaddish, I made minyanim in the strangest corridors around the world, even Muslim countries. I found people—Jews and non-Jews—generally to be accommodating and supportive.

JA: Do you have an actual pesak halachah that guides you?

Hoenlein: I have asked and continue to ask she’eilot, but there is no general rule. I know of circumstances where gedolim were involved themselves in certain actions on behalf of Klal Yisrael, where they did things which they would normally not do (including chillul Shabbat to raise money to rescue Jews during World War II). There are similar circumstances where there is something that is really important in doing my job, and you have to feel comfortable with the judgments you make.

JA: Have you ever had any problems in Muslim countries?

Hoenlein: No, never, but sometimes we’ve come away with great stories. Every year the Conference visits a different country that has significance for the Jewish community or for Israel, and that is key to our international concerns. Last year we went to Azerbaijan. On Shabbat we davened in the hotel and invited the local community to join us. We always try to give some of the aliyot to locals. It was Shabbat parashat Beshalach and we gave the final aliyah to an individual from Baku. As we called him up, the local rav said he would help him with the berachot. After the layning, the rav stepped back and said, “You have no idea what you just did. In this last aliyah we read about Amalek. The fellow to whom you gave this aliyah is Stalin’s great grandson! Recently, he has begun coming closer to Yiddishkeit, but this was his first aliyah.” [Stalin’s daughter-in-law was Jewish.]

In Kazakhstan, we brought a sefer Torah, as the community there had just dedicated a new shul. Reports on the dancing in the streets as we took the Torah to the shul appeared on local TV and on the front pages of the newspapers. We were told that as a result of that, numerous Jews who had always concealed their identities, and who didn’t even know of the existence of other Jews there, came forward and started identifying with the community.

JA: Do you ever have any problems with security at home that you are able to discuss?

Hoenlein: I believe that public officials should be accessible, so my phone number has always been listed. I’m a little bit more careful these days. Threats have been made against me, but my concern has been not for me but for my family. We all have to take precautions and consider the security implications. But you can’t lead a life where others are going to dictate what you do.

JA: Certainly not as a frum Jew when you are going to walk down the street to go to shul on Shabbat.

Hoenlein: Right. Shabbat is the biggest challenge of all. I do follow the suggestions that have been made to me, to vary my routes, et cetera, but the fact is you can’t live as a frum Jew and isolate yourself. Living in a frum community, however, as we do, provides an incredible support system.

JA: How do you deal with all the people who come up to you in shul and tell you what you should be saying or what you should be doing?

Hoenlein: I have to be careful with my answer here, as some of my neighbors are going to be reading this….

I don’t believe that Jewish leaders should be aloof and distant. So people always come up to me or stop me in the street or e-mail me to tell me what to say to the president, how to solve key problems and so on. Hearing what they have to say is a good reality check. Of course, there are certain people who just want to spark an argument—it doesn’t matter what side you are on, they just want to argue. But sometimes people do have good ideas and other points of view that should be heard. And I have communicated some of these opinions or suggestions to officials here and in Israel.

JA: In your position, what type of interaction do you have with rabbis?

Hoenlein: I have very close relationships with a lot of rabbanim, including roshei yeshivah, rebbes, et cetera. Many of them, from across the spectrum, came to my children’s weddings. I remember when I went to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who took a keen interest in communal issues, and in me. He knew what I was involved with in such detail—I was shocked. He started asking me about things that even my organization’s leaders didn’t know or didn’t follow as closely as he did.

Once, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said he would send a message to be read by his son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, at a solidarity rally for Soviet Jewry that we had organized for the following Sunday. Then he came under incredible pressure to withdraw the message. He called me on Friday and told me that he was getting pressured repeatedly from one particular rav. I said, “I don’t want the rosh yeshivah to be under pressure,” and we agreed to forego the message. He called me on Saturday night and said, “I’m sending the message.” After the event, he told me he would have regretted it had he not gone ahead and withstood the pressure. He did this despite his personal reservations about the efficacy of demonstrations.

Because he lived under Stalin, he had experienced the oppression, and he didn’t believe that you could influence the communists. There was one thing that he asked. “Don’t use tashmishei kedushah, such as tallitot, at rallies or at demonstrations, so as not to make religion the enemy; the Russians will always view them as a symbol of protest.” So we stopped using them; it was good advice.

I have seen how over and over again in my own experiences, at critical moments, I have said things to world leaders that I had never thought of previously.

JA: When you think back to some of your encounters with world leaders, are there any particular incidents that come to mind?

Hoenlein: Back when I was an executive at the JCRC, we arranged a meeting with Ronald Reagan to launch Jewish Heritage Week, which we initiated. This was then converted into the well-known meeting with Elie Wiesel about Bitburg, at which he told the president that “his place was not there.” Afterward, the president told me that when he served in the army during World War II, he worked in the film division. Upon his discharge, he took with him a movie reel about the concentration camps. He said, “I knew what I did was against the law, but I felt that at some time in the future, people would start raising questions as to whether this had ever happened. And I wanted to have the proof to show my children and others what actually happened in the concentration camps. I took this film, which I kept in my house, as a record to refute the deniers who are inevitably going to arise.” How prescient given what Ahmadinejad has said, and the recent Holocaust deniers conference.

JA: Do you think that Orthodox Jews nowadays are involved enough politically?

Hoenlein: No. More Orthodox Jews are getting involved in politics, and we see them contributing in more ways, but it is still far from enough.

JA: What about the younger generation—are they being given the tools they need to get involved?

Hoenlein: Unfortunately, we’re not educating the next generation to be involved. We don’t educate them enough about Israel. They don’t know the history, or the facts; they don’t know how to make the arguments, and they are lacking the confidence to speak up because of it. It’s true here and in Israel.

If young Israelis don’t think that Israel is holy and unique, why would they fight for it? If American Jewish kids don’t understand the legitimacy of Israel’s cause, and what Israel really means to them, why would they stand up to defend it? Both groups need to be educated.

We do see that many young people do have a special feeling, a special relationship to Israel. The youth are always disproportionately represented at pro-Israel activities. But we shouldn’t take our kids for granted and believe that they know what they need to.

JA: Would you recommend the field of Jewish public service as a career to young people?

Hoenlein: Ultimately, money will not provide true satisfaction in and of itself. What is rewarding is to know that you made a difference—that you can look back on your life and say, “God put me here for a purpose.” I have seen how over and over again in my own experiences, at critical moments, I have said things to world leaders that I had never thought of previously. I mean I heard the words coming out of my mouth at the same time as the person I was talking to heard them. And it made a difference.

I would say that kibbutz galuyot is among our greatest accomplishments. We played a critical role in the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, Russian Jews, Syrian Jews and Yemenite Jews and in helping Iranian Jewry. There is no greater reward than knowing that you impacted somebody’s life, that you made a difference, that maybe you helped save one Jew, let alone many Jews.

Mr. Freund served as an aide in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office to former premier Binyamin Netanyahu. He is currently chairman of Shavei Israel (, a Jerusalem-based group that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.

This article was featured in the Spring 2007 issue of Jewish Action.
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