After more than 70 years of fostering positive interfaith relations, advocating for a host of social justice issues and producing some key players on the national and international stage, the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee has closed its office, effective June 30.
Leaders of the PAJC, a 501(c)(3) that was an independent affiliate of the American Jewish Committee, cited the duplication of services provided by other organizations and diminishing support as the primary reasons for the closure.
Signature programs of the PAJC, including its Christian-Jewish Dialogues and its Catholic-Jewish Education Enrichment Project — which brings area rabbis to teach in Pittsburgh’s Catholic schools — will be absorbed by other organizations in the city.
“What we discovered was that a lot of people were doing the same stuff we were doing,” said Michael Goldstein, president and trustee of the PAJC. “We were chasing the same resources, both financial and volunteer support. And our original core members are getting older or have passed away, and it is tough getting the message out to millennials. We found ourselves singing to the same people over and over again.”
Unlike many other nonprofits that close operations, PAJC is leaving a healthy surplus of funds in its coffers — more than $160,000 — that are invested at the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. It is expected that those funds will be used to support programs previously under the auspices of PAJC, although specific allotments have not yet been designated.
The PAJC was established as an independent entity about eight years ago, when the national office of the AJC determined it would close its branch offices in some smaller markets, including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Diego, St. Louis, Buffalo and Portland, Ore., according to Lisa Steindel, the founding director of the PAJC and the executive director of the organization prior to its becoming independent from the AJC.
“Different communities had different responses,” said Steindel. “Cleveland and Detroit successfully convinced the AJC to continue its offices in those cities. Buffalo just closed. Pittsburgh, Portland and Milwaukee became independent affiliates of the AJC.”
The decision to close some if its smaller offices was due in part to the AJC’s shift of focus to international affairs, according to Nick Lane, a former national vice president of the AJC.
“The smaller chapters like ours may have been seen as something as a burden,” Lane said.
With several members of the community committing to a few years of support, the PAJC “worked pretty well” for a period of time, Steindel said.
It became apparent, however, that there was a lot of overlap in programming and services, especially in the realms of interfaith relations and social justice, causes supported by the Federation’s Community Relations Council, Repair the World, Moishe House and the Federation’s Young Adult Division, according to Karen Hochberg, PAJC’s executive director from 2013 until its closure.
“It was a challenge recruiting younger members,” Hochberg said. “People still saw us as a remnant of the AJC, which was a great home for passionate, educated Jews who love social justice. But young people now have other organizations.”
The two other independent AJC affiliates faced similar challenges, she said, noting that the Portland affiliate closed last year. The Milwaukee office is also closed.
The Pittsburgh affiliate was down to fewer than 50 active members, said Ted Goldberg, a past president and life trustee of PAJC. Closing the PAJC, he said, “was a way to preserve our assets, and we hope the community can use them for important work in the future.”
Despite the closure of some of its affiliates, the AJC, a national organization founded in 1906, “continues to thrive today nationally and internationally,” said Estelle Comay, a longtime member of the PAJC and a national board member of AJC. She is a former national vice president of the AJC, and her late husband, Sholom Comay, served as president of the Pittsburgh chapter and national president of the AJC from 1990 until his death in 1991. Sholom Comay is widely credited, she said, with shepherding the national organization through some turbulent times and infusing it with a new life after making some positive changes in staffing.
The Pittsburgh chapter of the AJC was one of the first of 32 chapters formed in cities across the country, and leaves a storied legacy, Comay said. “In 1945, a group of leading Jewish lights in the community founded the AJC chapter here. The main focus nationally, and in Pittsburgh at the time, was human relations, civil rights, civil liberties and intergroup relations. It was interested in Jewish rights and the rights of minorities in general.”
One of the important initiatives undertaken by the Pittsburgh chapter of the AJC was the Executive Suite program, according to Comay. That effort led to the integration of private clubs in the city — such as the Duquesne Club, the Pittsburgh Golf Club and the Fox Chapel Golf Club — that formerly excluded Jews.
“The leaders of the AJC chapter felt that discrimination in and of itself was wrong,” Comay said, “but also that it actually impeded the progress of Jews in achieving success in the Pittsburgh business world.”
The campaign was “quiet and under the radar,” she said, but Pittsburgh AJC leaders were able to reach out to like-minded members of the clubs to encourage them to welcome Jewish members.
“Over the years they were successful,” Comay said. “Now, all of these clubs have Jewish members. And it was a courageous effort because it met with some pushback from those who wanted to maintain the exclusivity and the status quo.”
After the AJC broke the ice, she added, the clubs eventually admitted African-American members as well.
AJC, she said, both nationally and at the local level, has served an important function to the community at large by being an independent voice.
“The only fundraising it does is to support its own efforts,” she said, “so it is free to express its own opinions and take positions that may be more challenging to members of the Jewish community, such as integration, gay rights and Israeli settlements.”
The AJC was the “first place where the press could come, and we weren’t speaking for the entire Jewish community,” she said.
Comay praised several lay leaders of the organization over the years, including Louis Caplan, who served as a national president; David Ehrenworth, who served on the national board of governors; Larry Kaplan, who served as president of the chapter; and Nick Lane, who became a key player with the Estonian International Commission for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity through his involvement with the AJC.
“I think we can be very proud of the role that the AJC in Pittsburgh played,” said Ehrenworth, who also served as president of the local chapter. “The organization was a bridge builder between the Jewish community and the broader community and had the ability to talk with decision-makers when there were issues. It has a long history of dialoguing and working with other groups, including African-Americans, Catholics, Muslims and Indians.”
Issues with which the organization has concerned itself over the years include anti-hate crime legislation, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and anti-Semitism, Ehrenworth added.
Leaders of the Pittsburgh chapter cemented relationships with local politicians, he pointed out. They had meetings with “every governor of Pennsylvania,” met with former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and established a “wonderful relationship” with Sen. John Heinz III. Through Heinz, members of the Pittsburgh AJC met with the Crown Prince of Jordan, who invited them to visit his country. They accepted the invitation.
“The organization developed a modus operandi and an approach that built bridges,” Ehrenworth said. “I hope that other organizations can build on those, and continue them.”
Ehrenworth, who remained active in the local chapter until its closure, said he had hoped the organization would attract “a fresh group of leaders” who would continue the work of the PAJC, but the “Jewish marketplace” proved unable to bear that out.
“I suppose the need for the PAJC in its traditional mode is not as important as long as its approach continues,” he said. “We still have a strong CRC, and lots of other Jewish groups that do outreach. Still, in a perfect world, I would rather it stay in existence. In a less-than-perfect world, I’m satisfied by its projects being picked up by other organizations.”
Hochberg finds the closing of the organization “bittersweet,” and is proud of the PAJC’s legacy, including its 60-year-old Caplan-Lieber Award, the annual recognition of an area high school student committed to improving interfaith relations. That award will continue, she said, being stewarded by a small group of PAJC board members and life trustees.
Hochberg lauded the reputation PAJC has earned over the years as being “a strong interfaith partner.”
“We were committed to having courageous conversations that rebuilt relationships,” she said.
The community, though, is best served “by not wasting resources,” Steindel said. “Our chapter had a wonderful history, and I am proud of the decision to walk away.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.