[by Shiela Steinman Wallace, Editor, Community]
There are a number of national Jewish organizations that advocate for Israel, contesting misrepresentations about Israel, advocating for the continuation of close American/Israeli strategic, diplomatic, defense and economic ties and on many levels. One of those organizations is the American Jewish Committee. Founded in 1906, the AJC is a global Jewish advocacy organization, with its main office in New York, 22 regional offices spread across North America and nine overseas posts. Recently, the agency began exploring a new strategy: engaging communities without offices to establish connections across regions where they have not traditionally had active representation. Overseeing this effort is Melanie Maron Pell who has chosen to return home to Louisville to begin this new phase of her work. Pell has been away from Louisville for 15 years and is excited about returning and reconnecting with friends and the Jewish community. For the last six and a half years, Pell has been the director of AJC’s Washington Region. She described her new position, director of regional engagement, as an experiment – an opportunity for her to work from her home in an area where AJC doesn’t have an established office. “Part of the job,” she said, “is creating a vision for what a presence looks like where we don’t have a physical office. AJC has closed a few offices in the past few years, and we’re working with some of the communities where offices have been closed to envision a new model of engagement.” For Pell, that means looking at everything from programming and connecting to people to online advocacy and getting more people to Global Forum, AJC’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. She’s eager to engage people who are interested in advocacy, interfaith and intergroup work and diplomatic outreach. “We’re trying to figure out how to create experiences like that in places where there is no office,” she said. “It’s entrepreneurial in many ways, which is fun for me and it’s a challenge, because it’s a great big country and there are many places we can explore.” Pell likes to describe the AJC as, “the voice to the non-Jewish world for Jewish issues and concerns, focusing heavily on the international. Throughout the continent, where there are embassies and consular corps, we’re always trying to convey our issues. “Israel is front and center,” she continued. The AJC advocates for its “peace and security, ideally alongside a secure and peaceful Palestinian state, actively working to combat Iran’s nuclear program and to build the international coalition against nuclear Iran.” A recent example of the work she has helped with at AJC is the European Union’s declaration that Hezbollah military wing is a terrorist organization. “A full win,” she elaborated, “would have been a declaration of both the political and military wing as terrorist organizations, but we see this as critical step.” “Another thing that distinguishes AJC is manner in which we work,” Pell explained. “A lot of our history has been quiet and diplomatic,” and that means that some of AJC’s best stories remain untold rather than risking compromising their efforts. There is some overlap in the work AJC does with the work done by groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Louisville’s Jewish Community Relations Council has long been active with JCPA, and has often taken leadership roles within the organization. “We work with JCPA,” Pell said. “They do incredible work, but they have a broad agenda and put greater emphasis on some domestic issues like poverty. “We work with them on issues like immigration reform and other domestic issues,” she continued. “We also collaborate with them a lot on interfaith issues. We’re more international, and they’re more domestic. We complement each other quite well.” On Israel advocacy and keeping a focus on the threat posed by Iran, AIPAC’s and AJC’s work are complementary. AIPAC is an outspoken public advocate for Israel. AJC works more behind the scenes, building long-term relationships with groups and governments internationally, identifying common issues and working together on them. One of AJC’s more visible programs is Project Interchange. This program brings leaders from all walks of life from many different countries on educational trips to Israel. They’ve taken American national, state and local elected officials; student leaders, faculty and administrators from universities; Chinese educators; imams from India; German parliamentarians; Latino leaders and others. Altogether, AJC puts together around 30 trips a year. “I’ve staffed four trips,” Pell said, “and I tell people if you don’t come home confused, we’ve failed. Our goal is to present an unvarnished look at Israel. We meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and spend a day in Ramallah. We want them to meet Palestinians, Arab Israelis, settlers, activists, business leaders, academics and immigrants in absorption centers. We want them to see the whole picture and form their own opinions.” Once participants return to their homes, the AJC maintains an alumni network that offers regular phone briefings, newsletters and things to keep the participants connected. “Really remarkable things come out of it,” Pell observed, including city-to-city and university partnerships. “The impact is very real.” Pell is eager to identify possible participants for Project Interchange seminars from the Kentucky area. In fact, the University of Louisville Provost Shirley Willihnganz is confirmed to participate in a Project Interchange seminar for University Provosts in January. Pell, the daughter of Anne and Mel Maron, grew up in Louisville. She is married to Ken Pell. She earned her BA, magna cum laude, in fine arts from the University of Louisville and her J.D. with honors from Chicago-Kent College of Law. She has been admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, the State of Illinois and the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois. She has served as a Board member for several organizations including the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition, the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and the Alliance of Latinos and Jews, among others. Prior to joining the AJC staff in 2001, she worked as a Public Interest Law Initiative intern for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law; a certified mediator for landlord tenant disputes in Cook County, IL; a judicial intern and a legal clinic intern. For more information about AJC, visit www.ajc.org or email Pell at email@example.com.