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Machers in Meltdown

A financial scandal at the World Jewish Congress has exposed deep political schisms and changed the focus from fighting for world Jewry to infighting. Can the house that Edgar Bronfman built be put back in order?

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Stephen Herbits has suddenly gotten angry. For the past hour, as a picturesque evening snow fell lightly on Madison Avenue, he has talked expansively about his background as a Washington insider, his twenty years as a key Seagram’s executive, and his current role as secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress.

Then I mention that several people from other Jewish organizations have said they were not at all surprised by the difficulties the World Jewish Congress has been facing, that its weak administration and sloppy record-keeping were an open secret. The WJC was, according to one insider, “a volcano waiting to erupt.”

Herbits, a tall, lean 62-year-old with gray hair and a gray beard, nearly levitates out of his chair, instantly going ballistic.

“As you talk to the leaders of the other Jewish organizations, check their accomplishments against their governance,” he says in a voice that’s rising to fill the room. “They’ve got perfect governance and no fucking accomplishments.

“If an investigation of Jewish organizational life takes place, I promise you that the last person standing will be Israel Singer,” he says, referring to the Brooklyn rabbi who is at the center of the controversy.

Since 1979, Singer and billionaire Edgar Bronfman have skillfully and productively run the powerful World Jewish Congress. But for the past eighteen months, the WJC has been embroiled in a vicious internal battle, fueled by money, politics, and vast egos. The fight has been so acrimonious and mean-spirited that it threatens the very existence of the 68-year-old institution.

Accusations of mismanagement, bizarre bank transactions, stolen e-mails and computer files, intimidation, and cover-ups, which stretch from New York to Geneva to Jerusalem, have reached a decibel level that has attracted the attention of the New York State attorney general’s office, which is in the midst of a preliminary investigation. Though the attacks focus mostly on Singer, Herbits, a longtime employee of Bronfman’s who was brought onboard six months ago to manage the crisis, seems to take it very personally. “There are no illegalities in Israel Singer’s behavior, and that is not true of some of the leaders of these other organizations,” he says, standing now.

“I know it and they know it and they better be careful, because if they cause enough problems in the press, then this organization won’t be the only one that has a preliminary inquiry from the attorney general’s office. Then you’ll see some real fireworks.”

Though the accusations he makes about other Jewish organizations are serious and sweeping—false IRS filings, misuse of funds, “outlandish” benefits packages, and lying to the government—Herbits refuses to name names. “You’re not going to get me to do that,” he snaps. “I’m not going to play that game.”

But given the chance, he doesn’t back down. Instead he ratchets up the rhetoric a notch. “I’m not going to sit by and let this organization take the rap for their behavior,” he says. “If we get into that kind of pissing match, this organization ain’t going down by itself.”

The man who built the organization, Edgar Bronfman, the street-smart, sometimes coarse, bullying businessman who took over the Seagram liquor dynasty started by his father, Sam, is commonly regarded as the king of Jewish philanthropy. In fact, there are some people who would simply call him king of the Jews.

Since he rescued the World Jewish Congress from the edge of extinction more than two decades ago, Bronfman, 75, has been its president, chief benefactor, and guiding force. Israel Singer has been with him since the beginning—he was a staff member in the New York office when Bronfman entered the picture, and the two formed an immediate bond. For the past 25 years, Bronfman and Singer have been the odd couple of organized Jewish life. Bronfman, the verbally clumsy, secular billionaire, who has been married five times to four different women (he even named one of his seven children Edgar Jr., a huge no-no for Jews of European ancestry), and Singer, the polished, smooth-talking Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn who can, as one acquaintance put it without even a hint of irony, “sell sand to the Arabs.”

It is, according to people who know them, an unusual, interdependent relationship. “Bronfman sees Singer as his ticket to redemption,” says one peer. “Having been a secular Jew most of his life, he decided rather late that Judaism mattered to him, and Singer has, if you will, koshered him.”

For his part, Singer gets extraordinary access, which he has skillfully maximized to become one of the most powerful people in the organized Jewish world. In addition to the influence he wields as putative head of the WJC, he is president of the Claims Conference, which oversees distribution of German reparations, and chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which handles Holocaust money from other countries like Poland and Switzerland. Thus Singer effectively controls billions of dollars of Holocaust-related funds.


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