The Battle of Bronfman

You’d hardly think that a relatively small Jewish philanthropic organization could be worth all the fuss. But for two American-Jewish

You’d hardly think that a relatively small Jewish philanthropic organization could be worth all the fuss.

But for two American-Jewish dynasties who covet control of the World Jewish Congress, the Bronfmans and the Lauders, Monday, May 7, will go down as the day that saw one family’s ambitions collapse in a heap, while another’s rose to heady new possibilities.

In the late hours of Monday morning, in a modern office in the sleek Seagram Building, Edgar Bronfman Sr., 77, announced that he was resigning as president of the W.J.C., a venerable organization whose tiny and relatively modest American presence belies its hefty international clout. For 71 years, it has defined itself as “the representative body” of the Jewish people, a federation fighting anti-Semitism and the last ravages of the Holocaust (it pioneered the restitution fight against the Swiss banks). And while its profile has been on the wane of late, its historic reputation—and the entrée it provides its leaders to presidents, popes and kings—has made it a coveted perch for a certain brand of billionaire.

That was certainly the case with Mr. Bronfman, who has been all but synonymous with the organization since taking charge in 1979. During his nearly three decades at the helm, he has hopscotched the globe in the name of world Jewry, earning himself the semi-serious nickname “the king of the Jews.” Until recently, he had dreamed of passing the title on to his son, Matthew.

But with his resignation—which came after months of such acrimonious infighting that at least one member had called for Mr. Bronfman to step down—his hopes for passing the crown to his son faltered, and the ambitions of another younger son, Ronald Lauder, were resurrected.

As of press time, Mr. Lauder had not formally declared his candidacy. But sources close to the cosmetics company heir say that he is actively considering a bid, reigniting a hope he harbored years ago of becoming the head of the fractious organization.

“He has a track record of leading important American Jewish organizations and doing so successfully and with distinction,” said Isi Leibler, a Bronfman critic who is encouraging Mr. Lauder to stand for the presidency.

Like other Lauder supporters, Mr. Leibler sees a potential Lauder presidency as a marked departure from the Bronfman model, a chance to lead the organization in ways that Matthew—had he been given the chance—never could.

Yet some observers wonder whether the two heirs are so different after all: Both are scions of some of the world’s most powerful Jewish families, both younger sons who have eschewed—or were perhaps passed over for—leadership positions in the family business. Instead, they have chosen to carve out positions in the world of philanthropy and Jewry, taking on a range of causes that have earned them praise from some quarters and charges of dilettantism from others.

At 63, Mr. Lauder is the better known of the two, a voracious art collector and serial board chairman who has used his ample resources to shape Jewish affairs, particularly in Israel and Eastern Europe. Tall and expensively dressed (he always wears suits, even in Israel, according to a New Yorker profile), he has managed to parlay his philanthropy into power, erasing some of the disappointments of his earlier life (most notably a costly bid for the Mayoralty in 1989).

Indeed, his unrequited desire to lead the W.J.C. notwithstanding, he has previously headed some of the world’s heavyweight Jewish organizations—from the Jewish National Fund to the influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Among the most common comments made to The Observer by his acquaintances was the following: He is smarter than people think.

The younger Mr. Bronfman, an investor by trade, is still struggling for that recognition. At 47 years of age, his Jewish leadership credentials are limited to a stint as W.J.C. finance chairman and several years as chairman of the 92nd Street Y. In addition to the attention that comes with being born into an immensely wealthy family, he has received publicity for undergoing two rather public divorces, and he made headlines when he resigned from the board of the Israel Discount Bank. (He stepped down in April after a member of the bank’s board launched an investigation into whether he had used his position at the bank to advance his own interests. The report has not been made public, but according to an account in Crain’s, it did not come to any conclusions about Matthew’s activities.)

The Battle of Bronfman