The Jerusalem Post has put together its annual list of '50 most influential Jews' who have impacted the world last year, and have the potential to affect change in years to come.
Bringing justice for the Jews and insurance for the future
At the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, addressing survivors on the same ground where they suffered their worst atrocities, Ronald Lauder gave an impassioned speech on the fortitude of the Jewish people.
In the presence of many leaders of the free world, the World Jewish Congress president praised the survivors for refusing to be labeled victims or to let the world ignore them. They chose life – to continue on, to rebuild the Jewish people and see their children grow up to be doctors, lawyers, scholars and artists. But, he warned, while Jews are looking to the future, the world is regressing.
“To be here at Bergen-Belsen and shout against the past while doing nothing about the present is not just wrong, it is outrageous and it is immoral,” he lectured. “But there is a big difference between 2015 and the past. Today, there is a vibrant and powerful Jewish State of Israel that has proven again and again its capacity to defend itself and Jews everywhere. And there is a strong and active World Jewish Congress that will not let these threats go unchallenged.”
Lauder was born in New York City in 1944 to Estee and John Lauder of the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire. His fortune came from his parents’ company and his own business ventures in telecommunications. Yet his activism in the Jewish world only began after he finished his ambassadorship in Austria, where he served from 1986 to 1987. In an interview with Forbes magazine in March, Lauder said that the Austrian media had used him as a scapegoat to criticize the US administration and had referred to his Jewishness in satire and criticism.
“Frankly, it helped make me Jewish,” he told the magazine.
After his service, Lauder started his own philanthropic foundation, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, dedicated to rebuilding devastated Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe.
Today there are 37 Jewish schools, summer camps and community centers in 10 countries that were devastated by the Holocaust.
He is a stalwart advocate of Israel, maintaining loudly and clearly that anti-Israel sentiment is anti-Semitism. In the Forbes interview, he recounted a meeting with former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in which the South American leader had claimed he was not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israel. “‘Who do you think lives in Israel? Martians?’” Lauder recalled responding.
“You can’t be anti-Israel and pro-Jewish.”
Lauder has built up an impressive resume of philanthropic and Jewish activism. He was chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, president of the Jewish National Fund, and chairman of the International Public Committee of the World Jewish Restitution Organization. He was first elected president of the WJC in 2007 and reelected for a second four-year term in 2013.
He is also a lucrative patron of the arts, known to have a collection worth $1 billion. But he’s parlayed this into seeking justice for Holocaust survivors: He is a strong advocate for the return of art that the Nazis stole from Jewish families.Malcolm Hoenlein
Conference of Presidents chief with the ear of US power brokers
As leader of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein has the ear of the president, senior administration officials and federal and state government officeholders across the United States.
The Conference of Presidents, which represents over 50 Jewish organizations nationwide – on both the Left and Right, with religious and secular concerns – was founded in the late 1950s at the behest of then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower in order to give the American government a central address for dealing with Jewish communal concerns.
To this day, it serves as the primary conduit for American Jews to pass on their concerns to the executive branch.
As executive vice chairman since 1986, Hoenlein has been praised for running a tight ship – making important progress for his constituents while maintaining a streamlined staff and a small office. First introduced to communal advocacy during the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the 1970s, he is one of the founders of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, as well as the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
While at the helm of the Presidents’ Conference, Hoenlein has stepped up efforts to reach out to younger Jews through the use of social media, and has introduced American celebrities to Israel to help counter efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state. He has been at the forefront of establishing a dialogue between the Jewish Federation system and law enforcement agencies via the Secure Community Network, and he maintains close relations with top federal lawmen.
Asked during a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post what the highest priorities were for the wide-ranging coalition of Jewish groups he represents, he replied that the Iranian nuclear program, along with the Islamic Republic’s “destabilizing role” throughout the Middle East and other regions (such as South America), was one of the most important issues facing the Conference of Presidents today.
Aside from that, he said, “I think one of the issues we are dealing with obviously is US-Israel relations and always making sure that it is on a solid footing. The American public understands why the relationship is so important to both sides, and then we are dealing in that context with trying to get Israel’s message across, fighting BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] on the campuses, and the delegitimizing campaign which today is a more serious [threat] perhaps. We see a rise in anti-Semitism in a lot of places. We’ve seen the rise of anti-Semitic incidents on American campuses and anti-Israel incidents, physical assaults against Jews and Jewish institutions.”Natan Sharansky
A champion of Jewish identity
Standing in the arrivals hall of Ben-Gurion Airport, I watch Natan Sharansky excitedly pull an older gentleman up to me, explaining that he went to school with this recently arrived war refugee from eastern Ukraine.
