Phil Baum, who joined the American Jewish Congress after college and helped steer the advocacy organization’s growth in membership and influence until he retired as executive director in 2002, died in his sleep on March 27 at his Riverdale home. He was 94.
Mr. Baum, who became the organization’s top professional leader in 1994, served the AJCongress during the decades when it ranked among the most effective voices for Jewish interests in the United States. It played a prominent role is such issues as pro-Israel advocacy and Soviet Jewry; it sponsored an annual American-Israeli Dialogue to help cement what he saw as deteriorating relations between Israelis and American Jews.
The AJCongress, which also ran a prominent travel program to international Jewish sites, in 2010, suspended its activities and laid off much of its staff, effectively ceasing to operate as a membership organization because it had run out of operating funds due to losses in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal.
During his tenure, “He carved a new and better path for the AJCongress,” and subsequently for most of American Jewry that had been reluctant to assert itself politically, said Marc Stern, a senior staff member at AJCongress for 33 years who now serves at general counsel of the American Jewish Committee. “Instead of begging for Jews to be treated equally in American life, he demanded it,” largely through the legal briefs Mr. Baum helped write, Stern said. He cited such areas as the legality Christian crèches on public land, and the propriety of movie censorship out of deference to the Catholic Church.
“Over time,” Stern said, Mr. Baum shifted his focus at AJCongress “from domestic … to overseas” in such areas as support for the new State of Israel and opposition to the anti-Semitic Passion Play in Germany. Stern said Mr. Baum was among the first Jewish leaders to defend the legality of President Truman’s recognition of Israel in May 1948, publishing a legal memorandum on the subject. He also offered a legal defense of Israel’s decision to try Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.
Stern called Mr. Baum “the single brightest, most incisive guy I ever met in the organized Jewish community. He was head and shoulders above everyone else in the room. The breadth of his reading and knowledge was outstanding.”
“He was a Renaissance man — he loved art and he loved good food,” said Belle Faber, a longtime AJCongress staff member who served as associate executive director under Mr. Baum. “He had a tremendously discerning eye.”
Faber said Mr. Baum offered her advice about restaurants that reflected his independent manner of thinking in all matters: “Never let a head waiter lead you to a table.” Wait, have patience, he would tell Faber, and you will get a better table.
That, she said, was his bargaining technique in his AJCongress post; he refused to be guided by other persons’ opinions.
Faber said she has employed his advice when she went to restaurants. “It works. I always do it. You get a better seat.”
A native of Chicago, son of immigrant parents, Mr. Baum served in the U.S. military during World War II. “One of the greatest disappointments of his life was that he didn’t qualify for pilot training and that he ended up in the Pacific and not fighting the Nazis in Europe,” Stern said.
Mr. Baum, who is survived by his wife Bette, joined the AJCongress shortly after earning his law degree at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s. He soon became associate executive director.
“He did not suffer fools gladly,” Stern said. He told of one, unnamed leader of a Jewish organization who was not Mr. Baum’s intellectual equal and rarely understood Mr. Baum’s foresight in the proposals he advocated.
That leader was a close friend of Mr. Baum. “How do you do it?” Stern said he once asked Mr. Baum. “He’s not your peer intellectually” — why do you remain friends with him?
“I can’t help it,” Stern said Mr. Baum answered. “He loves Jews.”
JTA contributed to this report.