What’s your definition of a “major national Jewish organization”?
Could it be made up of less than 20 people?
Don’t laugh. Consider the case of the American Jewish Congress.
The storied organization, dating back to 1918 and led in its early years by such illustrious figures as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Felix Frankfurter and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, suspended its activities in the summer of 2010, having lost virtually all of its money and staff in the Madoff scandal.
But while many mourned the loss of a once proud, grass-roots defense agency that championed equal rights and was known for its expertise on church-state issues, few realize that the Congress, as it was known, never really disappeared.
In fact, it still has a seat at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, though Jack Rosen, the Congress president, tells me it is no longer a membership organization. It once had more than a dozen regional chapters; the two remaining ones, in Maryland and St. Louis, operate independently, no longer affiliated with a national body that now consists of a board of directors of “18 or 19” people, according to Rosen.
Two are his adult sons, and others are said to be relatives, friends or business associates of Rosen, a powerful and somewhat mysterious figure in the world of business and politics. But he wouldn’t provide me with a full list of their names, and they are not to be found on the group’s website. Instead, he sent me the names and phone numbers of three board members to contact — Bruce Blakeman, Herb London and Michael Melnicke — which I did. Rosen described them as “good folks with no axe to grind.”
(An official of the Conference of Presidents said it does not initiate investigations into the workings of its member groups, though complaints brought to the conference from within a group will be followed up.)
Rosen said the Congress is in the process of reorganizing its structure and revising its constitution so that it can “move forward and make a difference in Jewish life.”
He described its activities only in general terms, citing support for Israel and dealing with the Iran crisis, as well as domestic issues, including education.
“We weigh in on issues that matter. We want to influence decision makers,” Rosen said. “We can make a difference, like other organizations make a difference. We can influence leaders around the world.”
Indeed, Rosen has a history of dealing with some of the most controversial of world leaders, from Fidel Castro in Cuba to senior officials in Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia and North Korea. He has also been a supporter and fundraiser for Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, hosting a dinner party for Obama his East Side apartment during the campaign last fall.
Perhaps most famously he is a friend of Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, who while in office addressed a large American Jewish Congress dinner in New York in 2005.
Long associated with members of the Russian community, Rosen partnered with Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman last winter to invest a reported $1 billion in real estate projects along the East Coast. Rosen was appointed in March as one of the seven members of the selection committee of the Genesis Prize Foundation, funded largely by Fridman. Other members include Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky and British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Many who have worked closely with Rosen during his on-and-off leadership role with the Congress over the last two decades credit him with stepping in and saving it from closing in the late-1990s through an infusion of financial support.
There are those, like nursing home administrator and current board member Michael Melnicke, who say he is a passionate leader who cares deeply about the Jewish future.
“I like his ideas, he’s a vibrant man and I admire him for his dedication to Israel and the Jewish people,” he said.
Others say Rosen was, and is, an autocratic, ego-driven lay leader with his own agenda, namely to use the cachet of his title as president of the American Jewish Congress — as well as chairman of the American Council for World Jewry, an AJCongress spinoff he created in 2003 — for his business and social dealings around the world, a persistent charge he objects to vigorously, challenging critics to offer tangible proof.
Jay Umansky, a St. Louis attorney and lay leader of the local branch of AJCongress who has been involved for more than three decades, says the national organization exists in name only, and he accuses Rosen of maintaining the charade.
“His position gains him access to leaders around the world who have no idea the organization is, quite frankly, comatose,” says Umansky. “I’d like to see it revived but I’m not confident that’s possible.”
Noting that he had been asked by his independent St. Louis board to speak to me about Rosen, Umansky said his local members were “outraged by what’s going on. They want these issues to come to light because they want to see every effort made to prevent the hijacking of the organization by one individual.”
He asserted that “no activities of consequence are taking place on the national level, and I find it all distasteful,” adding: “I’m just trying to honor the history of this organization.”
Rosen countered that Umansky and other critics were “bad sports” who did not adapt to a changing world in making the Congress relevant, and were bitter after losing out last year in decisions on the direction and makeup of the reconstituted national board.
“Because of his unhappiness he levels charges without facts or backup,” said Rosen, who said that being upset was “no reason to defame the organization.” He also said it would be wrong for The Jewish Week to publish such accusations.
Several other individuals who were involved with AJCongress in the past echoed Umansky’s complaints but preferred anonymity, noting that Rosen, as one said, “plays hardball.”
