News this week that the American Jewish Congress has suspended activities due to financial problems is depressing, though not unexpected. The once-proud organization, founded in 1918, and long the voice of liberal Jewish activism, lost much of its distinctiveness in recent years. As its membership declined and staff was reduced, it played a diminished role in domestic affairs, though remained known for its expertise on church-state issues.
The group has held on-again, off-again talks with the American Jewish Committee over the years. But what once might have been a merger of two independent groups, if not equals, would now be a charitable move on the Committee’s part to take in a handful of dedicated Congress staff.
Particularly sad is that while the Congress was known for championing the underdog and standing up to intimidation, it in recent years fell victim to dominant leadership from within its own organization. Jack Rosen, a successful businessman, became president of the group in the mid-1990s, when it had fallen on hard financial times. He promised to bail the organization out, and did. But insiders say he was an autocratic leader who filled the board with family members and friends, and began to focus increasingly on foreign affairs through the Council for World Jewry, an offshoot of the Congress that he created and still leads, now as an independent organization. Along the way his forceful style alienated staff and lay leadership, some of whom chose to leave.
Defenders note that Rosen stepped down as president five years ago (he remained chair) and is no longer responsible for the organization’s recent troubles.
The most direct blow to the Congress, though, came when it lost about $21 million of its $24 million endowment in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme. (Rosen was among those who rejected urgings to diversify the funds, insisting the vast majority of it remain with Madoff.)
How the Congress allowed one man to make it into what a fellow board member called “his personal political fiefdom” during his tenure as president is a sad and cautionary tale for nonprofits everywhere. One lesson is that weak finances can lead to poor judgment. Another is that organizations should do what they do best rather than bow to external pressures — in this case, trying to duplicate the work of groups like the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee in an effort to please potential supporters.