A native of Donetsk – now the site of a Russian- backed separatist uprising against Kiev – Sharansky grew up under the Soviet communist regime and lost his small freedoms due to his agitation for the right of Jews to emigrate. One of Russia’s most visible refuseniks, he was sent to the gulag and became a symbol for the fight for Soviet Jewry.
Freed in 1986, he made aliya, and following the subsequent mass immigration of Soviet Jews, he founded the Yisrael B’Aliya party (which later merged with the Likud) to represent his countrymen in a new land. He also served in several ministerial positions, including Diaspora affairs.
Sharansky’s intellectual influence both within Israel and abroad has spread further thanks to the publication of his book The Case for Democracy, which he co-wrote with Ron Dermer and which former US president George W. Bush endorsed. The book called for a foreign policy based on the promotion of democracy, and his “3Ds” definition of anti-Semitism has become the standard test among Jews for determining the appropriateness of critiques of their state.
According to Sharansky, criticism that consists of demonization (“when Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion”), double standards (“when criticism of Israel is applied selectively”) and delegitimization (“when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied”) is undoubtedly anti-Semitic.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom winner has also been involved in the promotion of aliya, and has been the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel since 2009. Under his leadership and a new strategic plan, the agency’s aliya department ceased to exist as a standalone unit; it merged with other departments, and the agency has shifted much of its focus to promoting Jewish identity abroad – a prerequisite for aliya from the West, Sharansky believes.
His high standing among Jews of various political and religious inclinations, both in Israel and abroad, led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint him as the one to attempt a breakthrough in the deadlock over non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall. In 2013, Sharansky suggested the establishment of an egalitarian section at the site.
Since then, he has worked on bringing Diaspora and Israeli Jews closer together. He has engaged in talks with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Federations of North America to establish a government- funded initiative to promote Jewish identity abroad.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post last year, he decried the mutual “paternalism” with which he believes both sides have approached each other in the past, explaining that it is “very important and in the interests of Israel to have a strong Jewish identity in the Diaspora.”Moshe Kantor
Europe’s stalwart against rising anti-Semitism
A visit to Moshe Kantor’s Herzliya home is like entering an oasis of tranquility.
The various shades of cream and caramel, high ceilings and priceless artwork adorning the walls not only prove the man’s notable wealth (estimated at a whopping $2 billion according to Forbes), but offer a stark contrast to the grim realities he faces on a daily basis as leader of the European Jewish Congress: the alarming rise of anti-Semitism that is sweeping the continent.
The statistics are in, and the results are dire. According to figures provided by his Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University, there were a total of 766 recorded cases of violent anti-Semitic acts in Europe in 2013 – a figure that is 38 percent higher than the previous year. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the attacks in Toulouse and Paris’s Hyper Cacher market, France saw the biggest uptick in registered attacks, noting 164 documented cases in 2013.
However, Kantor points out, these numbers don’t provide the entire picture. “[The Kantor Center] only documents severe cases and attacks, but anti-Semitism is a much wider phenomenon.”
The Community Security Trust, a London-based nonprofit which meticulously documents a wide range of anti-Semitic acts, notes 1,000 more cases than the Kantor Center because it takes into account threats and incitement in addition to acts of violence.
While CST data in the UK are accurate and precise, the rest of the continent can’t say the same. This means there are hundreds of cases where Jews are under threat and the incidents are not reported. Such a troubling discrepancy in data also reveals an unfortunate pattern of behavior among European Jewry: the hesitance to speak out.
“Our people are not so brave to report every time when they are attacked. It’s the usual Diaspora tradition, not to report every incident. Sometimes, even the majority of people think, ‘Maybe it’s better to wait, maybe it’s better to be more cautious and not to speak too soon’ – all in the hopes the problems will disappear,” Kantor lamented.
That anti-Jewish sentiment is not being ignored in Jewish homes, according to Kantor.
“There is no such thing as a family in Europe that is not thinking about an exodus,” he said plainly. “I’m not saying they have made their decision, but they are all thinking about it; either about themselves, or their kids, or the young generation – but they are thinking about it.”
European Jewish leaders, in his view, have downplayed such threats and have suggested Kantor and his ilk are exaggerating.
