The congress is an international confederation of Jewish communities. There’s a European section, a Latin American section, and so on. These regional sections are made up of the Jewish communities in their part of the world. Other countries have officially recognized and designated Jewish communities—like the Board of Deputies in England and the Creif in France.
When Goldmann retired in the late seventies, he was briefly succeeded by Philip Klutznick, who went on to become Commerce secretary under President Carter. Bronfman took over in 1979. “He told me at the time,” says Leibler, “that he wanted the job for a year. He said he was not a religious Jew and being president of the congress for a year was his way of saying a kind of secular kaddish for his father. But he fell in love with it.”
It has always been an issue for the WJC that the one country other than Israel that matters most, the U.S., does not have an official Jewish community. Instead, it has a collection of Jewish organizations. To try to overcome this gap in the appearance of legitimacy, Bronfman moved the headquarters of the WJC from Europe to New York. (There is an American Jewish Congress, but it’s never been especially significant.)
“Rather than increasing their legitimacy,” says J. J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward , “they cut themselves off from their base. So, for the last twenty years, they’ve had a problem because they’re running this thing in New York that represents the Latin American Jewish Congress, the European Jewish Congress, and the Asian Pacific Jewish Congress.”
The shadow now cast on the World Jewish Congress is particularly difficult for Bronfman because it threatens to darken his legacy as a Jew, which he has worked tirelessly over the past quarter-century to build.
“You can make an issue out of this because it smells. It looks bad,” says Herbits. “But is there anything illegal? Is there anything criminal? Absolutely not.”
Bronfman belongs to one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, an impossibly elite gathering known as the “mega group.” It consists of about a dozen inconceivably rich Jews who get together several times a year—often in either Bronfman’s or Larry Tisch’s apartment—with an invited religious scholar to talk about ways to make Jewish culture in America better.
As part of the mega group’s work, Bronfman almost single-handedly revived Hillel, the campus organization for Jewish students that had become irrelevant. According to Singer, who agreed to speak to me one afternoon recently about anything other than the WJC dispute, Bronfman has visited more than 100 campuses in the past two or three years. The very successful Birthright program, which pays for young Jews to visit Israel, was also conceived and developed in these meetings.
Like some of the other members of the mega group, and many other assimilated Jews as well, Bronfman’s religious observance is as much a matter of personal style and taste as are the clothes he wears. He picks what appeals to him and ignores the rest. According to Singer, Bronfman has started his own shul, which meets in a social hall in his New York apartment building. Being a billionaire, he likes to run things his own way, and that includes religious services. “He doesn’t like the formal, ceremonial nature of most synagogues,” Singer says. “He likes the readings from the prayer books done and then explained and talked about.”
Similarly, though his diet is not kosher by any formal definition, like many Jews, he doesn’t eat what he refers to as “biblically prohibited” food, such as pork and shellfish. “He’s unsophisticated in his language and he probably needs help reading the Hebrew when he’s at a service,” says The Forward ’s Goldberg. “But he has a heart of gold and he will fly anywhere and do anything to help Jews.”
Separate and apart from whether he’s right or wrong, there is intense anger with Leibler in some quarters of the Jewish community. They blame him for this unseemly fight’s becoming public. Airing the dirty laundry of a scandalous internecine battle with plenty of craven behavior will always upset people, no matter what group or organization is being exposed. But the feeling is particularly acute in this instance because of the Swiss and the issue of Holocaust restitution.
Bronfman and Singer played a kind of high-wire act with the Swiss. The Swiss never liked the fact that an American billionaire was flying over in his private jet to plead the poverty of the Jewish people.
“It’s tough enough,” says Goldberg, “to say, ‘Give me money because of something your great-grandparents did two generations ago.’ The Swiss think that Bronfman and Singer shook them down. It has generated a lot of resentment against Jews, and it isn’t helpful when Isi Leibler then starts implying that the key people are stealing.”