Will Marc Stern's move doom the American Jewish Congress?
08/03/2010 - 17:18
James Besser

 Coming back from an Internet-free vacation, I learned that Marc Stern, the longtime legal guru of of the American Jewish Congress, has signed on to serve as associate general counsel for legal activity of the American Jewish Committee.

That should put a conclusive end to speculation about a merger between the two groups whose similar names have given generations of Jewish journalists fits, for the simple reason that with Stern's defection, the AJ Congress has absolutely nothing the American Jewish Committee could possibly want.

Stern is the acknowledged dean of church-state law in the Jewish communal world. In addition to his strictly legal work, in recent years he has been writing about the need for the Jewish community to take a less reflexive stance on issues like parochial school aid and “charitable choice” programs that allow government funding of religious institutions.

That should make him an ideal fit for the oh-so-mainstream American Jewish Committee.

Some observers say the Committee might still want to absorb the Congress to end once and for all confusion between the two "AJCs."   I remember vividly a call I received from Committee executive director David Harris a few decades ago when I made that mistake. I never made it again.

But I just don't buy that the brand confusion issue is important enough to Harris and other American Jewish Committee leaders to convince them to take on the AJ Congress' debts – and its murky role in Jewish life.

Much has been and will be written about the reasons for the AJ Congress' demise. No doubt there were many reasons, including Bernie Madoff, who tanked its endowment.

But the biggest reason, in my book, was that the group lost sight of its core mission.

Once the AJ Congress was the very epicenter of progressive Jewish activism. It was an early leader on church-state law, on women's equality, on poverty and social justice, but a succession of leaders, for good reasons and bad, decided to make it just another organization criticizing Israel's critics and “fighting” anti-Semitism by issuing press releases and reports.

The AJ Congress lost its base, and its message got lost in the static of countless Jewish organizations trying to do and say the same things.

In recent years Stern was its last remaining asset. Now that he's jumped to the American Jewish Committee, it's hard to see the AJ Congress as anything but bankrupt – even if some donors manage to keep it afloat a while longer.

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