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American Jewish Congress Records (1916 - 2005)
RepositoryCenter for Jewish History, American Jewish Historical Society
Collection IDI-77
Sizeca. 750 linear feet
Collection Description
The American Jewish Congress was founded in 1918 by a group of Jewish American leaders as an umbrella structure for Jewish organizations to represent the American Jewish interests at the Peace Conference following the end of World War I. Representatives to the Congress were selected by all major national Jewish organizations and delegates representing local communities were elected by some 350,000 Jewish voters. Among the chief organizers of the AJCongress were Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Judge Julian W. Mack, and Zionist leader Louis Lipsky.

It was supposed that the Congress would dissolve as soon as it fulfilled its task. But in 1920 some delegates reassembled after the last session of the American Jewish Congress in Philadelphia, and the next day, under the chairmanship of Wise, laid foundations for a new American Jewish Congress. Wise (1874-1949), a Reform rabbi and charismatic orator, became a champion for social justice and civil rights and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1938-1945 he was member of President Roosevelt's Advisory Commission on Political Refugees, and advocated admission of a large number of Jewish refugees.

The Congress was established as a permanent active body in 1922. Its main goal was advocacy of American Jewish interests through organizational channels rather than through individual connections. The AJCongress emerged in the 1930s as a leading force in the anti-Nazi effort to stop Hitler and aid the victims of persecution. It staged a huge protest rally against Hitler and anti-Semitism in March 1933 at New York's Madison Square Garden, in which about 80,000 people participated. The formation in the mid-1930s of the World Jewish Congress was a part of these international efforts, as was the AJCongress's domestic program to combat discrimination against Jews and others in the U.S.

From its earliest years, women played an important role in the work of the AJCongress, with the right to vote and to run as candidates there several years before the adoption of the 19th Amendment establishing women's suffrage. In 1933, with the help of Louse Waterman Wise (1874-1947) the AJCongress founded the Women's Division. In 1934 Women's Division became the first among the American Jewish organizations to call for the boycott of Nazi goods, and played a pivotal role in day-to-day operation and local supervision of the boycott. Later it actively participated in the relief effort for the European Jewry and for Israel.

Starting as a loose federation of national Jewish organizations, the AJCongress reviewed its policy and in 1940 began to enroll individual members, becoming a membership organization, with a professional staff and tens of thousands of members, and dozens of regional and professional chapters across the country.

In 1945, the Congress adopted the goal of "full equality in a free society for all Americans." It established a Commission on Law and Social Action (CLSA), headed by Will Maslow, who created a of lawyers to pursue legal challenges to discriminatory practices in employment, education, and housing at a time when the Department of Justice did not have even a single full-time civil rights lawyer.

In 1949 a successful campaign by CLSA in New York State led to enactment of laws ensuring fair housing and education practices, the first of their kind in the nation. Working with organizations like the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, CLSA got involved in constitutional issues like separation of church and state. In the 1960s it joined the struggle for women's rights, and in 1970s the Women's Division was eliminated and women were integrated into the national organization and assumed major leadership positions. In 1972 Naomi Levine became National Executive Director of the AJCongress and the first woman to serve as an Executive Director of a national Jewish organization.

The AJCongress had evoked an strong response from Newark's Jewish community, and the tie was strengthened when Joachim Prinz, who had been assisted in leaving Germany in 1937 by Rabbi Stephen Wise, became rabbi of Newark's Temple B'nai Abraham in 1939. Prinz was president of the New Jersey State Region of the AJCongress as of 1949, and served as national Vice-President from at least 1951 and President from 1958 to1966. His wife, Hilda, was a very active local member of the AJCongress from the late 1940s on.
Collection Contents
The collection includes material from the creation of the AJCongress to its recent years, with some gaps. Contents include the constitution, by-laws; minutes of the Administrative and Executive Committees and Governing Council; materials generated by the National Biennial Conventions; files of Executive Directors, including Phil Baum and Henry Siegman, and the General Counsel files of Will Maslow; records of Commissions, Regional Chapters, the National Women's Division, and Business and Professional Chapters; Public Relations files; publications; publicity materials; and photographs.

The American Jewish Historical Society has had two large accretions of American Jewish Congress Records. The first, donated in 2006, resulted in over 200 processed boxes. A larger accretion, donated in 2009, has been minimally processed, with some material integrated into the earlier processed portion of te collection. For details of the processing history, see the online finding-aid.

