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August 20, 2010

The American Jewish Congress and Us

As a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress (1971-1978), I was saddened by the news that it has suspended its operations. Jerome Chanes’s July 23 essay on the unique contributions of the AJCongress was a moving tribute to the many innovative actions that are part of the AJCongress’s history (“What the Congress Gave American Jews”).

The AJCongress was the first Jewish organization to state unequivocally that in a country which discriminates against any groups, Jews could not be safe. That philosophy, along with the AJCongress’s deep-seated commitment to equality, was behind the organization’s role in the struggle to defeat segregation and discrimination.

The AJCongress wrote seminal briefs in two of the earliest, and in some ways most important, civil rights cases: Sweat v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (both decided in 1950). These cases attacking segregation in graduate education laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education.

The landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, however, was not based solely on legal precedent, but also on several psychological studies. Two of the studies cited in the decision’s footnotes were the work of Isidor Chein, an AJCongress staff member who noted the psychological damage that segregation does to minority children.

The AJCongress was also the first major Jewish organization to appoint a woman as its executive director when I succeeded Will Maslow in 1971. I was sure that following my appointment, other Jewish organizations would follow, but this did not occur. To this day, there have been almost no women hired to lead major Jewish groups. Many of these organizations have had women in top lay leadership roles, but not in the top professional positions.

Finally, while Chanes notes the men who defined the AJCongress’s legal role, he does not mention Lois Waldman — one of the brilliant staff lawyers who played a key role not only in the organization’s civil rights litigation but also in developing strategy regarding the Arab boycott of Israel.

Naomi Levine
New York, N.Y.

Not even the tragic destruction of the two Temples triggered the unmitigated terror of “Who will teach us how to say what we need to say and how to do what we need to do?” that Jerome Chanes voiced in his epitaph for the American Jewish Congress.

In reality, no organization is so crucial to the survival of Jewry that its absence should entail a collective nervous breakdown. Indeed, most American Jews have not a clue as to the names, missions, officers and activities of the organizations that claim to represent their interests, concerns and views. Certainly, they do not look to such organizations to “teach” them what they “need to say and do.”

This, of course, is a result of the absence of democracy in the Jewish community — which the AJCongress in recent years did nothing to address. The AJCongress, which began after World War I as an experiment in communal democracy, devolved into just another organization in the alphabet soup of the Jewish establishment, doing things, some good, some bad and some ugly, and abandoning its original purpose.

American Jewry is experiencing deep and fundamental changes. Perhaps some genuine leadership will emerge from this chaos; perhaps not. Maybe, just maybe, there will be recognition of the need for genuine communal democracy; maybe not. But as we navigate these uncharted waters, we should keep in mind that no one organization should be uncritically venerated as the one that will “teach us what we need to say and how to do what we need to do.” We can and should figure that out for ourselves.

Aviva Cantor
New York, N.Y.

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