Abraham J. Bayer, longtime director of international concerns for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, died Thursday morning following a long bout with cancer. He was 62.
Bayer was a catalyst for American Jewry’s activism on behalf of the Jews of the Soviet, Union, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen, and the plight of non-Jews in Bosnia- Herzegovina.
Known throughout the Jewish community as a highly knowledgeable source in these matters, he was also known for his discretion and frequent refusal to be interviewed, fearing that his words would jeopardize those Jewish communities he was working to rescue.
He was also at times described as a kind of preacher, exhorting the Jewish community to activism.
Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Bayer was the son of a cantor at a small neighborhood synagogue. He was a graduate of Brooklyn College, Yeshiva University and Yeshiva Torah Vo’daath.
Bayer was hired by NJCRAC in 1968 primarily to handle the assignment on Soviet Jewry, recalled Albert Chernin, whom Bayer succeeded in that position.
From 1968 to 1971, Bayer was the national coordinator of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, the predecessor of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
In December 1974, Abe took his first trip to the Soviet Union with Abraham Foxman, who is now national director of the Anti-Defamation League. It was at that time that they first met with a prominent Soviet Jewish activist named Anatoly Shcharansky and other Jewish activists.
Bayer “was a living link, a living soul-connector. He gave his life for the freedom of other Jews,” said Foxman. “That was his burning passion, whether it was Soviet Jews, or Syrian Jews or Ethiopian Jews. That took precedent over everything.”
On a later trip, Bayer traveled to the Soviet Union with Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who was chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. During this visit, they met with Soviet government officials.
In 1984, Wiesel appointed Bayer vice chairman of the council’s board of advisers.
Bayer was one of the American organizers of the first and second world conferences on Soviet Jewry, which were held in Brussels in 1971 and 1976, and he third international conference, held in Jerusalem in 1983.
Chernin, now executive vice chairman emeritus of NJCRAC, remembered that Bayer, who had been involved in the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, “persuaded me that this was an issue that the American Jewish establishment had to tackle, and thus NJCRAC created a national committee on Ethiopian Jews.”
Chernin said that Bayer staffed that committee in addition to continuing his responsibilities on Soviet Jews.
About three years later, NJCRAC created another subcommittee dealing with the issue of Syrian Jews, said Chernin.
Another area in which Bayer “had demonstrated interest, concern and skill was in terms of preserving, sustaining public awareness of the Holocaust,” Chernin said. “In that respect, I think he has also played a singular role.
Bayer also served under former President Carter as special adviser to the President’s Commission on the Holocaust.
Chernin said NJCRAC “was constantly expanding Abe’s responsibilities, and because of his own commitments, he embraced these responsibilities.”
For Bayer, said Chernin, “none of these issues were ever of a theoretical nature. He would respond to the plight of a Jew in Kiev or Gondar, Ethiopia, the way he would respond to the plight of a Jew from Williamsburg.”
Funeral services are scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday morning at the Plaza Funeral Home in Manhattan.