Changes at AJCongress’ national level leave many members without a voice

Jay B. Umansky


I would like to thank the Jewish Light for reprinting Gary Rosenblatt’s commentary in the New York Jewish Week on the current state of the national office of the American Jewish Congress [May 15, “AJCongress: Jack Rosen’s one-man show?”].  

As a member of the Congress for the last 35 years, I find the situation outlined in the Rosenblatt piece both frustrating and disturbing. Contrary to Rosen’s allegations, this is not simply a matter of one faction winning and another losing. 

We are looking at a storied organization with a one hundred year history of active, grass roots, boots on the groundwork by thousands of Jewish Americans from all walks of life.  Issues critical to our community were always the Congress’ focus, including anti-Semitism, church-state separation, poverty, hunger, immigration, women’s rights and equality for all of society.  This was a membership organization, truly a congress and not a committee.  Unfortunately, under Rosen’s stewardship this will no longer be on the Congress’ agenda.

When the Madoff scandal struck, causing the loss of 95 percent of the Congress’ endowment, no one rose to replenish the lost monies.  Neither Rosen, nor his family and friends, did a thing to raise funds on the organization’s behalf.  Then President Richard Gordon and I spent several years resolving issues with creditors so that today the only remaining debt of the AJCongress is a long-term obligation to its pension fund.  


Unfortunately, one of the corresponding losses during the Madoff period was the termination of the organization’s business relationship with its bulk mailing vendor, the company responsible for mailing renewal notices to members.    No membership solicitation has been sent to prior American Jewish Congress members in more than four years.  There are thousands who likely believe that they are members of this storied organization and would gladly become current in their membership if they were simply asked.

Just before last year’s annual meeting, and in order to comply with AJCongress constitutional requirements mandating that attendees be in good standing, 246 were asked and paid dues and are currently shown as the only members of the organization. Thousands of concerned members of the Jewish community have been disenfranchised. These individuals have not been given the opportunity to voice their opinion on the current state of the AJCongress because they have not been contacted in years.

Within the last few weeks I have been called upon by Rosen to cease the activities of the St. Louis Region of the American Jewish Congress. No suggestion was made as to the future of our preeminent project, GOALS, The Gateway Older Adult Legal Services project. I helped to found this program some 34 years ago and it continues to provide free legal services to the indigent elderly in St. Louis, regardless of race of religious affiliation.  No mention was made as to our Constitutional Conference, held in coordination with the Law School at Washington University, addressing critical and timely legal issues. No suggestion was made as to the Sydney Jacobs Lecture, held in cooperation with Shaare Emeth, which regularly convenes to discuss matters of concern to our Jewish community, in particular, Israel.

In the 14 months since our last National annual meeting, Rosen has done nothing programmatically on behalf of AJCongress.  He has, however, changed the structure of the Governing Council from its historic number of 79 members, to a minimum of three. He has changed the foundation of the group from a membership organization with individual annual dues of $50 to a format requiring an annual donation of no less than $1,000.

I have been asked why I continue to fight this fight.  “The group is on life support … Don’t you have better ways to spend your time?”  My role here is not to change the result.  That is not for me to decide.  However, I cannot sit idly by while a storied membership organization so critical to our American Jewish experience is hijacked by a few individuals.  

Rabbi Stephen Wise, and Justices Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter would spin in their graves.  It’s a “shonda” and it needs to be brought to the eyes of our community.