“The majority of leaders in Europe, they think we are exaggerating the problem. My business and the business of my colleagues is to explain to them that we are not exaggerating at all.”
To that end, for the past five years, Kantor and the EJC have worked on altering European legislation in order curb the uptick of anti-Semitic acts.
The EJC, in conjunction with the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, drafted the Model European Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance in the hopes that European legislatures would adopt its measures.
While results are slow to come by, the Romanian parliament is expected to be the first European country to adopt the law.
“In 40 years, I think we’ll have results,” he said, exaggerating for comedic effect. “That’s why we Jews have to live long, our people are very slow,” he added, chuckling ruefully.
At its core, the law hopes to curb anti-Semitic acts before they turn violent; in other words, hate speech, rhetoric and incitement is a crime in and of itself. “The idea is not to limit the main freedoms and democratic priorities, it should protect them,” he clarified, assuring that such a law should not and will not infringe on free speech.
“The principal challenge in preparing the Model Statute was to go beyond rhetoric and generalities, spelling out concrete obligations that ensure tolerance and stamp out intolerance,” the statute’s summary statement read.
The legal system must be overhauled – and soon – before Jews completely isolate themselves from the rest of European society for fear of being attacked. “We Jews are already putting ourselves in the ghettos voluntarily. The thickness of the doors in my children’s schools [in London] is a 21-centimeter iron door. If a mother brings her kids, only a bodyguard helps her open the door,” he detailed.
He hopes the law will allow Jews to have greater agency over their own security, all while operating within their country’s legal framework.
“We should understand one thing: The time when it was enough to be reactive is over, now it’s time to be proactive,” he said forcefully.
The law aims to be implemented not only in terms of security and legal justice, but in the classrooms as well. Because education is a fundamental part of teaching students how to interact with one another, Section 8 of the model calls on governments to implement a curriculum that will “introduce courses encouraging students to accept diversity and [promote] a climate of tolerance.”
To that end, he has launched a pilot program in UK schools called Secure Tolerance (“To be modest, you can call it the Kantor Program,” he joked).
“In the simplest terms, the purpose is to explain to students what are the limits of tolerance – who should be tolerated, what should be tolerated and what should not,” he explained.
A lecture titled “Charms and Challenges of Otherness: How Tolerance and Security Make a Difference in the World” was first presented at Britain’s Durham University.
he hopes the lecture, which was initially delivered by Mikhail Epstein – professor of Russian and cultural theory, and director of the Center for Humanities Innovation at the university – will be integrated in curricula across the continent.
“As a tree starts to grow, you have to prepare the soil for this tree. And that soil is secure tolerance, and the soil is fertilized by knowledge,” Kantor described, in a metaphor that draws on his extensive knowledge from his day job – the head of Acron Group, a top mineral and fertilizer plant.
Kantor’s efforts are not going unnoticed.
Last March, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini penned a letter to the editor in the Italian daily La Repubblica, calling for an EU Task Force against anti-Semitism and transferring the authority of heading that task force to Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission.
“It’s a big responsibility he took on himself, but he’s a brilliant and very nice person, and we rely on him very much. Everything is in his hands,” Kantor said of Timmermans and his role.
Kantor, for his part, understands that an NGO can only do so much, especially when combating the ever-growing and widespread threat of radical Islam. “[Radical Islam] is so widespread.
I compare this phenomenon to the danger of nuclear proliferation,” he averred.
When it comes to the subject of the day – a nuclear Iran – he is well-versed on this issue as well.
As the president of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe, he has lent his unequivocal support to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to sound the alarm bells against the P5+1 world powers’ deal with Tehran, set to be finalized next month.
“You know, every Jewish leader should have a vision.
You know you are a leader with no vision if you start something that is not supported at all. If you are not able to start something, you are not a leader; you are a political animal at best,” he asserted. “Bibi [Netanyahu] definitely has vision… And his vision that Iran was, is and will be the biggest problem of Israel and all other things are secondary – this is his vision.”
“That’s why he’s the most appreciated leader, in my view,” he replied, when asked for his thoughts on the Magazine’s most influential man of the year.
“I thought you were talking about me!” he guffawed, after it was clarified that Netanyahu, and not Kantor himself, will grace the top spot. “There’s always next year,” this reporter assured him.
