Los Angeles Ajcongress Chapter Secedes over Ideology and Finances

The southern California chapter of the American Jewish Congress has split from the national organization and closed its Los Angeles office, citing long-standing differences over ideology, financial responsibility and personal leadership styles.

Present and past officers of the Pacific Southwest region of the AJCongress made the decision public at a news conference Monday, at the same time announcing the formation of a new organization, provisionally named the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

While regional leaders charged that the national leadership has turned away from the organization’s traditional liberalism, AJCongress Executive Director Phil Baum blamed the split solely on financial problems.

“The Los Angeles chapter simply hasn’t paid its way and we have been subsidizing them for years,” said Baum from his New York office. “All we ask of them is to pay their bills.”

Baum noted that the AJCongress chapters in St. Louis and Detroit had closed down during the past decade because of financial difficulties. He said he hoped to re-open the Los Angeles office under new leadership.

The AJCongress has been struggling financially for years, leading to unsuccessful talks at one point of merging with the American Jewish Committee.

Patsy Ostroy, president of the defunct regional chapter and interim president of the new progressive alliance, acknowledged that during 1998 her chapter, with 2,500 dues-paying members, had incurred a $70,000 deficit on a $280,000 budget.

Part of the financial problem lay in the difficulty of attracting support for a national organization that “didn’t stand for anything,” said the past regional president, Douglas Mirell.

That brought the news conference back to ideological confrontations, apparently fueled by differing attitudes between the East and West coasts, as well as personality clashes.

One major current point of friction is the possible emergence of an independent Palestinian state, supported in Los Angeles but opposed by national headquarters in New York, said Steven Kaplan, another former regional president.

Over the years, the two coasts of the AJCongress have also clashed over First Amendment rights, garment industry sweatshops, criminal justice and the integration of gays and lesbians, with those on the West Coast generally taking a more “progressive” stance and those on the East Coast a more “conservative” one.

Most of the regional leaders dated the divergence between them and national headquarters to the departure some five years ago of AJCongress Executive Director Henry Siegman.

But the confrontation has been building for a much longer time. Ten years ago, a similar separation from the national organization was seriously considered in Los Angeles, and Kaplan referred to the present independence after “20 years in the desert.”

Veteran members even recalled the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, when the local chapter strongly opposed congressional witch hunts and the Hollywood blacklist, despite remonstrances by the national organization.

“Manhattan never quite understood Hollywood,” said former regional director Carol Plotkin. “We are talking about different cultures.”

Mirell, the past regional president, hammered home the same point, proclaiming, “The Torah did not come down from Manhattan.”

In addition to ideological differences, personal antagonism between regional and national leaders played an apparent role in the split.

Mirell expressed the hope that quick and proactive responses would be the hallmark of the newly formed group.

Interim President Ostroy said the alliance would have an ambitious agenda in such areas as protecting civil rights, economic justice, criminal justice and police reform, church-state separation, public education, gun control, and the full integration of women, gays and lesbians into Jewish communal life.

The alliance will work toward the full implementation of the Middle East peace accord, a Palestinian state and religious pluralism in Israel.

In urging support for the alliance, Rabbi Allen Freehling harkened back to the “prophetic Judaism” of Rabbi Stephen Wise, founder of the AJCongress, quoting him as saying, “Our quarrel is not with Jews who are different, but with Jews who are indifferent.”

He added, “We hope to become a model for the rest of the United States. We intend to be a force to be reckoned with and the address for liberals and progressives.”

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