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The Unorthodox Rabbi : By Invoking the Holocaust and Bullying the Establishment, Marvin Hier Has Made The Simon Wiesenthal Center the Most Visible Jewish Organization in the World

July 15, 1990|SHELDON TEITELBAUM and TOM WALDMAN | Sheldon Teitelbaum, a frequent contributor to The Times, is an L.A. correspondent for Cinefantastique. Tom Waldman regularly covers Los Angeles politics for California Journal and other publications.

HIER DROVE TO LOS Angeles with his wife and two young sons in July, 1977. During the course of the summer, Hier enlisted real estate developers Roland Arnall and Esther Cohen, who became his lay leaders, and Mara Kochba, a native New Yorker who had worked in communal public relations and fund-raising. With Sally Arnall and Marlene, they sat in the courtyard of Hier's rundown building and planned a fund-raising banquet. A cursory glance at the calendar revealed that Nov. 12--the date of the banquet--was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi's first pogrom. Upon discovering this, Hier chortled with childlike glee. "We're in business," he declared.

It was during the next month that the idea for a commemorative museum for the Holocaust with a strong activist, Jewish-defense orientation jelled. Then, while planning the banquet Hier proposed honoring Simon Wiesenthal. Hier and his associates realized that if they could convince Wiesenthal to back their efforts, they could have both a school and a center. With characteristic decisiveness, Hier got on the telephone and set up a meeting in Vienna.

Upon arriving a week later, Hier discovered that his luggage had been lost. Unable to shave, he went down to the hotel barbershop. As Hier sat in the barber's chair, he noticed a framed, autographed photograph of Adolph Hitler. He doesn't remember what he said to the barber, but, for Hier, this was clearly an epiphanous moment. Although in the post-Holocaust world it was impolite to be openly anti-Semitic, there were clearly people out there who regretted that the Final Solution had not been final.

Wiesenthal was flattered. The center would become America's answer to Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. And Hier assured Wiesenthal, who detested the idea of a museum in which files and photographs would merely gather dust, that it would be run as an activist operation. "If they had said they wanted to set up on the East Coast," Wiesenthal says, "I'd have said no. It is built up already. But the West Coast was, from the Jewish point of view, a spiritual desert. And I felt that something should be done."

Although Weisenthal's support of the center was what Hier wanted, it immediately embroiled the center in controversy. A few years before, a group of Holocaust survivors led by wealthy Jewish financier Abraham Spiegel, chairman of the board of Columbia Savings, had invited Wiesenthal to a dinner aimed at funding a Holocaust memorial in the federation's headquarters. What came out of that event is still debated. There are those within Spiegel's group who contend that they had cut a deal with Wiesenthal, that he had agreed to back their proposed memorial. Hier says that Wiesenthal had never agreed to lend his name to the Martyrs' Memorial Museum, and Wiesenthal concurs. Wiesenthal's withdrawal cost the group some $25,000 (but the memorial was eventually built). Although Hier reimbursed them, he was accused of underhanded dealings.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of the Hillel Jewish Student Union at UCLA, recalls confronting Hier at the time. "I asked Hier why he was doing this when the Martyrs' Memorial had been in the works for 10 years and was reaching its culmination. His response was: 'We will do it bigger, better, faster--and without the survivors.' There was no regard on his part for communal niceties or respect for the survivor community. It was a venture that he viewed as competitive. Whoever had the biggest center would be king."

What's more, after the euphoria of the first dinner faded, the local Orthodox community became disenchanted as members recognized that Hier's commitment to the college was overshadowed by his commitment to the center. "He had a new toy," says one former center employee, "so Moish put aside the old toy."

Their fears were well-grounded--the school never evolved into a full-scale affiliate of Yeshiva University in New York. Today, YULA is, in essence, a high school. Indeed, when Hier recently made his appeal for a further $5 million in federal funding for his museum, some parents of YULA students threatened to withdraw their children, and there was serious talk of building a new Orthodox Jewish high school. Hier responded to this threat with customary aplomb; in late May, he outbid the city's Sikh and Sephardic Jewish communities for a school building on Robertson Boulevard, into which he plans to move at least the girls school. Heir says it cost the center $2.25 million.

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