Controversial ex-local leader gets national Jewish post

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A new national umbrella organization for Jewish agencies has chosen as its second in command a former Berkeley resident remembered for antagonizing the East Bay federation and other local Jewish agencies in the early '90s.

Still, critics of Louise Frankel Stoll, 60, allow that she, along with the times, may have changed since she left the Bay Area six years ago for a position in the Clinton administration's Department of Transportation.

In the early '90s, Stoll and a group she helped found accused the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and other local Jewish agencies of being soft on their support for Israel.

At one point, she even suggested donors send funds directly to Israel, claiming the Oakland-based federation was diverting money intended for Israel to resettle Soviet emigres locally.

Stoll and her husband, attorney Marc Monheimer, were in Italy on a bike trip this week and unavailable for comment.

On Tuesday, she was appointed executive vice president and chief operating officer of United Jewish Communities, the new national organization formed in April by the merger of United Jewish Appeal, Council of Jewish Federations and United Israel Appeal.

The reaction to her appointment was both swift and sharp.

Fred Rosenbaum, executive director of Lehrhaus Judaica and a respected historian of Bay Area Jewish life, said, "I remember her as a force of divisiveness and not unity in the community." But he was quick to add, "I would judge her now based on how she acts now."

Stoll also has supporters locally. Ernest Weiner, director of the American Jewish Committee office in San Francisco, called her "one of the most passionate, dedicated people I met who, as a lay leader, could move people effectively to action. There was a sort of classic purity in her devotion to Israel."

But many East Bay Jewish leaders disagreed. Some consented to be interviewed but asked that their names not be used because they didn't want to be blamed for harming the fledgling UJC. They described her alternately as forceful, divisive, underhanded, brilliant and energetic.

The story they tell about her began in 1988 when she spearheaded a bruising but successful battle in politically left Berkeley to defeat an anti-Israel ballot measure. Measure J would have established the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, a Palestinian stronghold, as Berkeley's sister city.

Although Stoll had been a member of the Berkeley school board in the '70s and became its president, her victorious "No on J" campaign was the first time she rose to prominence in the local Jewish community.

Her forcefulness, coupled with her speaking ability and keen intellect, put her on what many considered a fast track to eventually become president of the East Bay federation. She was named to the federation's board of directors a few months later in 1989 and was applauded for her undying support of Israel.

But soon that support led her and others to found an organization called the Israel Action Network, or just the Network. Its purpose was to monitor media coverage of Israel and to ensure local support for the Jewish state.

All of that happened during the years Likud Party leader Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister of Israel. The Palestinian intifada was in progress, and tensions between Jews and Arabs were at a high pitch.

The Network opposed peace talks with Palestinians, claiming the PLO wanted only to destroy Israel.

But the local organization and Stoll took their cause even further.

Critics charge she sought to discredit all who differed with her stance on Israel — including people who had devoted their lives to supporting the Jewish state.

And they say members of the Network, at Stoll's behest, infiltrated Jewish agency planning meetings and classes. They would then report "anti-Zionist" activities or biases to funding agencies — particularly, to the federation — often accompanied by a letter asking the sgencies to cease funding.

Her targets: The S.F. Jewish Film Festival, because it showed pro-Palestinian films; Lehrhaus Judaica, because it sponsored local talks with visiting Palestinian intellectuals; the East Bay Jewish Community Relations Council, for co-sponsoring such talks; and the Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center, for allowing those talks to take place at its facility.

"I felt she did not serve our community well," Rosenbaum said. "She came after Lehrhaus because we had the temerity to invite Palestinian speakers. When we have a controversial course, some people object. That's what I would expect and even welcome. But her tactics were very hurtful to me, very painful."

William "Ze'ev" Brinner, retired professor of Near-Eastern studies at U.C. Berkeley, said he didn't particularly like Stoll's style. "She could be a pretty craggy person," he said. "Her group was very hard-line, and that was why I didn't want to join them. She was a very in-your-face kind of person."

One prominent Jewish leader in San Francisco, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "Stoll tore other agencies down, publicly humiliated people when they didn't agree with her, and considered anyone who didn't agree with her a traitor. She's brilliant but she's terrible with people. I wouldn't work with her for anything."

But she also was admired for her tenacity.

In April of 1992, for example, Stoll got up during a speech by a State Department official in San Francisco and charged that President Bush was no friend of Israel. In fact, she railed for several minutes at Dennis Ross, who was the State Department's director of policy and planning at that time (and is now special Mideast envoy for President Clinton) and was speaking on U.S.-Israel relations.

Stoll has also been praised for working on behalf of Soviet resettlement in the Bay Area, which included establishing, along with her husband, a permanent endowment fund at Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco to aid Soviet emigration.

Anita Friedman, executive director of JFCS in San Francisco, said, "From my point of view she was very active and very helpful on public policy advocacy on behalf of Soviet emigres, and she also was a very generous supporter."

On the other side of the bay, however, Stoll made herself an enemy of Jewish leaders when, in 1991, she attacked the East Bay federation's handling of its Project Exodus campaign.

Stoll charged that the purpose of the national campaign was solely to raise money for Israel and its efforts to resettle Soviet emigres. She was angered that the East Bay federation was planning to keep some of the raised funds to support the local resettlement of emigres.

The federation contended it far exceeded the amount it was told to raise for Israel, and needed to use some of the money to help Soviet emigres in the Oakland vicinity. Ultimately, the federation sent $4.5 million to Israel, and kept less than $300,000 for local resettlement.

In the meantime, Stoll and the Network advised donors to give their money directly to the UJA and its sister agency, the United Israel Appeal, rather than allow any Operation Exodus money to be used locally.

"She felt [the] federation wasn't doing enough for Israel," Rosenbaum said. "But by then, there was no way the federation could ever do enough to satisfy her because she had become such a zealot."

However, Rosenbaum and others are quick to say that that was then and this is now — and that maybe Stoll has changed.

"With all due respect to your local community, this is a national post," said Gail Hyman, communications director of the UJC. "If these things in fact really happened…it was still [six] years ago. Look, this woman has extraordinary professional credentials."

Stoll's job is also an inside position, meaning that she will be dealing with UJC staff rather than with the public.

She will oversee change management, strategic planning and the challenge of "right-sizing" organizations at the new super-agency, according to Jeff Solomon, who as head of the Bronfman Foundation helped in the hiring process.

Ami Nahshon, executive vice president of the East Bay federation both now and when Stoll was living in Berkeley, was phoned by a recruiter during the hiring process and asked about Stoll.

He was never told what job Stoll was being considered for but he described his recommendation as being "neutral." He declined any further public comment.

Calling her "a first-rate professional," Solomon said Stoll was highly recommended by many people, including Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater and national leaders from the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

In the Department of Transportation, Stoll served as assistant secretary for budget and programs, and was the chief financial officer of that department from 1993 to 1997.

After leaving, she spent the last two years working in the Washington, D.C., office of Dames and Moore Group, a Los Angeles-based international engineering and consulting firm.

She will move to New York Dec. 1 to begin her new post.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.