Newark-related material, especially records relating to Rabbi Prinz's tenure as Congress president, are scattered throughout the collection, and include the following:

Box 9, Folder 25: Joachim Prinz speech at convention, Statler Hotel, NYC, May 26, 1960, transcript

Box 55, Folder 19: Joachim Prinz correspondence. Two exchanges of letters with Justine Wise Polier, one about plans for Prinz's summer trip to Israel and Germany and one regarding his report to the AJCongress on Germany [not enclosed; see Folder 22] (Jun and Sep, 1949)

Box 55, Folders 20-21: Joachim Prinz correspondence and statements as president of the AJCongress (1958-1964), including his comments on international issues; a statement responding to a synagogue bombing in Atlanta, GA (1958); a lengthy letter to Prinz from Louis Segal of the Farband Labor Zionist Order arguing against the Congress's position opposing federal aid to non-public schools (Jul 5, 1961); Prinz's lengthy letter to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on the trials of war criminals in Germany (Mar 2, 1964); correspondence with Howard Metzenbaum re: Congress fundraising (Jun-Jul 1964). Also included is a press release responding to Prinz's critique of the Zionist movement (Jan 23, 1961).

Box 55, Folder 22: Joachim Prinz's "Memorandum on a Trip to Germany, July 1949" (Heidelberg, Jul 22, 1949, 20 pp.)

Box 129, Folder 19: "National Women's Division, Greater Newark, NJ." Script of a one-act play promoting membership in the AJCongress, "A Woman's Dilemma," by Clare (Mrs. Harry C.) Meltzer (undated)

Box 129, Folder 20: "National Women's Division, Greater Newark, NJ." Script of a play drawn from the works of classic Yiddish authors, "Draw from the Well," by Helene Ershow and Jeanne Pasmantier (undated)

Box 129, Folder 21: "National Women's Division, Greater Newark, NJ." Correspondence, notices, and bulletins, with mentions of dozens of local officers and members (1948-1949). Includes a letter of December 13, 1949 to Mrs. Charles E. Samons of East Orange regarding members' concerns about discrimination in Newark hospitals; a memo of October 18, 1949 about the restructuring of the Essex County Chapter, dividing its members into existing Newark and suburban chapters; and an invitation to the Division's annual antique show at the Essex House (1949). The Greater Newark Women's Division office was at 211 Clinton Ave. Existing chapters in Newark in 1949 were: Weequahic-Hillside (new, Anne [Mrs. Harry] Brody, president), Roosevelt (Yiddish-speaking), Business and Professional, and Louise W. Wise.

Box 129, Folder 22: "New Jersey." Correspondence, memos, and reports, including reports on the Newark and Essex County chapter of the Women's Division and the need for restructuring (1948); correspondence re: activity of the Greater Newark Women's Division in support of a state civil rights bill (1948); an open letter from Joachim Prinz announcing a state conference of the AJCongress to be held at Temple B'nai Abraham, September 19, 1948, to discuss issues of concern to American Jews and the decisions taken at the World Jewish Congress of that summer.

Box 164: contains statements and announcements by Prinz and others, issued by the AJCongress (Apr-May 1960) during Prinz's term as president. Folders 3 and 6 contain press releases denying dissension in the AJC, announcing that Prinz will serve a second term as president, replying to outside criticisms of the organization, and summarizing AJCongress accomplishments during his first term.

Box 170: contains material on Joachim Prinz's participation in the March on Washington (1963)

Box 172: statements and announcements issued by the AJCongress (1964). Folder 92: contains a press release criticizing Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio for allowing a "One Nation under God" pennant to be flown from City Hall (Dec 24, 1964), with remarks by Benjamin Epstein, president of the NJ Region, AJCongress; Sanford Galanter, chair of the NJ Commission on Law and Social Action of the NJ AJCongress; and Hilda Lutzke, president of the Greater Newark Women's Division, AJCongress.

Box 173, Folder 26: includes a brochure, "The Issue Is Silence," reproducing Rabbi Prinz's speech at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, with a cover photo of Prinz marching with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the head of a large crowd.

Box 265, Folder 1: "CLSA, Subject Files, General Church and State Issues - The Nation Ban," includes copies of The Nation magazine with Paul Blanshard's articles, "The Sexual Code of the Roman Catholic Church" (Nov 8, 1947) and "The Catholic Church and the Schools" (Nov 15, 1947), which led to the banning of the Nation in New York and Newark public schools. The Newark ban was ordered in January 1948. Also present is the issue of July 3, 1948, with "Why The Nation Was Banned," by editor Freda Kirchwey; Kirchwey wrote that "the domination of {Newark's] schools by the church is notorious." (p. 4). NOTE: These items are very fragile; handle with care.

Box 265, Folder 2: "CLSA, Subject Files, General Church and State Issues - The Nation Ban," contains correspondence, clippings, and statements, by Blanshard, Kirchwey, Nation supporters, etc. (1948-1949). Most are about NYC; includes material issued by the Ad Hoc Committee to Lift the Ban on The Nation, chaired by Archibald MacLeish (until July 1949). The controversy resulted in a large increase in Nation subscriptions. Only 1 item relates directly to Newark: a Religious News Service bulletin (Feb 2, 1948) on opposition to the ban in the Essex County Council of Churches; among the Council members opposing the ban were Rev. Chester A. Hodson of Centenary Methodist Church, Newark.