(After I informed Rosen of the criticisms from Umansky, his attorney sent Umansky a “cease and desist” letter, accusing him of “disseminating false and malicious statements concerning Mr. Rosen, as well as his involvement with the American Jewish Congress,” and threatening legal action if this conduct continued.)
Richard Gordon, the previous president of the Congress and now listed as chair, has had a long and contentious relationship with Rosen, which he declined to discuss. He said his own tenure was taken up with sorting out the aftermath of the organization’s loss of more than 90 percent of its $24 million in the Madoff fiasco, including making sure the 82 employees and former employees entitled to pensions were paid in full, and paying all of the creditors.
He believes the Congress is worth reviving, that it could play a vital role in areas like economic equality for women, housing discrimination, and promoting relationships between Arabs and Jews.
Others formerly active with the Congress note that it once offered expert testimony in the U.S. Congress, held forums, and published journals and position papers.
“Why have an organization if it’s not helping the community?” one asked. “What has it done since last April?’
Changing The Rules
It was in April 2012 that the annual convention of the Congress was convened in New York, attended by about half of its remaining 250 members — those who paid the then-annual $50 membership fee, plus the $75 convention charge. Richard Gordon had served two terms as president and was ineligible to run again. In an effort to avoid a showdown between the two potential candidates — Rosen’s son, Dan, and Jessica Abrahams, an attorney in Washington and chair of the Women’s Division of the Congress — a compromise of sorts was reached prior to the meeting, according to several sources in attendance.
Gordon would become chairman; Jack Rosen, the chair, would become interim president until January 2013, at which time a special convention would take place to elect new officers, and committees would be selected to revise the constitution, look for an executive director (vacant since 2008), and set an agenda for the organization.
In fact, sources say, while Gordon became chair and Jack Rosen interim president, none of the other issues have been addressed.
But Rosen and the govern-ing council board members whose names he shared with me have a different version. They said January 2013 was the overly optimistic target date for the changes, which are being addressed actively by the board — especially, revising the constitution — but no decisions have been made to date.
Bruce Blakeman, an attorney and former Nassau County Republican legislator, chaired the April 2012 convention and recalled that there was much discussion about reorganization. He said he would like to see AJCongress reach out to the African American, Hispanic and Asian communities — “more than other Jewish organizations do now. We will fill a niche.”
Blakeman, a former AJCongress member who became less active, as did the organization, said Rosen contacted him several years ago and spoke of reinvigorating the organization so he signed on again.
He defended Rosen as “someone willing to take charge. Jack is a powerful and well-known leader, and that’s a good thing. Successful organizations have well-known and powerful leaders.”
Blakeman said he appreciates Rosen’s “devotion — and his Rolodex, his contact list.”
Herb London, chair of the governing council, said Congress is going through “a significant evolution” and will offer “an interesting and exciting program. That’s why I’m participating.”
The former president of The Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank of which Rosen is a member, said his personal involvement with the Congress focuses on Mideast education. A number of his presentations at colleges and elsewhere on the Arab-Israeli conflict college campuses are sponsored by the Congress, he said.
London says he has heard the criticism of Rosen, and points out “there are always disgruntled people with complaints, some personal and maybe some fair.” But he said the charge that Rosen “hijacked” the Congress is “a distinctly unfair characterization.”
The organization is moving in “an appropriate direction,” he said, that will be organized “very differently and focus on the board.”
That’s the problem, according to the critics, who say steps were taken in recent months to exclude all but the new governing council board members chosen by Rosen.
The size of the governing council was reduced from 70 to a minimum of three members. (It has 18 or 19, Rosen said.) Regional chapters — there are only two — must contribute at least $7,500 annually to be part of the national body.
St. Louis will continue to operate independently, said Umansky. And Matthew Weinstein, who chairs the Maryland chapter, said his board feels uncomfortable having to choose sides and is currently evaluating its options.
To be an individual national member of the Congress now will require paying $1,000 in dues, with only national members eligible to serve as delegates to the national convention.
Umansky, who had been a member of the national governing council for a decade, said he was summarily removed without notification, indicative of what he called “a fundamental change of a storied, grass-roots membership organization to one not simply controlled, but entirely constituted by a small band of individuals.
Those who were members — and still believe they are members — did not participate in the process, he said. “This is not sour grapes” about losing to Rosen, he insisted. “It is a marked and wholesale departure from the foundation of the organization.”
Another former leader put it more bluntly: “The organization as we know it died. If there is anything this new group has actually accomplished, let them show us.”