But considering everything he has accomplished – and will accomplish – it seems a numerical ranking is the last thing on the Jewish leader’s mind.Lynn Schusterman
The philanthropist dedicated to uniting Jews worldwide
It was a family trip, traveling from Oklahoma City to the cobblestoned streets and ancient archways of Jerusalem, that cemented Lynn Schusterman’s connection to the Jewish people.
“Ever since that moment, I have felt that all Jews should have the opportunity to experience that feeling of community and connectedness to each other and to Israel,” Schusterman wrote in an email to The Jerusalem Post.
Schusterman, 76 and of German-Jewish ancestry, is the head of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which she established with her husband. The main goals of the foundation and its many offshoots, including the Schusterman-Israel Foundation, the ROI Community, a network of young Jewish leaders and entrepreneurs, and the Jerusalem Season of Culture are strengthening community, supporting arts and culture and child advocacy, and in the Israel branch, strengthening Jewish education and connection to Israel.
“Just as we rely on Israel as a continual source of inspiration and renewal, Israel relies on us,” Schusterman writes as explanation for her passion for helping young Jews experience Israel and strengthen their Jewish identity. “There is so much we can do to share Israel’s promise and potential, and to help people understand how the Jewish and human values upon which Israel was built – democracy, freedom of expression and progress through innovation – drive its creativity, complexity, beauty and depth.”
When Charles died in 2000, Lynn became the head of their philanthropic powerhouse. Forbes put her net worth at around $3.7 billion, made from her husband’s oil and gas company and other investments.
The philanthropic arm continues to grow and as one of the top 50 most influential Jews, Schusterman’s leadership, poise, wisdom and empathy are all qualities that benefit the organization and the Jewish people.Can you share a moment of professional hardship and how you overcame it?
When my husband, Charles, passed away in 2000, I took over as chair of our family’s foundation. As I was mourning his loss, I also had to keep the foundation moving forward and to chart a course into what was then a very male-dominated philanthropic world.
It was not easy; there were meetings where I was ignored, my comments and recommendations overlooked. But I was determined and, along the way, I benefited from the wisdom and partnership of many incredible role models and peers. I also learned to develop my own leadership style, to find the core issues on which to focus my energy and, perhaps most importantly, to develop a talented professional staff to help me guide the foundation into the 21st century.
My experience has taught me that women must play a major – and equal – role to that of men in shaping the Jewish future.
More women are rising to the highest positions in Jewish philanthropy and communal leadership and are helping to lead the way in Jewish innovation. Even more, we are currently raising a generation of smart, passionate, capable Jewish women – my own granddaughters included – who will influence and change our community in unimaginable and positive ways.In your opinion, are there fundamental qualities that unite the Jewish people, regardless of religious observance or cultural norms?
The Jewish people are very diverse, and I believe this rich tapestry of identities and experiences strengthens our community.
The strongest thread that binds us as a global people is our shared values: a commitment to repair the world, to serve others, to build strong families and communities, to ensure all have the opportunity to learn, to seek justice and to treat everyone with mercy, kindness, care and respect.
I am passionate about helping the next generation of Jews draw on these values to inform the way they work, love, live and give. I know that for young Jews, being Jewish is one aspect of a multifaceted identity that is constantly shifting as they develop new skills and talents. From one day to the next, they are students, social activists, global citizens, entrepreneurs, friends, siblings, partners – and also Jews.
I also know that young Jews today are eager to live purposeful lives, to make a positive impact and to be part of something larger than themselves.
I want them to see that Jewish values can be a driver for achieving these goals and that the universal values that inspire them to act as leaders are also Jewish values that emanate from the core of Jewish thought and tradition.What are the most important elements in empowering young entrepreneurs? Is it raising the capital for their project, or fostering opportunities for personal connections?
When I think about how best to support young Jewish entrepreneurs, I am reminded of a powerful maxim: Give a person a fish, feed her for a day. Teach her to fish, she can start a business and feed her family (and her community) for a lifetime.
I want to ensure young entrepreneurs learn to fish, which is why we place our emphasis on helping them to build the connections they need to be successful over the course of their careers.
Within the ROI Community, Schusterman’s global network of entrepreneurs and change-makers, we use the concept of “connect and create.”
We provide individuals with ongoing opportunities to expand their personal and strategic networks so they can form partnerships and offer each other the support and inspiration to test, scale and create new projects. These in-person experiences are further reinforced by professional development opportunities that can be customized to deepen the skills of the individual.
