AJ Congress’ Surgery

Everyone knows that California is earthquake country, but somehow you’re never fully prepared. Take the Los Angeles chapter of the American Jewish Congress. It has been dislocated by two separate quakes recently. It survived the first one. The second was devastating.

The first was the deadly Northridge quake of January 1994. It destabilized the building that housed AJCongress’ regional offices, eventually forcing the chapter into new quarters last year. It could have been worse. The West Coast outpost ended up a neighbor of Aaron Spelling Productions and E! Entertainment Television. In Los Angeles, that’s considered a step up.

The second quake was the Big One: the naming of New Jersey businessman Jack Rosen last May as American Jewish Congress’ national president. Rosen came in, vowing bold steps to strengthen the cash-starved agency. He’s recruited new donors and hired a consultant to streamline the organization.

But his boldest step yet came last week: shutting down the Los Angeles region.

The shutdown followed an ultimatum to the Los Angeles chapter to improve local fund raising or else. In response, the chapter’s board resigned en masse. [More on this story on page 13.] They’re planning to regroup as an independent organization, to be called the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

On the surface, this is just another clash between a New York-based organization and alienated West Coast members. National AJCongress insists that the only way to save the ailing civil-rights agency is radical surgery. The Californians reply that saving a national organization by abandoning America’s second-largest Jewish community — and closing one of its most active, visible chapters — is loopy. If that’s surgery, it’s the kind physicians perform on themselves: Not advisable.

There are bigger fights just below the surface. This is partly the crisis of a venerable Jewish defense agency that’s struggling to fit in a world where Jews hardly need defending. Partly it’s a struggle over the role of money in Jewish life.

Money is the key. Last fall, Rosen and Executive Director Phil Baum decided to make AJCongress’ 13 regions start paying their own way. “Every other organization requires its regions to raise money to help maintain the national office,” says Baum. But in AJCongress, national subsidizes the regions. “That’s the reason the national office has been so constricted,” Baum says.

Constricted isn’t the word for it. AJCongress is struggling to survive. Its annual budget has been stagnant for a decade at around $6 million. Its national program staff is down to a half-dozen: two staff lawyers, a Washington representative, two publicists and CEO Baum.

Insiders say the problem is that the Jewish community no longer supports the old multi-issue defense agency. Don’t tell the rival American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League. The AJC’s staff of 150 runs a broad program of research, international diplomacy and intergroup coalition building. The ADL’s staff of 270 monitors extremists, teaches tolerance in public schools and trains police to fight terrorists. Support has followed: The AJC’s annual budget is now about $20 million, the ADL’s more than $40 million.

In the past, AJCongress made up for its poverty with energy and moxie. Its lawyers led American Jewry’s post-World War II battle for equal rights and religious freedom. During the 1980s, led by Henry Siegman, it was the loudest American Jewish critic of Israel’s Likud government. Loved or reviled, it was always on the map.

Since Siegman retired in 1993, critics say, the organization has been rudderless. Divided and broke, it was unable to recruit a new chief executive. Instead, the job went to staff veteran Baum, who first came aboard as a lawyer in 1949. He’s turned sharply right on Israel, without presenting a new message.

Californians say their fund raising, which used to cover their $250,000 regional budget, has dropped by half since Siegman left. “People no longer see the American Jewish Congress as standing for important principles or being a catalyst for social change,” says former regional president Doug Mirell. “With a national albatross around your neck, it’s very difficult to get people motivated to go and fund-raise.”

But that’s only half the problem. The other half is the chapter’s culture of baby-boom activism. “We attract a lot of young lawyers who don’t have a lot of money and don’t tend to rub shoulders with people who have a lot of money,” says Steven Kaplan, another former regional president. “And, frankly, we’re not interested in fund raising. We enjoy doing the policy work.”

Their policy work is impressive. Just recently, they led the coalition that passed California’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, played a role in police reform and spearheaded the controversial Los Angeles Jewish Commission on Sweatshops. Their Jewish feminist center wins kudos for programs such as its annual women’s seder and an acclaimed project on urban violence. “They’ve played an important role of conscience for as long as I can remember,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

To Baum, that record makes their poverty all the more unacceptable. “If the programs they have are so valuable,” he says, “there should be people there who are prepared to pay for them.” He says the national office intends to launch a new Los Angeles chapter soon with people who appreciate the importance of fund raising.

Aggravating the tension is the fact that it’s Los Angeles, home to the world’s largest concentration of rich Jewish liberals. Hollywood Jews are a financial mainstay of liberal causes, from the ACLU to the Democratic Party. But little of that money goes to the American Jewish Congress, the leading voice of liberalism in the Jewish community itself. This reportedly infuriates Baum and Rosen. Hence the abrupt dismissal of the chapter.

This may be the greatest irony of all. The American Jewish Congress was created as the poor Jew’s alternative to elitist groups such as the American Jewish Committee. Through the years, it’s stuck to its guns, usually choosing principle over pragmatism.

That philosophy helped to torpedo merger talks between the two AJCs that went nearly 20 years before collapsing in 1992. The American Jewish Committee required a $5,000 “leadership gift” as a prerequisite to joining the board. AJCongress rejected it as undemocratic and elitist. The AJC said there was no other way to keep a Jewish organization solvent.

The American Jewish Committee may be right. Maybe you can’t run a Jewish organization in today’s America without handing the reins to the wealthy. Experience and logic point in that direction.

If there is another way, it’s probably the volunteer activist path that was being forged by the baby boomer lawyers of the American Jewish Congress’ Los Angeles chapter. Whether it works in the long run, though, we may never know.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.