Stepping Down

Dr. Michael Berenbaum last week stepped down as president and chief executive officer of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, established by Steven Spielberg five years ago, following the universal success of his film “Schindler’s List.”

The Shoah Foundation has not made an official announcement of the change, but its spokesmen and Berenbaum insist that the decision was an amicable one and that he will continue as a full-time consultant.

Ari Zev, the foundation’s executive director, has assumed the additional position of acting CEO and said that, “eventually,” a permanent head will be sought to replace Berenbaum.

The Shoah Foundation recently reached its stated goal of interviewing and videotaping the testimonies of more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors throughout the world.

Despite official protestations to the contrary, some sources familiar with the inner workings of the foundation reported that Berenbaum had focused on his historical and academic interests, with frequent out-of-town engagements, to the detriment of day-to-day management decisions during his 2 1/2-year tenure.

A hint in that direction was contained in a statement by the foundation’s board of directors. It noted that the new arrangement will allow Berenbaum “a greater opportunity to accomplish [the foundation’s] academic and development objectives, without having the added responsibility of internal day-to-day administration.”

Berenbaum himself, reached in Cincinnati for a brief phone interview, said that, as consultant, he will be “available as approached by the foundation,” and will have time for academic research and to complete a book that deals with liberal spirituality within contemporary Jewish theology.

Spielberg was out of town and not available for comment.

The change in the Shoah Foundation’s top leadership at this particular time also reflects a change in direction, all parties agreed. Until now, the chief emphasis has been on the massive task of gathering the 50,000 testimonies. From now on, the focus will be on formatting and applying the testimonies for archival and educational purposes and, in particular, developing new technologies to assure the widest worldwide access to the material.

“In a way, we’ve mined the ore and now have to decide how best to use it,” said Marvin Levy, Spielberg’s chief spokesman.

Asked what he considered his main accomplishments during his tenure, Berenbaum cited his leadership and vision in “establishing a national and international presence” for the Shoah Foundation.

He also noted that in that time, the foundation raised $25 million to up its endowment to $75 million, garnered an Academy Award for a documentary, and developed a CD-ROM on the experiences of child survivors, to be distributed to high schools in the fall.

His current contract as president and CEO of the foundation has seven more months to run, Berenbaum said.

As a scholar and historian, Berenbaum has written 11 books on different aspects of the Holocaust. He was a key figure in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and served as its research director before joining the Shoah Foundation.

Under his present work arrangement, the 53-year-old Berenbaum may also find more time to spend with his 6-month-old son, Joshua, and his wife, Melissa Patack Berenbaum, who has been working as vice president and general manager of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Berenbaum has two adult children from his first marriage.