Al Chernin, who died November 26 at age 85, was one of the last of the giants of Jewish public affairs. That overused cliché notwithstanding, his death truly marks the end of an era. It was an era characterized by a communal structure and a communal approach to public affairs that is today all but forgotten.
Albert D. Chernin was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1928, and was very much a part of a midcentury progressive environment. He studied political science as a graduate student at Columbia University, and early on he decided to enter the world of Jewish public affairs. After a stint as executive director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, Al moved to New York to work on public policy at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. Known today as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, this was the low-profile but highly effective planning and coordinating body for 13 national agencies and some 100 local groups around the country.
At NJCRAC, the young Al worked with the giants of American Jewish public affairs then — Arnie Aaronson, Walter Lurie, Phil Jacobson, Leo Pfeffer, Earl Raab — and made his presence felt almost immediately. Al was one of the early architects of the struggle on behalf of Soviet Jews. Remember the candlelight vigil? That was a Chernin creation.
Then, after a stint as director of Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council, he came back to NJCRAC to head up the agency.
Al’s tenure as NJCRAC’s executive director, from 1975 to 1990, was a period of enormous change — indeed turmoil — in the Jewish public affairs arena nationally and worldwide. The Soviet Jewry movement was at its height, and Al was one of the key actors; with the first Reagan administration and the arrival of the Moral Majority, there was a wave of activity on the church-state front in the courts and in Congress; in Israel, there was the emergence of the “settler movement”; Ethiopian Jewry; Holocaust programming in the communities; approaches to defining and counteracting anti-Semitism. Chernin deftly managed debate within NJCRAC, and the crafting of communal policy there. Other issues he dealt with included civil rights, economic justice, civil liberties and captive Jewish communities. On Israel, Chernin deftly negotiated with the federations, resulting in the federation system funding the Israel Task Force, which was a significant vehicle in developing coordinated policy on Israel. Al was also quick to recognize new emergent issues as specifically Jewish, among them arms control, energy policy, the environment and religious pluralism in Israel. He was the crafter of many national and community programs that are commonplace today.
Al was a genuine polymath. He mastered the intricacies of all the issues, and offered incisive and creative analyses. He was one of our best policy analysts.
Equally important, he was an actor in the drama of shifting power and change within Jewish communal life. The balance among the community agencies, the national public affairs agencies and the federations began tipping toward the federations as they began moving into the realm of public policy— a shift that troubled Al deeply.
The decrease in anti-Semitism and an increased sense of physical security in Israel during the 1980s also changed the Jewish communal agenda. Consumed for decades by Jewish security issues, that agenda, long outward looking, increasingly turned inward, toward issues of Jewish identity and Jewish education. Al had good instincts about these changes. He was always optimistic about the Jewish future and passionate about the Jewish community.
We live an era in which locutions such as tikkun olam, or repairing the world, and “Jewish continuity” have become vapid beyond all meaning. But to Al, the survival and creative continuity of the Jewish people in America, in Israel and around the globe was everything. He was one of the last of the unreconstructed liberals in the Jewish community — but he had his feet firmly on the ground. He understood well the nature of security, for Israel and for American Jews.
Al was not an easy person. But he was a generous and gifted teacher. I never had a conversation with Al in which I did not learn something.
He taught many of us how to say what we say in the arena of Jewish public affairs, and this, more than anything, is his legacy.
Jerome Chanes, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center, was national affairs director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council for 14 years. He is the author of four books on Jewish history and public affairs.