The fact that Rabbi Marvin Hier is stepping back from his many years at the helm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center is a major transition in American Jewish leadership. While we have not always agreed — our politics are different, and we may diverge on some of our views of Israel — I have been a close observer of his work for the past 45 years and most especially in the past 25 years that I have lived in Los Angeles.
“Let others praise you and not your own tongue” was the advice of Proverbs. Thus, let us begin with praise.
Hier’s accomplishments have been monumental. He created something out of nothing. One can see what he has done merely by looking at Pico and Roxbury.
Hier’s accomplishments have been monumental. He created something out of nothing. One can see what he has done merely by looking at Pico and Roxbury. The Museum of Tolerance sits catty-corner to the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Adjacent to the Museum is the campus of Yeshiva University Los Angeles, not quite a university, but a significant Yeshiva high school for boys along with its sister institution on Robertson Boulevard for girls. None of these institutions existed before Hier came to LA, and none would have come into being without his vision, skill, drive and leadership.
Hier created the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish advocacy group that is unabashedly Zionist, leans toward the political right, and represents with pride and vigor the Orthodox community in which Hier is so deeply rooted. Its creation anticipated and modeled the arrival of the Orthodox community into the mainstream leadership of American Jewry and its claim to a rightful place in the American political scene.
Hier was a pioneer in the use of direct mail — remember those days? — and used this fundraising tool of the 1970s and ’80s to develop a constituency for the Center, to establish its credibility and its legitimacy. Jews and non-Jews supported his efforts and he could rightfully claim that he represented their views and spoke in their name, but always in his unique voice. He did it his way: It is said that Elizabeth Taylor offered to personally pay for his speech lessons so he could lose his decidedly New York (Lower East Side) accent. He refused. Instead, he continued to speak in the way he always had, making him an outsider—and an insider—in his adopted town of Hollywood. He showed that one need not conform in order to succeed. It also literally made his voice a unique one in LA and helped him stand out in Hollywood. He was attracted to the stars, but did not fully go native.
He was among the most empowered, if not the most empowered, Jewish executive in American Jewish life. He could speak freely and immediately without going through a whole host of committees and processes that seemingly delayed and even paralyzed other organizations. In the last century — the days before cell phones provided immediate access — being on the West Coast, he was at his desk when East Coast executives had gone home; thus, he could comment on late breaking stories, often to the consternation of the rival heads of other organizations who regarded a mention in The New York Times as gold in the bank. His voice often became the American Jewish voice even if it represented a view that differed from many in the American Jewish community.
His prestige was never higher than when he was invited to offer a prayer at the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump in 2017. According to exit polls, three out of four Orthodox Jews supported Trump while 75% of the Jewish community did not. His blessings, which looked so good to so many after the movement of the Embassy to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords, looked decidedly different after Charlottesville, after the manifestly false claims of a stolen election, after January 6th, and after dinner with Kayne West and company.
The Museum of Tolerance grew from one room in the Center into an institution that stood on its own. Well before any other institution, he linked the Holocaust to tolerance and to his credit reached well beyond his immediate comfort zone in the Orthodox Jewish community and many survivors to include other groups. He used the name Simon Wiesenthal as a badge of courage and for Holocaust credibility that he might not have obtained on his own. He faced criticism in those days that suggested he was diluting the uniqueness of the Holocaust, the singularity of the Jewish experience, equating rather than comparing and contrasting the Shoah with other genocides and other instances of mass murder. Again, Wiesenthal’s voice was his protection.
Let me cite two events. In 1997 the Museum of Tolerance hosted a 50th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. His teammate, famed Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe, spoke as did Tom Hawkins, the first Black man to play for Notre Dame. He understood the importance of that moment in 1947 when he was but a child in New York and its enduring importance to the United States and to tolerance itself.
Years later I was invited to speak on a panel with Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Father Ron Schmidt, S.J. after the showing of a profound and deeply religious film “The Labyrinth,” which was the written and artistic testimony of prisoner 432 at Auschwitz, Marian Kolodziej, who after a stroke broke 50 years of silence by offering his testimony, He experienced Auschwitz as a Polish Catholic, one who was deeply respectful of the Jewish experience even as he drew explicitly Christian iconography. Few Orthodox rabbis could have handled the event as spiritually as Rabbi Adlerstein and the Museum of Tolerance, which was, true to its name, tolerant and open. I became fast friends with Rev. Schmidt and deeply respectful of the openness of MOT.
Rabbi Hier did not work alone. I am fond of saying to all who will hear that Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center is the best number two man in the history of number two men: loyal, persistent, able, indefatigable. And Rabbi Meyer H. May has taken some of the fundraising burden off Hier’s back. Liebe Geft has been skillful and gracious as director of the MOT, Rick Trank has guided Moriah Films and the Center’s film productions, earning Academy Awards; Dr. Efraim Zuroff has played an essential role of assuming the legacy of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, going after the remaining Nazi war criminals with scholarship and boldness. As they have died, he has gone after Holocaust distortion and denial with equal vehemence. He also offered scholarly credentials to an unscholarly institution. And Mark Weitzman, who recently left to head the World Jewish Restitution Organization, skillfully and more diplomatically than his colleagues handled some essential diplomatic work for the Center. His major achievement, a central role in drafting IHRA’s antisemitism statement came outside of the formal rubric of his role in the Center. None are likely to succeed him as the search for Hier’s successor has begun, and a successor whose skillset and values align with the Center will not be easy to find.
Transitions are always challenging, but especially so when a major global institution must find a new leader.
Hier steps back with more tasks to complete. Transitions are always challenging, but especially so when a major global institution must find a new leader. The massive Museum in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, adjacent to Independence Park, has been plagued with endless delays, the latest being due to the COVID pandemic. Its title as the Museum of Tolerance is made more difficult as Jerusalem becomes ever more intolerant a city, divided in spirit even if united physically. Tolerance is desperately needed in Jerusalem, and in Israel. It will take all the imagination of creative thinkers and designers at the Museum to deal with the tension between religious and secular and between the various wings of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, not to mention the ever-present conflict with the Palestinians. In short, a Tolerance Museum in Jerusalem has become ever more urgent even as its task becomes ever more difficult.
Hier’s successor will have big shoes to fill; replacing a charismatic founder is never easy. He or she will need the support not just of the board, donors and the staff, but of the community as well.
Mishneh Avot 2:16 teaches us: “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” Rabbi Hier has completed countless projects and initiatives over more than four decades, and while the work is still not complete, it is to our benefit that he never desisted from it.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.
Michelle Starkman, M.A., MBA
Vice President, Communications
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