AJCongress: A Case Study in How Not to Close-Up Shop

In the wake of our announcement last week on the closing down of the AJCongress, here are two new articles with insights into the organization’s demise.

Tamar Snyder, writing in The Jewish Week, tells us this may well become a case study in how not to close up shop:

AJCongress Rides Off Into The Sunset?

… as The Jewish Week has reported, questions have been raised about the effectiveness and leadership styles of several recent AJCongress lay leaders, including Jack Rosen, a dominant figure in AJCongress leadership in recent years.

The AJCongress has been vague about its future plans, though Stern estimated that the reorganization period might take upwards of six months. Meanwhile, staffers say that the situation has been handled unprofessionally, with news of the office’s closing last Thursday sprung on them only two days beforehand.
Several privately worried about health insurance benefits and said they have not been promised any form of severance.

“We never kept anything secret from our employees,” Gordon said. “They have known the financial situation we have been in for quite some time. This should come as absolutely no secret.”

He confirmed that employee health benefits will remain in effect only through July 31, adding that “we are looking at ways to extend it.”

Severance pay, however, “is tied up in a fund with very restrictive positions,” he said.

Gordon called the problem “a cash-flow issue,” explaining that some proceeds from the sale of AJCongress’ building several years ago were deposited in a fund with strict provisions, as laid out in the organization’s constitution. “There are very specific instructions on how you take money out,” Gordon explained. “You need to give 20 days notice and then vote. Assuming you get at least three-quarters of members voting yes, you then need to wait 30 days and vote again.”

Still, given the Congress’ populist history, Jonathan Sarna, [professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University] said, “I think it would be especially appropriate if the Congress, in winding up its affairs, could demonstrate how a sensitive Jewish organization takes care of its employees.”

AJCongress may come to represent a case study in how not to close up shop.

“Conceptually, there is difficulty in Jewish life with sunsetting organizations that have perhaps fulfilled their historic mission,” said Sarna. “[AJCongress] changed the direction of Jewish public life. Nobody seriously believes that the Jewish community should only operate quietly and behind the scenes. Nobody believes Jewish decisions should be made by wealthy leaders of the community without paying attention to the masses. Nobody would argue that Jewish community should avoid public activities and should be fearful of going to courts to obtain rights. A good bit of that is due to activities of the American Jewish Congress.”

Jacob Berkman writing in the JTA:

AJCongress demise a tale of money, shifting priorities

… The AJCongress’ demise is a story not just about cash-flow problems but about the changing of priorities of the American Jewish community, organizational insiders said.

… “I think we had to find our voice in the community and in the arenas that were important; I don’t know that we did that very effectively,” AJCongress Chairman Jack Rosen, told JTA.

Others say privately that while the AJCongress was doing important work, focusing on issues of religious freedom in the United States, free speech and women’s rights, those simply did not resonate with donors who time and again have shown more interest in Israel and anti-Semitism.