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Ambassador of the Jews

Gershon Burstyn

Malcolm Hoenlein's 32-year career representing the interests of the Jewish People and Israel to US presidents, Arab kings, and European prime ministers. An exclusive interview

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

 Mishpacha image

“I’ve always believed that Jews cannot live at the sufferance of others, that we have to control our own fate,” he says. “That means we have to understand the political system. So I tried to get the best degrees possible because I knew the opposition I would face, as a frum Jew, as an activist. But I think that much of my motivation is because of the Shoah. I lost my grandparents on both sides and much of my family. So I know that, being honest with myself, that is a motivation” (Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Meir Haltovsky, Personal archives)

If Malcolm Hoenein were a boxer, he’d be the heavyweight who keeps moving forward, the fighter who doesn’t care how many times you hit him, the guy who bets that you’re going to tire out before he goes down.

Now, three decades after he became executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he’s announced that he’s looking for a successor, someone to take over the day-to-day operations so that he can focus on the big picture. It’s not that he’s slowing down, he insists, it’s just that 18-hour days over 32 years means that he’d now like to shift his focus slightly to do more “external stuff.”

It means, in a nutshell, that Hoenlein will be stepping out of his well-formed role, the place so many of us are used to seeing him. As such, it’s a good time to look back and reflect on his long years of service.

Jewish Power

Malcolm Hoenlein was born in Philadelphia to German-Jewish parents who fled Europe during the war years. His father used a laissez-passer to travel from his native Frankfurt to Switzerland, then on to Holland on the last boat out in 1942. His mother, passing as a gentile, smuggled herself out of Germany into France, then made her way to Cherbourg, where she grabbed a boat for America. His parents, who had originally met in Switzerland when his father went in for an appendectomy (his mother was the operating room nurse) married in Philadelphia.

Hoenlein attended a yeshivah ketanah and then the relatively new Philadelphia yeshivah, where Rav Elya Svei and Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky were big influences.

“Rav Elya and ybdlcht”a Rav Shmuel had a strong impact on me,” Hoenlein told Mishpacha. “I still see Rav Shmuel at simchahs, and it’s always nice. Besides my old Camp Munk friends, he’s the only one who calls me by my real name, Yitzchok.”

Hoenlein went on to Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a PhD in international relations. During that time, he emerged as a student leader who helped to found the North American Union of Jewish Students and later served as the first American leader of the World Union of Jewish Students.

"“The one precondition that HaKadosh Baruch Hu set for every neis that happened to the Jewish People was achdus"

After that, he took a job as the executive director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry and later the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. In 1986, he joined the Conference. 

Looking back, he says it’s clear that his parents’ wartime experiences had a profound impact on him, a story that would propel him toward a life of public service.

“I’ve always believed that Jews cannot live at the sufferance of others, that we have to control our own fate,” he says. “That means we have to understand the political system. So I tried to get the best degrees possible because I knew the opposition I would face, as a frum Jew, as an activist. But I think that much of my motivation is because of the Shoah. I lost my grandparents on both sides and much of my family. So I know that, being honest with myself, that is a motivation.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 708)

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