Bush names U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council head

WASHINGTON — When you need things fixed, call in someone who's known as an organizational expert.

That seems to have been President Bush's thinking when he named Fred Zeidman to be the new chairman for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

A Houston businessman involved in several Jewish organizations, Zeidman has helped improve operations at companies and institutions, such as Texas Southern University.

The council has been dogged by controversies in recent years, and Zeidman, who was appointed Friday, wants to change that.

Zeidman, a venture capitalist, wants to "just get everyone's focus back on the museum and not on their own agendas," he said.

Although he has just started in his new position, Zeidman said he is already impressed by the talents of museum leaders.

He also believes that much of the recent problems among council members stemmed from communication difficulties, and he hopes to improve channels of communication.

Zeidman, 55, will be the first chair from the post-Holocaust generation. Noting the historical significance, he said he carries "a particular responsibility" to "ensure that the history of the Holocaust is appropriately preserved."

Zeidman is still developing his own vision of the museum. But he is an extremely committed and knowledgeable Jewish leader, and he will have the guidance of survivors who can help with the transition, according to Menachem Rosensaft, a council member.

"He is ideal in guiding the museum at this critical time," he said, as the Holocaust generation dies out.

The museum must ensure that the memory of the Holocaust stays alive, Zeidman said. "I'm scared of the Holocaust becoming a footnote in the history of our people."

Zeidman combines management skills with the sensitivity and commitment to Jewish and historical concerns that are central to the museum's mission, Rosensaft said.

The president and director of an industrial service company in Houston, Zeidman holds leadership positions in the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston and the American Jewish Committee.

An old friend of the president, Zeidman plans to split his time between Houston and Washington.

Jewish leaders don't seemed to be concerned that Zeidman is not a Holocaust scholar and has not been involved in Holocaust issues. Jewish leaders say scholarship is less necessary for the council chair than good administrative skills and pragmatism.

Zeidman, whose five-year term will expire in January 2007, said he would follow Bush's managerial style and not micro-manage the museum's affairs.

There are 11 more appointments to be made, and it's unlikely that any of the current council members whose terms are now expiring will be asked to stay on, as Bush has shown a willingness to keep previous administrations' appointees only in rare situations.

The council has had some troubles in recent years, especially as a crisis in confidence developed over the leadership of chairman Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg. A longtime council member, Greenberg is an Orthodox rabbi well known in the Jewish community for his writings on the Holocaust.

Greenberg was dogged by controversy after it was disclosed that he had sent a letter on museum stationery in December 2000 asking President Clinton to pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich. Some council members called for Greenberg's resignation, but a majority ultimately stuck by him.

William J. Lowenberg, a former vice chair of the museum, said he did not know Zeidman personally but had heard only positive things about him.

"He's a very successful businessman, and very involved in the Jewish community and general community and a good fund-raiser," he said. "We need somebody who will pick up after the problems created by Yitz Greenberg, who was a major disappointment to those who have known him for so many years."

Rosensaft too, sees no leftover troubles plaguing the new chair.

"There are no lasting clouds that in any way negatively impact the museum," Rosensaft said. "We are now in the position to move ahead under Fred Zeidman's leadership to implement the museum's mission and the national commemoration of the Holocaust."