In the wake of a series of financial setbacks that included the looting of its endowment by Bernard Madoff, the American Jewish Congress suspended its activities last week and let go of 10 staffers. Though the organization claims to be “reorganizing,” many in the Jewish communal world say it is only a matter of time before the history-rich but poorly run organization is forced to shutter its doors for good.
For years, rumors have circulated hinting at a possible merger with the other AJC, the American Jewish Committee. “We have spoken to the Committee from time to time about a merger; there’s no secret about that,” Richard Gordon, AJCongress’ president, told The Jewish Week. “Those conversations are ongoing.”
Those familiar with the situation say a merger is unlikely since the AJC has little to gain from essentially taking over an AJCongress that has become a shell of its former self. Its primary asset is the work of noted church-state lawyer Marc Stern, who assumed the role of co-executive director in recent years.
However, a merger could alleviate the confusion between the two similarly sounding — but historically, very different in ideology — Jewish defense organizations.
The AJCongress was created in 1918 in response to the widespread belief that the Committee represented the German Jewish elite at the expense of new waves of Eastern European immigrants. “The Congress believed in a much more public, open style of Jewish politics,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
In the 1930s, under the leadership of Rabbi Stephen Wise and Louis Brandeis, AJCongress promoted a public boycott of Germany. The Committee, which was made up of mostly German Jews, opposed the boycott because its leaders felt that public activity might foment anti-Semitism. “Many had relatives in Germany and a lot of German Jews said, ‘Be quiet; if you’re noisy, it will be worse for us,’” said Sarna. “The Congress, on the other hand, believed that the only way to help relatives in Germany was to make worldwide noise.”
In fact, the Congress pioneered a style of activism that has become common in the Jewish community today.
“Today, there is a greater willingness for the Jewish community to take to the streets and be public,” said Sarna. “That wasn’t the way the Jewish community operated until the Congress came in.”
AJCongress became even more important after World War II, under the leadership of Leo Pfeffer, a constitutional lawyer, who initiated an aggressive strategy of using the legal system to benefit the Jewish community and the Supreme Court to reshape American policy.
The AJCongress challenged discrimination in court and was responsible for a series of critical church-state decisions on issues such as prayer in public schools. “Almost every brief [in those cases] was written by AJCongress,” said Sarna.
AJCongress was an early advocate for women’s rights, granting Jewish women the right to vote within the organization and run as candidates in 1917, three years before American women gained the right to vote nationally. In the 1980s, AJCongress founded the Commission for Women’s Equality, creating a network of Jewish feminists and advocating for abortion rights, among other causes.
And in the late 1980s, the group’s Washington office, under the direction of activist Marc Pearl, was the epicenter for progressive Jewish activism in the capital.
But in recent years, the organization has been criticized for failing to maintain that liberal domestic focus, opting instead for expanded pro-Israel and international activism — duplicating the efforts of numerous other Jewish groups and eroding the Congress’ unique position in American Jewish life.
“As time went on, the differences that were once so stark [between AJCongress, the American Jewish Committee and the ADL] ceased to be stark, and people began questioning whether the community truly needed so many different defense organizations,” said Sarna. “Others moved into the turf of AJCongress. The AJC began to hire lawyers, and the ADL knew how to use legal system. It was harder for AJCongress to articulate what it was that made it distinctive.”
Even before Madoff, AJCongress had suffered from money troubles. For a long time, the organization supported itself through tours to Israel and other locales. The Israel tours, in particular, were very successful, owing in part to the Congress’ early and fervent support for the Jewish state in contrast with the Committee’s once lukewarm position on Zionism. “The problem the Congress had was that each time the Middle East heated up, the tour business went south,” said Sarna. “It’s not a great business to have if trying to support an organization.”
And as The Jewish Week has reported, questions have been raised about the effectiveness and leadership styles of several recent AJCongress lay leaders, including Jack Rosen, a dominant figure in AJCongress leadership in recent years.
The AJCongress has been vague about its future plans, though Stern estimated that the reorganization period might take upwards of six months. Meanwhile, staffers say that the situation has been handled unprofessionally, with news of the office’s closing last Thursday sprung on them only two days beforehand.
Several privately worried about health insurance benefits and said they have not been promised any form of severance.
“We never kept anything secret from our employees,” Gordon said. “They have known the financial situation we have been in for quite some time. This should come as absolutely no secret.”
He confirmed that employee health benefits will remain in effect only through July 31, adding that “we are looking at ways to extend it.”
Severance pay, however, “is tied up in a fund with very restrictive positions,” he said.
Gordon called the problem “a cash-flow issue,” explaining that some proceeds from the sale of AJCongress’ building several years ago were deposited in a fund with strict provisions, as laid out in the organization’s constitution. “There are very specific instructions on how you take money out,” Gordon explained. “You need to give 20 days notice and then vote. Assuming you get at least three-quarters of members voting yes, you then need to wait 30 days and vote again.”
Still, given the Congress’ populist history, Sarna said, “I think it would be especially appropriate if the Congress, in winding up its affairs, could demonstrate how a sensitive Jewish organization takes care of its employees.”
AJCongress may come to represent a case study in how not to close up shop.
“Conceptually, there is difficulty in Jewish life with sunsetting organizations that have perhaps fulfilled their historic mission,” said Sarna. “[AJCongress] changed the direction of Jewish public life. Nobody seriously believes that the Jewish community should only operate quietly and behind the scenes. Nobody believes Jewish decisions should be made by wealthy leaders of the community without paying attention to the masses. Nobody would argue that Jewish community should avoid public activities and should be fearful of going to courts to obtain rights. A good bit of that is due to activities of the American Jewish Congress.”