Local AJCongress vows to move forward

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Regardless of the eventual fate of the American Jewish Congress at the national level, the group’s local leader said he expects the programs and activities of its area affiliate to continue.

“There’s no question we intend to move forward,” said Jay Umansky, president of the AJCongress’s St. Louis region. “The only question is in what form and I think that will play out over the course of the upcoming weeks and months.”

The troubled national organization suspended operations this week after struggling for more than a year with financial fallout from investments made with Bernard Madoff. The AJCongress lost significant funds to the convicted tycoon whose Ponzi scheme absorbed billions from thousands of unsuspecting investors, including many Jewish philanthropies and organizations.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Umansky said this week’s move came as no surprise.

“The financial situation at the national office has been evident for more than two years since the Madoff debacle and we knew that this day or something very similar to this day was inevitable,” he said. “The fact remains that because of the financial situation caused by Madoff, the national organization had no alternative but to work toward merging with other likeminded organizations or closing its doors.”

Locally, the AJCongress sponsors a variety of programs and services including the Sidney Jacobs Lecture, an annual constitutional conference at Washington University and the Gateway Older Adult Legal Services (GOALS) program, which provides indigent seniors with legal services. Umansky said those programs will continue but at the moment the organization’s situation is in flux.

“To discuss exactly how the local chapter will respond to the suspension of activities on the national level is difficult but I can tell you that the board of the St. Louis region of the American Jewish Congress is comprised of 25 active, devoted and incredibly hard working laypersons,” he said. “We’ll continue those efforts. In what fashion, I think, remains to be seen.”

One idea involves the local organization continuing as an independent group, a task made easier by the St. Louis chapter’s low overhead and localized donor base.

“We have been independent financially since the office in St. Louis closed in the late ‘90s,” he said. “That gives us the opportunity to continue because we are not counting on the national office for funding. We have been able to continue our projects based off the funds that we generate locally.”

Another possibility would be an association with or assumption of programming by another area organization. St. Louis board members are slated to meet on Aug. 16 and word on the group’s future may come at that time but decisions may also depend on eventual action at the national level, where the congress was considering an association with a likeminded group as a way to remain viable, Umansky said.

“I think that the suspension of operations is not a statement that an association is impossible but rather a practical decision to minimize further expenditure of monies so that a rational considered process can continue without being driven by the need to make a decision because we have obligations that are due,” he said. “This allows the decision as to association to proceed more carefully without being concerned about day-to-day operations.”

Umansky is a member of the national group’s governing council as well as the national committee, which is investigating possible arrangements with other groups. He said he participated in “substantive discussions” on a potential association in New York late last month, which appeared promising but had yet to reach definitive terms. However, he said that he not yet had a chance to touch base with president Richard Gordon or other national leadership since his return from a vacation and was unable to say what developments may have transpired in his absence.