Since its beginning in 1977 as a one-man institution dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is now perhaps among the most visible and vocal Jewish voices in the United States.
It bills itself as an international human rights organization, claims more than 400,000 family memberships, maintains offices in eight U.S. and foreign cities and its purview now includes Middle East affairs, fighting anti-Semitism anywhere, tolerance education and tracking hate sites on the Internet.
Its high profile -- spurred by an aggressive and media-savvy leadership -- makes the Wiesenthal Center an inviting target.
Recently, the LA Weekly published charges that reflected some earlier criticisms, though mostly voiced in private, of the center and its founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier.
The alternative newspaper claimed that the center, though a private institution, was receiving substantial and scarce state funds, to the detriment of worthy causes with less skillful lobbyists.
Citing public records, the paper then noted critically that Hier received a salary of more than $400,000 in 2001, and that his wife and two sons were also on the center payroll, drawing substantial salaries. The inference of rampant nepotism was inevitable.
The newspaper article drew some spirited comments from Journal readers.
One member of the center and its Museum of Tolerance, who asked not to be identified, wrote to the editor regarding the reported salaries, saying, "That looks pretty bad! I'm pissed -- and as a Jewish community professional, I'm doubly pissed."
The Journal looked into the allegations and was given the full cooperation of the Wiesenthal Center, which operates on an annual budget of $32 million. The center is in the midst of two capital funds campaigns, totaling $215 million, for its New York and Jerusalem Museums of Tolerance.
Hier released the following salary figures as of June 2003, not yet audited or filed with the IRS. Hier received $350,877 in salary and $105,271 in benefits, pension and insurance. His wife Marlene, the center's membership director, received a salary of $258,899 and benefits of $52,472.
Hier's son, Alan (Avi), who is in charge of negotiations and planning for the massive Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, received a salary of $134,417 and $16,710 in benefits, while son, Rabbi Aaron (Ari), director of the Jewish Studies Institute at the center, received a salary of $86,092 and $8,976 in benefits.
Samuel Belzberg, the longtime chairman of the center's board of trustees, acknowledged that having four Hiers on the payroll looks, from the outside, "a little bit nonkosher," adding quickly, "but it's 100 percent kosher."
The man most responsible for setting compensation levels for the center staff is Ira A. Lipman, who chairs the trustees' three-person nominating and human resources committee. He is the owner and CEO of Guardsmark, one of the country's leading security services, with $468 million in annual revenue and employing 18,000 people.
Speaking as a veteran business executive and lay leader of the United Way, Lipman said that before approving salaries, his committee surveys comparable Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and checks the IRS filings of museums, universities and similar institutions.
"Rabbi Hier is basically the CEO of the fastest-growing Jewish membership organization in the world," he said. "I can tell you unequivocally that a number of national Jewish organizations pay their professional heads higher salaries. If Rabbi Hier went to work for a public company, he would command a salary two or three times higher."
"This is a well-run and conscientious organization or I wouldn't be part of it," Lipman added. "I know that when rabbis Hier and [Associate Dean Abraham] Cooper fly overseas, they take red-eye specials and look for the deepest discounts."
Lipman was equally emphatic that the salary of Marlene Hier reflected the value of her work, not nepotism. A former teacher of statistical analysis at a Canadian university, Marlene Hier is credited by Lipman with creating and directing a "fantastic" direct-mail campaign mainly responsible for the center's large membership and for bringing in $12 million a year.
Rabbi Meyer May, the center's executive director, has supervised the work of Ari Hier at the Jewish Studies Institute.
"Ari shares the work ethic of his father and mother," May said. "He is judged as any other professional in this organization and certainly gets no special privileges or considerations."
Larry Mizel is the center trustee overseeing the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance project. The board chairman and CEO of a Denver-based home-building company, with annual revenue of $2.5 billion, Mizel evaluates the performance of Avi Hier.
"Avi coordinates a $150 million project, one of the most important private undertakings in Israel, and is steering it through the complex Israeli bureaucracy," Mizel said. "He is very capable and we are fortunate to have a person of his caliber. The fact that he shares the commitment of the Hier family is a plus, not a negative."
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