Richard Maass, the founding chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, died Sept. 10 from cancer at his home in Purchase, N.Y. He was 79. A memorial service was held at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains where Mr. Maass was a member.
Affiliated with the American Jewish Committee for more than 50 years, Mr. Maass served as its president from 1977-1980. Mr. Maass also chaired the board of Purchase College (SUNY), where he founded the college’s Jewish studies program.In 1971, Mr. Maass helped create the National Conference on Soviet Jewry to lend political coherence and unity to a movement that began in 1964 when the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry spawned advocacy groups across the country.Jacob Birnbaum, founder of Student Struggle, said Mr. Maass “was a very sweet person, not confrontational but strong. By establishing the National Conference, a full-time agency with a serious budget, he showed American Jews were serious about Soviet Jewry.
Glenn Richter, also of Student Struggle, recalled that “even though we were often on opposite sides of the tactical fence, he was always a gentleman. Always, always, always a gentleman.
Leading the American wing of the cause through the cold war years of the 1970s, Mr. Maass campaigned for legislation linking U.S. trade benefits to free emigration.Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, former chairman of the Coalition to Free Soviet Jews, remembered Mr. Maass as someone with “a great deal of passion and a considerable amount of sophistication. He understood the problem and he understood some of the political maneuvering that had to go on to gain results. In the miraculous success of the Soviet Jewry movement, he will go down as one of the very significant contributors and creators of the miracle.”Annual Soviet Jewish emigration averaged 17,000 just prior to 1971, almost doubling to 32,000 the year after NCSJ’s founding, and reaching 213,000 in 1990.Born in Baltimore, Mr. Maass graduated from New York University’s School of Commerce in 1949 and achieved success as an investments manager.An interim mayor of White Plains for several months in 1974, Mr. Maass was president of the Westchester Urban League, and in 1962 became founder and teacher of the Cage Teen Center in White Plains, an alternative school for troubled children. He taught there every morning for 13 years.A lover of American history, he was a serious collector of colonial artifacts, and such items as Abraham Lincoln’s notes on emancipation.Mr. Maass is survived by his wife Dolly; and sons R. Andrew, Douglas; four grandchildren; a great-grandchild; and a brother Arthur.