Harriet Schleifer just wants Jews of all backgrounds to get along.
“I am a huge believer in Jewish peoplehood and Jewish continuity, and to the greatest extent possible, I want different Jewish groups not only to speak with each other but to get to know each other so that friendship develops,” the chair-elect of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations told JNS recently.
Schleifer, whose philanthropy lent her name to the Chapel Haven Schleifer Center in New Haven, Conn., talked to JNS on a trip to Israel the center just took that focused on access for those with disabilities. She brought her son, David, with her on his first visit to the Jewish state.
The retired attorney, who resides in Chappaqua, N.Y., has decades of nonprofit experience. She is a former president of the American Jewish Committee; a Cornell University trustee; and a board member of organizations that include the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Jewish Museum in New York and the Jewish Broadcasting Service. She has been a member of the executive council of the Conference of Presidents since 2019, and has held positions at UJA-Federation of New York and the Westchester Jewish Council. And she served as president of a synagogue in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
She will become chair of the Conference of Presidents on June 1.
In an interview with JNS, Schleifer stressed the importance of Jews working and “hanging” out together. “I feel like Jews can’t afford divisiveness. They really can’t,” she said. “I really want to keep us connected.”
Schleifer celebrated her 70th birthday recently with the Chapel Haven group at Newark Liberty International Airport before flying to Israel for the trip. She took time away from the group to represent the Conference of Presidents at the Knesset when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) addressed the Israeli parliament.
William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents, told JNS that Schleifer’s “impressive achievements” at AJC “speak volumes about her leadership and dedication to the Jewish community.”
He added that “her personal connection to Jewish continuity and her profound understanding of our history make her a truly exceptional advocate.”
‘Everyone can contribute something’
Schleifer is the rare leader who has distinguished herself in two spheres—advocating for those with disabilities and for Jews—and those who revere her in each often are unaware of the work she does in the other.
Everything that she does draws upon her identity as a Jewish person, she told JNS.
“It’s what was breathed in my home. It was the oxygen growing up. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and they did talk” about their experiences, she said.
As such, she noted: “I was a child with an old head.”
Schleifer sees her advocacy for Jews and those with disabilities as a way to amplify voices. “You have to be productive, in terms of making life better for people,” she said. “If you can’t contribute, then you should step aside. Everyone can contribute something in their own way.”