As I tell many young people in the Schusterman network, some ideas will succeed and some will not, but the partnerships and skills they gain along the way will prove essential not only to raising capital but to becoming leaders capable of creating substantive and lasting change.What are the benefits or hopeful outcomes of engaging non-Jews in connection to Israel and connection to the Jewish people? Who are the people advocating for Israel that Jews should be aware of? Who are those speaking against Israel?
Israel is a fount of inspiration for people regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. A spiritual center and a leader in technology, entrepreneurship, business, science and arts and culture, Israel attracts people of all backgrounds to learn, work, invest and explore.
It is incredible to see how deeply and personally Israel resonates with citizens and visitors. It is critical that we provide opportunities for people to engage with Israel and form connections based on their own interests and experiences, both so they will develop a lifelong relationship with Israel and also so they will share Israel with their peers, family and colleagues.
I was reminded of this recently when I spoke to a group of business students who were in Israel to intern with leading Israeli companies.
The students expressed how eager they were to spread the word to their friends and peers back home about all that Israel has to offer. It is these types of experiences and connections that will truly change the narrative around Israel on our campuses and in our communities.
On a broader scale, we also need to look at the influential voices of investors, artists and performers who have the potential and the platform to carry a powerful message about the values for which Israel stands. They can help to convey a richer, more nuanced perspective on Israel, just as those students are doing in their classrooms and on their campuses.What is your hope for Israel in the next 20 years, either internally or on the world stage – achievements, progress, innovations, or otherwise?
My greatest hope is that we will see a day when Israel will stand tall as a symbol of belonging across the Jewish world, and when global citizens will look to Jerusalem as the vibrant, modern, inclusive capital of Israel.
I hope we will see a day when Israel will be respected and appreciated as the Jewish homeland, and a full and legitimate modern state.
I hope we will see a day when Israel will be a natural part of media and academic discourse, covered from diverse perspectives by growing ranks of outstanding journalists and scholars.
Most importantly, I hope we will see a day when Israel can fulfill its calling as a light unto the nations and achieve the hopes and dreams of its citizens, of the Jewish community and of the world at large.Eric Fingerhut
Hillel’s helmsman empowering Jewish life on campus
Eric Fingerhut, president of Hillel International, is facing many challenges in guiding the world’s largest Jewish student organization. During his tenures as a congressman and senator for Ohio in the early 90s, the Cleveland native was a staunch advocate for affordable higher education. For Fingerhut, then, managing Hillel allows him to combine both his passion for education and strengthening the Jewish community. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, he lays out his vision for the future and details how the organization is dealing with debates about Israel and anti-Semitism on campus.Can you give an example of something in your life prior to your current position that deeply influenced you?
The value of higher education is really at the crux of my worldview. Like many Jews of my generation, I was the first in my family to earn a college degree.
As a public official, I witnessed the implosion of the Midwest’s industrial base in the 1990s. Jobs that could be performed by someone with just a high school education and could support a family were disappearing. I saw that expanding access to higher education – and raising aspirations – was critical for every family.
These experiences drive my focus to make sure Hillel provides the best opportunities for every student at every school, no matter where they are.How long have you held your current position, and can you describe some of the key issues you have faced?
I arrived at Stanford University on a Friday afternoon in 1981, and started walking around campus. Before I could locate any buildings that said “Hillel,” I heard voices singing [Friday-night prayer] Lecha Dodi. Although I had never been so far from where I’d grown up, I followed the familiar sounds and knew I was indeed home.
When the opportunity arose for me to lead Hillel International, I knew this would be a personal and professional home that would fit squarely within the issues closest to my heart.
My goal is to lead Hillel into its 10th decade with a renewed commitment to excellence, so that we remain a trusted address for Jewish campus life for another 100 years; finding ways to strengthen our ability to serve all Jewish students wherever they are located, and to build strong Jewish communities on campus.What do you see as Hillel’s major influence today?
Through our work in 18 countries, Hillel reaches more of the future leaders of the Jewish people than any other organization working with young Jewish adults.Hillel seems to find itself at a crossroads, being pushed and pulled and asked to make decisions on matters relating to Israel. Do you find this to be the case?
Hillel’s goal is to strengthen Jewish identity. One component of that is helping students build connections to the Jewish homeland and the global Jewish people. We teach about Israel and provide opportunities for students to get to know Israel and Israelis through our shared history, faith, culture and traditions.