Folder 3: clippings on the Nation ban (1948-1949)

Folder 4: briefs, statements, and correspondence re: appeal against the Newark Board of Education's ban to State Commissioner of Education; material on Board of Education hearings, etc. (1949-1950)

Folder 5: correspondence and statements on the Nation ban (1949-1950, 1963). Decision of the Commissioner, May 1949, upholding the ban. The case was taken to the courts, but the ban continued for several years.

Box 323, Folder 19: Sexton vs. Essex County (1952). Correspondence, clippings, and documents relating to the case, in which several local orthodox synagogues proposed to establish a mikveh (ritual bath) at 130 Renner Ave., Newark, in a residential zone. By a decision of the NJ Superior Court, permission was denied.

Box 336, Folder 10: Ebler vs. City of Newark (1969). 3 documents re: a case in which a Newark police sergeant challenged the Police Department's practice of granting Jewish police officers major Jewish holidays off with pay. The practice was declared invalid by the Supreme Court of NJ (Jul 23, 1969).

Box 406, Folder 20: "Race Riots." General material, including a Boston Jewish Community Council press release (Jan 18, 1968) protesting a performance by "LeRoi Jones][Amiri Baraka] and Troupe" at Campbell HS, Roxbury, MA, Jan 17, 1968, because of Jones's "anti-Semitic statements" in his poetry; and a letter from Will Maslow of the AJCongress to Robert E. Segal, JCC Boston. The press release includes a lengthy, detailed description of the performance, a combination of plays, readings, and pantomimes on themes stressing Black Power and Black Nationalism, quoting Jones's remarks and describing the atmosphere in the crowded auditorium; there were allusions to the Newark riots ("they killed 80 of us in Newark"). Maslow's letter asks Segal, "Who was responsible for inviting him...? .... don't they [the school] have some sense?"

Box 406, Folder 21: "Race Riots." General material, including New York Times clippings on the arrest of Leroi Jones [Amiri Baraka] (Jan 1969); an excerpt from the NJ Governor's Commission report on the Newark riot (1968); and the AJCongress's and others' responses to the Kerner Commission report (1968)

Box 406, Folder 22: "Race Riots." Copy of Complaint, Barry Wynn et al. vs. Brendan Byrne, Essex County Prosecutor, in NJ District Court (Civil Action 991-67). Plaintiffs are a group of individuals arrested in the course of the Newark riot and other African-American citizens of Newark. (1967)

Box 406, Folder 23: "Race Riots." General material, including a copy of Dory Schary's testimony to the Kerner Commission, as national chair of Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith (Oct 3, 1968)

PHOTOGRAPHS: As part of an NEH-funded project, 276 photographs and two brochures from the collection were selected for digitization. The photographs showcase AJCongress participation in the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. and its support of Israel and world Jewry. Many of the photos listed below, including images of the 1963 March on Washington and of Rabbi Joachim Prinz with many notables, are included among the digitized photos. The digitized images are available for viewing through links in the online finding-aid, at: Series XIII: Public Relations, Subseries A: Subject Files and Photographs

Box 731, Folder 18: Theodore Bikel honored (1964). Photo of Bikel, Prinz, and others.

Box 732, Folder 20: Dedication of Congress House (ca. 1951), including Prinz and Israel Goldstein

Box 734, Folder 25: "Historical Photos," including Prinz at a conference on Soviet Jewry

Box 740, Folder 33: Martin Luther King, Jr. dinner (1963), 6 photos of Prinz and King

Box 743, Folder 26: March on Washington (1963), including Prinz speaking, Prinz with John F. Kennedy, and with a group (A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Walter Reuther, etc.)

Box 745, Folders 18-27: AJCongress convention photos (1956-1962), including photos of Prinz with Roy Wilkins, Chester Bowles, Hugo Black, Jacob Javits, Hubert H. Humphrey, et al.

Box 745, Folder 31: Prinz with Theodore Bikel and Bayard Rustin (1966)

Box 751, Folders 9-11: Prinz with his wife Hilda and son Jonathan (1960-1989)

Box 756, Folder 16: Prinz with Philip Roth (undated)

Box 761, Folder 23: Prinz and group picketing Woolworth's (1960); Folder 35: Prinz and others picketing at the Jordanian Pavilion, New York World's Fair, with text of the mural that they are protesting against (1964)
FormatTextual materials
SubjectJewish-American History
Time Periods20th Century; 21st Century
LanguagesEnglish; German; Hebrew; Russian; Yiddish
Access policyOpen for research
Finding AidYes
Finding Aid URL