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'Committee Celebrates a Century of Triumph

June 8, 2006 By:
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In 1911, AJCommitee sent a delegation to Washington, D.C. that successfully lobbied to have a trade agreement with the Russian empire annulled.
In 1903, and again in 1905, a succession of pogroms swept the Moldovan city of Kishinev - then part of the Russian empire - claiming hundreds of lives, prompting the outrage of Jews everywhere and compelling the Hebrew poet H.N. Bialik to pen the chillingly descriptive "In the City of Slaughter."

Those pogroms in particular, and the precarious position of Eastern European Jewry in general, also spurred the crème de la crème of American Jewry - Louis Marshall, Jacob Schiff, Mayer Sulzberger and Cyrus Adler - to band together one year later and form the American Jewish Committee, the first major Jewish "defense" organization on these shores. According to several historians, the 1906 founding established an organization that was one of the first of its kind in the world.

"When it started, it was non-Zionist, if not anti-Zionist. It was primarily German, and it was elitist," said 78-year-old Daniel Cohen, a board member of the Philadelphia chapter of AJCommittee and a retired lawyer. "It was not a membership organization at all, but a small committee that took it upon themselves to perform this function on behalf of the Jewish people."

(The similarly-named American Jewish Congress began in 1918 when Yiddish-speaking Eastern European, Zionist-oriented immigrants sought to create an alternative to the older group.)

Now, a century after its creation, AJCommittee - which has witnessed the destruction of European Jewry, the birth of Israel, and the rise of American Jews to unprecedented prosperity - has evolved from a small group of German Jewish immigrants to a broad member-based organization that draws from the wide spectrum of Diaspora Jewry.

Reflecting the concerns of its members, AJCommittee has likewise branched out to embrace a national and global agenda, chiming in on issues traditionally considered outside the periphery of Jewish life. At the same time, it researches the more parochial, but no less pressing, matters related to Jewish continuity and identity.

"We've always balanced the universal and the particular," said David Harris, AJCommittee's executive director.

The past few months alone have illustrated the wide reach of the organization. On the domestic front, for instance, it has joined other groups in lobbying Congress on immigration reform. The memory of what millions of Jewish immigrants faced a century ago still fresh, it has pushed for today's undocumented immigrants to have a path towards citizenship, while at the same time advocating for stronger border security and safeguards against terrorism.

On the international agenda, at its annual meeting last month in Washington, D.C., the organization launched the new Africa Institute, which will pursue discussions and collaborative projects with religious, business and political leaders on the continent.

"AJCommittee made the strategic decision to truly go global. We have implemented that vision in the last 15 years or so," said Harris, adding that the group, founded in New York, now has 32 offices in the United States and eight overseas. "And for over 40 years, we have analyzed trends within Jewish life - denominational trends, educational trends - both in American and world Jewry."

Harold Yaffe, president of the Philadelphia chapter, said that the group has also focused on inter-religious dialogue: "We are extremely focused on pluralism and engaging other ethnic and religious minorities."

A Group's Evolution
Marianne Sanua, associate professor of history at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., said that throughout the 1930s the then-small committee consisted of college graduates - a rarity during the Depression - and that it was distrusted by many American Jews whose roots lay in the working class and whose views were decidedly socialist.

Sanua, who is writing a history of the organization, said that it really changed in 1943 when it hired John Slawson as its executive director. Slawson, himself the child of Yiddish-speaking parents, sought to transform AJCommittee into a membership organization and open up chapters across the country. The first such chapter, in Philadelphia, began in 1944.

"After World War II, there was a painful but transforming moment, when American Jews realized that they were the community that was left," said Sanua. "For a long time, they looked to Europe for religious and cultural leadership. American Jews realized that the burden was on their shoulders."

Right after the war, the national group began publishing Commentary, a magazine which to this day is considered a leading intellectual publication, albeit one that has shifted with the times from center-left to neo-conservative.

Sanua also said that throughout the 1940s the group became more supportive of Zionism and, after the Six-Day War, virtually indistinguishable from AJCongress, Hadassah and other groups in placing Israel centerstage. As evidence of the shift, since the early 1980s, AJCommittee has run the Institute on American Jewish-Israeli relations, which aims to bridge the widening divide between the two cultures.

(The divide was on display at the group's annual meeting, when Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua cited his classical- Zionist outlook in calling Diaspora Judaism meaningless, and arguing that one can only live completely as a Jew by speaking Hebrew and living in Israel.)

Locally, perhaps the AJCommittee's most significant year was 1959, when Murray Friedman arrived on the scene as the chapter's executive director. He stayed until 2002, and died three years later at the age of 78.

Friedman's first major initiative, the "Executive Suite" program, looked at the hiring practices of the largest businesses in Philadelphia, and helped open up industries, such as banking and law, that had been highly resistant to hiring Jews.

"This is an important example. It not only reflects our success but reflects the way we accomplished things," said David Hyman, past president of the Philadelphia chapter. "We didn't litigate, we got opinion leaders to meet behind the scenes."

Subsequent AJCommittee programs have left their mark on the community. In 1966, Friedman and Rev. Donald Clifford started the Institute on Catholic Jewish Relations at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. And in 1984, the organization founded Operation Understanding to help African-American and Jewish students explore each others roots. In addition, in 1990, Friedman and the Philadelphia chapter helped start the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University.

At present, the Philadelphia chapter is working on building ties with the local Hispanic community. In addition, it is trying to strengthen the next batch of communal leaders by fostering Generation AJC, a group of 25- to 45-year-olds who meet regularly and organize events on everything from the immigration debate to how to run a better business.

"I see my role in AJC as really talking about the issues that matter to us as Jews and Americans," said 37-year-old Judith Hadara, co-chair of Generation AJC.

Dr. Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who has written widely about the American Jewish community, said that while it is impossible to predict whether AJCommittee will still be around to celebrate its 200th birthday, he does believe that the organization will be a prime force in working to ensure Jewish continuity in the 21st century.

"I see the committee as among the Jewish organizations today that is seriously reenergizing itself, particularly with the aspiration to be attractive to younger Jews," said Wertheimer. "It is not resting on its laurels and is working hard to reach out."

The Philadelphia chapter will kick off AJCommittee's centennial year with a June 13 dinner at the Pyramid Club.

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