Phil Baum, the former executive director at the American Jewish Congress, died at home in Riverdale, NY.
Baum, who served in senior positions at the AJCongress for more than five decades, died in his sleep on Wednesday night. He was in his 90s.
He began at the Jewish advocacy organization in the late 1940s shortly after earning his law degree from University of Chicago in his hometown, and soon was named associate executive director, a position he filled until taking over as executive director in 1994. He retired from the post in 2002.
During his lengthy tenure, when the AJCongress was among the most prominent American Jewish advocacy groups, Baum was a leading champion in the US Jewish community of Israel, Soviet Jewry and other causes. For two decades he organized the American-Israeli Dialogue, an annual conference in Israel bringing together American Jewish intellectual leaders with their Israeli counterparts.
Marc Stern, a senior staff member at AJCongress for 33 years and now general counsel at the American Jewish Committee, told JTA that Baum “was the single brightest, most incisive guy I ever met in the organized Jewish community.
“He was head and shoulders above everyone else in the room,” Stern added, noting that Baum was an early champion of many ideas later embraced by the American Jewish community. He said Baum was among the first Jewish leaders to defend the legality of president Truman’s recognition of Israel in May 1948, publishing a legal memorandum on the subject soon after, and to offer a legal defense of Israel’s decision to try Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.
Baum, the son of immigrant parents, served in the US military in World War II.
“One of the greatest disappointments of his life was that he didn’t qualify for pilot training and that he ended up in the Pacific and not fighting the Nazis in Europe,” Stern said.
Baum is survived by his wife, Bette.