Let me be clear: We believe that Israel is a Jewish value, but we are not a political organization. We work to deepen students’ understanding and connection to Israel so they will make this connection part of their lives. In the tradition of Hillel the Elder, after whom our organization is named, Hillel is a place where students can have open discussions and ask questions in a supportive environment where differing opinions are respected. We are proud of Hillel’s leadership in building a pluralistic community that is committed to Israel as the Jewish homeland, and nurtures diverse approaches to Jewish life.Many are getting the impression that Jewish students are feeling less connected to Israel, and also are more polarized on the issue. Is Israel the major issue facing Jewish students today?
There are two things happening simultaneously. First, Jewish student life is growing in numbers, in diversity and in quality.
It is simply amazing to see the wide range of programming occurring across the globe. Through religious, educational, social action and Israel-engagement activities, we see Jewish identity and connections being created and strengthened.
Second, there has been a concerted effort to delegitimize Israel on college campuses. This has put stress on the ability to have open conversations about some of the aspects of Israeli society that worry Israelis as well as Jews around the world.Are there some new Hillel initiatives you would like to highlight?
Hillel’s Drive to Excellence plan is working to strengthen our operations around the globe, including increasing the number of students we reach through our existing network of affiliates and increasing the number of Jewish educators working in the Hillel movement.
We also launched several new programmatic initiatives this year that deserve mention. The first is a major social justice initiative to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the American Civil Rights Movement, with special guest speakers and programming for students throughout the country. The program culminates this August during Hillel’s summer institute.
Hillel International is also partnering with the White House on the “It’s On Us” campaign, an initiative to support survivors of sexual assault and end rape culture on campus.Any other issues you’d like to discuss?
I am dismayed by increasing anti-Semitism on campus. The anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement creates a hostile environment for Jewish students. It has become one of my top priorities to assist administrators in recognizing the hate masquerading as political discourse on their campuses, and to work with them to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for Jewish students.
Hillel is strong and growing. Just this year, we were approached by 52 college and universities who want to create Hillels. This year, we launched Hillels of Germany to expand our impact to the Jewish students of Western Europe. People are clamoring for the Hillel brand to build and grow Jewish student life.
This is an exciting time to be a part of the global Hillel movement.Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
A bridge-builder for interfaith cooperation
As founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein has emerged as one of the most influential Jews in several countries – especially Israel, the US and Ukraine.
In America, Eckstein is best known as one of the primary bridges between the evangelical Christian Zionist community and the Jewish state, speaking at churches, promoting interfaith cooperation and raising millions in charitable contributions. Eckstein’s network of gentile supporters has become an important source of revenue for his operations in Israel and elsewhere, which have helped spread his influence.
Fellowship donations have financed the establishment of Nefesh B’Nefesh, Ethiopian aliya through the Jewish Agency and social services programs throughout Israel, which have earned him the moniker of “The Jewish state’s unofficial welfare minister.” The IFCJ also runs numerous programs providing hot meals and warm clothes to Israel’s poor, including the country’s large population of Holocaust survivors, among other projects.
In Ukraine, the fellowship has spent millions on resettling and providing for Jews displaced by their country’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists, funneling aid money through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Chabad.
Eckstein has proved a controversial figure as well, with many among the fervently Orthodox opposed to his close ties with Christians and his willingness to enter churches, something forbidden by many rabbis. He also recently had a very public falling-out with the Jewish Agency, on whose board of governors he sits, establishing his own rival immigration program to bring Jews from Ukraine to Israel.
Eckstein has since brought four “Freedom Flights” from Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk to Ben-Gurion Airport.
Love it or hate it, however, Eckstein’s influence is an undeniable fact of life in Jewish communities around the world.Vladimir Sloutsker
Consolidating world Jewry, boosting Israel-EU ties
Vladimir Sloutsker is co-founder and president of the Israeli-Jewish Congress and chairman of the management board of European Friends of Israel, one of the largest and most influential pro-Israel parliamentary groups in Europe, with over 1,500 MPs from across the entire political spectrum.
From 2002 to 2010 he was a senator in the Russian Federation Senate, and from 2004 to 2006 served as president of the Russian Jewish Congress.
Through EFI, which was founded in 2006, Sloutsker has led the organization to cultivate relationships with parliamentary friends and potential new allies of Israel across the EU and member states, monitor legislation that impacts relations between Israel and the EU, and defend and promote the State of Israel in Europe.
EFI has also helped raise awareness of the Iranian nuclear threat, presented Israel’s perspective on the conflict with the Palestinians and helped ward off BDS efforts, while also working to strengthen trade, research and scientific cooperation between Israel and Europe.
