Sidney Zilber, left, accepts the first Appeal for Human Relations. 

In the first half of the 20th century, access to country clubs, hospital boards and civic organizations in Cleveland was restricted, preventing Jews and other minorities from gaining membership.

There were catalysts for change within the Jewish community, however, who sought to cross those divides and ease religious and racial tensions. 

“While Sen. (Howard) Metzenbaum was publicly fighting discrimination, AJC leadership – including Bob Hexter, Bob Gries and Sid Zilber – were quietly having discussions at the Union Club and other civic organizations to break those barriers,” said Lee C. Shapiro, who since 2007 has been regional director of AJC Cleveland, a global Jewish advocacy organization.

Throughout its 75-year history, AJC Cleveland has worked not only to break down barriers, but also to build bridges, fight anti-Semitism and eliminate discrimination. 

AJC Cleveland will celebrate its longevity with a May 5 reception at which both of Ohio’s U.S. Sens., Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, and Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, will hold a conversation with David Harris, AJC’s CEO.

The early years

The nonpartisan national organization dates to 1906, when a group of prominent Jewish leaders met in New York City out of concern regarding pogroms in Kishinev, Russia.

From that meeting, the AJC was established “to become the global voice of the Jewish people,” Shapiro said. “At the same time, those founders understood that the best way to protect a Jewish way of life and the Jewish people would be to work toward a world in which all people, not just Jews, were accorded respect and dignity.”

Their method, Shapiro said, was through advocacy and diplomacy.

Thirty-eight years later, in 1944, as World War II raged, AJC leaders launched nine regional chapters, including Cleveland’s, which was formed by 18 people.

“And when they held their first meeting, over 100 people attended,” Shapiro said.

Founding member Max Freedman was the first president of the Cleveland chapter. 

A lasting legacy 

Now one of 22 regional offices, AJC Cleveland has tackled pressing issues both in Cleveland and throughout the world using the same avenues established by its founders.

“Today, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” AJC Cleveland president Rachel Uram wrote in a statement. “They built the foundation blocks for the work we do today – the advocacy, bridge-building and diplomacy on behalf of Israel, combating anti-Semitism, and in pursuit of a more democratic and pluralistic world. … Staying true to core Jewish values, we work to make our world a little better, a little more just and a little more at peace.”

Key issues to which AJC Cleveland staff and supporters are responding include the rise of hate crimes, anti-Semitism and combating the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Issues of the 20th century

In the 1950s, AJC Cleveland brought speakers to address the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe and the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregation in America’s public schools was unconstitutional.

As early as 1956, the plight of Soviet Jews was discussed at AJC’s national meeting, held that year in Cleveland. That continued as a concern of the AJC for decades.

“AJC in the early ’60s was very active in civil rights,” said Bob Gries, AJC Cleveland president from 1968 to 1970. “In fact, that’s what propelled me to join in the early ’60s.” 

In 1967, AJC Cleveland received national recognition for its work on human rights during the national annual meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Sidney Zilber, who had been both regional director and president, accepted the award. That same year, AJC Cleveland launched the Glenville High School Scholars Club.

“One of those who we mentored at the time was Mike White, who became the three-term mayor of Cleveland,” Gries recalled. 

Reaching out

Gries said he had conversations with the Catholic community, both in Cleveland and internationally. Gries was on an AJC delegation in 1965 that visited the Vatican and met Pope Paul VI. The AJC is credited for influencing some of the policies that came out under Nostra Aetate or the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, approved by the Second Vatican Council.

“We were very active with establishing relations ... with the ethnic communities of Cleveland,” Gries said.

Those efforts became critical when Seven Hills auto worker John Demjanjuk was identified as a suspect of war crimes during World War II. Demjanjuk was arrested and tried for war crimes in a decades-long case that led to tension between the Ukrainian and Jewish communities.

Marty Plax, AJC Cleveland area director for 25 years, reached out to the Ukrainian community in Cleveland immediately, forging lasting ties.

In its 75 years, AJC Cleveland – with a staff of just two and one of the smaller regional offices – has been recognized five times with the George and Shirley M. Szabad Regional Office Achievement Award for an outstanding program or initiative.

Looking to the future

Former AJC Cleveland president Alan Melamed has worked on AJC’s international agenda as a result of his work with the national organization. He considers his greatest achievement to be bringing Shapiro to AJC Cleveland, whose leadership he admires. 

Shapiro said she and the AJC always try to think ahead as to what the pressing issues may be as they forge new relationships, adding that AJC Cleveland has recently launched a Bridges to the World quarterly speakers series, with Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute of Human Rights, and Deidre Berger, director of the AJC Berlin Lawrence and Lee Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations, as the first speakers.

The current legislative agenda includes issues of importance to African-Americans, Muslims, Latinos and Jews, Shapiro said.

Melamed marveled at the AJC’s 16th Global Diplomatic Interfaith Leadership Passover Seder, which took place April 11 at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood.

“We had five bishops,” he said. “We had people from every major community and ethnic and religious community. People have built relationships out of it. … You never know when those relationships are going to be of value and importance in the community, but they (are).”

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