Rabbi Israel Miller, advocate for restitution, dies at 83

NEW YORK — Rabbi Israel Miller, a longtime Jewish communal leader who most recently was head of the Claims Conference, died at his Jerusalem home Thursday after a long illness. He was 83.

A passionate advocate for the interests of Holocaust survivors, Miller had served as president of the Claims Conference, a central organization that deals with restitution for Holocaust survivors, since 1982.

Friends and colleagues remember Miller as a soft-spoken, modest man whose patience and respect for each individual made him an exceptional negotiator.

"For me he was one of the great Jewish leaders of this era," said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference. "He had vision, courage and wisdom."

Taylor remembers that at the end of one particularly stormy Claims Conference meeting, Miller made a speech that "drew together all the different heated opinions into a compromise solution with elegance, humor, and even a story from the Talmud."

"Everyone left the room feeling that their views had been heard and justice had been done," he remembered.

Under Miller's leadership, the Claims Conference helped negotiate compensation and restitution agreements with Germany and other European countries leading to the payment of approximately $2 billion (in today's dollars) to more than 400,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors.

In addition, Miller negotiated the return of unclaimed Jewish property in the former East Germany, the sale of which allowed the Claims Conference to allocate approximately $500 million to organizations assisting needy Holocaust survivors.

The Claims Conference's nominee as the next chairman, Julius Berman — who also knew Miller when the rabbi served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — remembers him as "a great compromiser" and a "great listener."

"That was his basic ability. He could sit there and listen and listen and listen" while everyone else was "climbing the walls."

Miller also was a fervent advocate for the rights of Soviet Jewry, leading a delegation of the Rabbinical Council of America to the Soviet Union and serving as national chairman of the American Jewish Council on Soviet Jewry in the 1970s.

Saul Kagan, executive vice president emeritus and corporate secretary consultant at the Claims Conference, worked closely with Miller for 35 years.

He remembered him as a "modest, soft-spoken man with a quiet strength and determination."

Miller, Kagan remembered, was always "deeply concerned with the fate of the individual human survivor."

Miller also served as a high-ranking official at Yeshiva University for more than 25 years, serving as senior vice president since 1979 and senior vice president emeritus since 1994.

Kagan remembers Miller as "always having an open door" at the university.

"He was loved by whomever had the good fortune to know him," Kagan added.

Miller was born in Baltimore. He earned his bachelor's degree, magna cum laude, at Yeshiva University in 1938, was ordained at the university's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1941 and was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity from the school in 1967.

During World War II, Miller served as chaplain in the Army Air Corps.

Miller was active in American Jewish communal life for decades. In addition to his roles at Yeshiva University, the Conference of Presidents and the Claims Conference, Miller also served as founding president of the American Zionist Federation, founder of the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York and chairman of the American Zionist Council.

Miller also held leadership roles in the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Rabbinical Council of America and numerous other organizations.

Miller was consulted and honored by numerous U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers. In 1975 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin presented Miller with an award for distinguished leadership and service to Israel and the Jewish people.

Former President Ronald Reagan consulted with Miller prior to his summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva and invited Miller to visit South Africa as a member of his fact-finding mission in 1986.

President Lyndon Johnson appointed Miller to the National Citizens Committee for Community Relations to help implement civil rights legislation.

"I can't begin to tell you how much I loved Rabbi Miller," said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who remembered him as "a beautiful person."

"For me he will always remain a bright spot in my heart for how good people can really be."

Miller is survived by his wife, Ruth, and four children: Rabbi David Miller, associate director of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary's Gruss program in Jerusalem; Rabbi Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York; Deborah Kram, director of Maayan, a Jewish women's study institute; and Judith Kalish, an administrator at Hebrew University.

He also is survived by 19 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and his brother, David, and his sister, Dorothy.