The goal of IJC, an independent Israel-based organization, is to “promote the principle of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and strengthen ties between Israel and the Diaspora, especially in Europe, by creating a bridge to the Jewish state and giving the European Jewish community a voice with Israeli lawmakers and officials.”
Or, as Sloutsker puts it, “We need consolidation and consolidation and consolidation.”
IJC has led a number of solidarity gatherings and delegations to Israel by European Jewish leaders, and today is especially active in collaborating with them to combat surging anti-Semitism in Europe.
In 2013, EFI and IJC helped relaunch the European Forum of the Knesset, to strengthen relations between Israel and Europe on a diplomatic level. IJC has also established, together with the Jewish Federations of North America, a permanent trilateral dialogue between the Jewish communities of Europe, North America and Israel to address the pressing challenges of rising anti-Semitism and delegitimization, and strengthen Jewish life and connection to Israel, so that the “communities feel they are one people with Israel,” according to Sloutsker.
In June, the IJC will host its fifth international gathering and solidarity mission to Israel of senior European Jewish leaders and heads of communities, from over 25 countries.Elie Wiesel
Stirring the world’s conscience
The year is 1945. The place is Paris. Europe has been destroyed and is licking its wounds. The Nazi army has just been defeated, and six million Jews have perished. Refugees and survivors of the extermination camps and the valleys of death find their way to Europe’s smoldering cities. A scared and lonely Jewish boy pads along the streets of Paris, sick and weak, hungry for bread. He doesn’t know a single soul in this big city, nor does he speak the language or have a penny to his name. All he has are the disturbing dreams of a boy who survived the inferno that killed his parents and little sister.
The terrible memories cling to him, not granting him even a moment of rest. He swears he will wait 10 years and then tell the entire world what happened on that dark night. The world must know; humanity must learn a lesson.
Ten years later, 1955. He sits, closed inside a tiny cabin on a ship from Marseilles to Buenos Aires, writing frantically.
Every few hours, he climbs up to the deck to gulp a few breaths of fresh air and then scurries back to his cabin, where he has visions of his hometown, Sighet, and how its entire Jewish community was deported to Auschwitz.
He manages to write 800 pages in Yiddish in his cramped handwriting, pages in which he describes the most terrible sights and horrific experiences in the world, all of which he experienced in less than one year.
These pages will later become part of the most popular book ever written about the Holocaust: Night. The author will have become the ultimate witness, a living memorial.
Ten years later, 1965. The journey that altered the fate of Russian Jewry. The New York Jewish community discovers the young journalist who writes for an Israeli newspaper in the US. The community is in need of just such a Jewish persona. He begins struggling in pursuit of two separate goals, which turn him into the most famous and influential Jewish figure in the US. He’s fighting to keep the memory of our past alive – the Holocaust – and at the same time to secure our future – Soviet Jewry. Of the 57 books he ultimately authors, the two that touch him on a profound personal level, Night and The Jews of Silence, sell in bookshops like hotcakes.
Elie Wiesel begins traveling around America and the globe to teach about the Holocaust and to save the Jews locked behind the Iron Curtain. Over the next 50 years, he will give lectures, talk about his books on radio and TV programs, and wake up the world’s conscience. He’ll encourage American Jews to ponder what freedom is and to ask questions. Wiesel will challenge society’s ideas about morality, faith and human rights. Although he is bombarded with questions, he refuses to offer solutions or give answers. Instead, he asks the millions of people reading his books and listening to his lectures to reflect upon these ideas together, to ask questions and ponder the ideas.
1965 was the year that the world conscience had a breakthrough. In 1978 the President’s Commission on the Holocaust was established, and in 1985 Wiesel confronted US president Ronald Reagan in the White House for visiting the Bitburg cemetery. In 1986 Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize, and the rest is history.
Wiesel speaks softly, as if he is constantly whispering important secrets. The publicity, fame and constant accolades he has received over the years have not changed him, nor have the hundreds of awards altered the way he teaches his students. He has affected millions – maybe even tens of millions – of people worldwide with his teachings.
Wiesel’s faith in his mission has not let him rest, even for a moment.Contributors: Laura Kelly, Sam Sokol, Noa Amouyal, Seth J. Frantzman, Steve Linde and Yoel Rappel (founder and director of the Elie Wiesel Archive at Boston University until April 2015).