Zeal of new JNF head inspired by Jewish awakening

"I didn't think twice about being Jewish," he says during an interview in his 42nd-floor suite in the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue. His view from the oversized windows is a stunning cityscape that includes the Plaza Hotel, Central Park ice skaters and the Hudson River.

About 10 years ago, Lauder, now 53, underwent a metamorphosis. While he still maintains his longtime passion for mainstream cultural endeavors — he is the chairman of the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York — he now is immersed in Jewish activity and organizational life.

One of his current missions is investigating the fate of the assets of Nazi-era Jews that were deposited in Swiss banks. To that end, he is the chairman of the international public committee of the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

His newest portfolio is the presidency of the Jewish National Fund of America.

His champions at JNF clearly hope that Lauder's high profile in both the business and philanthropic worlds will restore confidence in and luster to the organization after revelations last year of fiscal and management problems.

Meanwhile, Lauder, also the treasurer of the World Jewish Congress, appears to enjoy reflecting on his transformation.

It began, he says, after he was appointed U.S. ambassador to Austria in April 1986.

In Vienna, he was deeply affected by the presidential election campaign of Kurt Waldheim and Austria's effort to begin reckoning with its role during World War II.

He drew Austrian press criticism for failing to attend the inauguration and says he came under attack as a Jew for the first time in his life.

That experience moved the former chairman of Estee Lauder International to found the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation to rebuild the Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe that the Holocaust virtually destroyed.

After his return to the United States and a failed bid as a conservative Republican to become New York City's mayor, his foundation established a network of Jewish schools, youth centers, camps and community outreach programs.

He studies Hebrew daily. To emphasize the point, he picks up his blue notebook lying on the coffee table and swings it around, displaying the Hebrew block letters and vowels he has printed on its pages.

His mentors, he says, include Polish-born Rabbi Chaskel Besser, who works with him at the foundation; survivors Elie Wiesel and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo); and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Lauder counts as a close friend.

"He is a man with a good heart," Besser says of Lauder. "He loves people and he has a certain historic vision to do whatever he can to oppose evil."

Lauder's work in Eastern Europe initially found him bucking the trends in the Jewish establishment, which had concentrated nearly exclusively on helping the elderly and sending everyone else to Israel.

"If you didn't want to have every Jew come to Israel, you were not a Zionist," he says. "But I say you can be a Zionist without wanting every Jew to leave and that Zionism is also about what Israel stands for."

Which brings him to JNF, the quintessentially Zionist organization dedicated to reclaiming and building the Land of Israel.

Lauder appears uncomfortable when asked to reflect on the current meaning of Zionism, now celebrating its centennial year.

He is similarly reluctant to talk about the state of the Israel-diaspora relationship, though strengthening that link is a cornerstone of JNF.

And he appears not to be conversant on these issues, instead calling them "very, very complicated."

Nevertheless, during the conversation it becomes clearer how he fits JNF's mission into his worldview.

The Holocaust has always left him haunted by two questions: "Why did the world let this happen?" and "why didn't Jews fight back more?"

Even now, the current dispute over restitution for the Holocaust makes it clear to him that "in many ways, we're alone and there's no one to turn to."

For Lauder, a strong Israel becomes the only answer to these unanswerables, and Israel's ecology is key to its strength. JNF, he says, is uniquely poised to contribute to solutions to pressing ecological problems.

He also injects geopolitics into his ecological equation."Water knows no boundaries," he says, and common water projects are "an excellent way for Israel to meet with its Arab neighbors.

"And when you have that dialogue, it can only lead to better relationships and better understandings."

As far as JNF's accounting and allocations practices, which spurred a host of reforms, Lauder opts for understatement.

Last year's internal probe, aided by an independent partial audit, found inefficient accounting practices. It also showed that far more money than expected was spent in the United States for Zionist education and Israel programming than in Israel for tree planting and other land-reclamation projects.

"What I believe happened, and it happens in businesses, it happens all throughout life with people who own checking accounts" is that it is "very easy to go from profit to loss or to overdraw your account without realizing it, and it's not done with bad intention.

"The only mistake JNF made is" [that it] "initially did not react well," he says. It should have been more open about the issues."

Some concern over his commitment to rapid reform has been raised by his decision to retain longtime Samuel Cohen, JNF executive vice president, in his role longer than was expected.

In an apparent effort to influence the outcome, Lauder seems to have sought a slowdown in the search for a replacement of Cohen. who was shifted to the post of senior executive vice president in the fall.

Meanwhile, Lauder declined to talk about JNF's spending on Zionist education, saying that he has not had a chance to check the numbers.

"However," he says, "my first priority is to get enough money to Israel from JNF to accomplish the things we set out to do. That is priority number one, two and three."