Theodore R. Mann, a lawyer and activist who worked on landmark First Amendment cases, led Major American Jewish Organizations and became an early and outspoken advocate for a two-state solution in the Middle East, died Dec. 12 at a hospital in Philadelphia. He was 92.
The cause was COVID-19, said his daughter Julie Mann. He had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus that can cause the illness about two weeks earlier, she said.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Czechoslovakia, Mann co-founded a law firm in Philadelphia, where he specialized in complex commercial litigation while taking pro bono cases through the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress. Four years into his legal career, he handled the early phases of a 1963 Supreme Court case, Abington School District v. Schempp, in which the justices ruled 8 to 1 that school-sponsored Bible readings were unconstitutional.
Deeply concerned with the divide between church and state, Mann unsuccessfully argued a 1960 Supreme Court case against a Pennsylvania “blue law,” which allowed only certain stores to be open on Sundays, making business difficult for Jewish shop owners who took off Saturdays, the Sabbath. He found more success arguing a 1973 case in which the Supreme Court struck down a state law reimbursing parents for tuition to parochial schools.
But he was best known as a diplomatic leader of some of America’s most prominent Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Congress, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and what is now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry.
He was also the founding chairman of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national advocacy organization — named for the Hebrew word for food — that aims to end hunger in the United States and Israel. Formed in 1985, the group was guided in part by Mann’s belief “that Judaism means we are meant to stand up for others, and to care for those who are more vulnerable,” regardless of their faith, said Abby Leibman, the organization’s president and chief executive.
“He was at the forefront of social justice in the country generally, and certainly in the Jewish community,” she added in a phone interview. “You felt that from the moment you were in his presence. There was a force of both passion and compassion that emanated from him in everything he said or expressed.”
Mann was arrested in 1984 while demonstrating against apartheid outside the South African Embassy in Washington, and he later joined about 200,000 protesters on the National Mall in marching in solidarity with Soviet Jews who were restricted from leaving the country. More than two decades earlier, he had stood near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington, only to faint from the heat shortly before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Mann had a feisty streak — he once ran away from yeshiva and contemplated a career in musical theater before his father talked him into law school — and sometimes angered other Jewish American leaders with his positions on Israel. Although he sought to promote strong ties between Washington and Jerusalem, he broke with many of his allies by criticizing the occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“I regard dissent as one of the precious jewels of Jewish life in its 4,000 years,” he once said.
As president of the American Jewish Congress in 1987, Mann organized a mission to the Middle East to meet with leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein. The trip left him convinced that Israel needed to withdraw from the territories, according to Robert Lifton, who joined him on the mission and later served as the AJC’s president.
Later that year, in an announcement the Jewish Telegraphic Agency described as “unprecedented for a mainstream Jewish organization,” the AJC warned that if the territories remained under Israeli control, “demographic imperatives will force Israel to choose between becoming a non-Jewish state or a non-democratic state.” Lifton recalled that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations at the time, called him to try to persuade him to “tamp down” the organization’s stance.
Mann later championed “land for peace,” breaking with the administrations of Shamir and Netanyahu, who became prime minister. After years in which American Jewish leaders had publicly supported Israeli policies without reservations, Mann was “breaking a taboo,” said Tom Smerling, who worked with Mann at two advocacy organizations, Project Nishma and the Israel Policy Forum.
“He wasn’t just ahead of his peers. He had the relationships and the touch to bring them along,” said Smerling, who credited Mann with making it a little easier “for American administrations to press forward with the peace process.”
That view was echoed in a statement by Rabbi David Saperstein, director emeritus of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “When others were challenging the right of American Jews holding dovish views on Israel-Palestinian issues to speak out publicly in criticism of Israeli policy,” he said, “Ted helped lead (and eventually win) the argument asserting not only the moral right but moral obligation of critics to speak out.”
“Ted’s entire life,” he added, “represented exactly the voice of moral principle, a fierce commitment to pluralism, and dedication to human rights that is so vitally needed today.”
The youngest of three children, he was born Tibor Mann in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, on Jan. 30, 1928, and came to the United States as an infant, taking the English name Theodore Ralph Mann. His father was a seventh-generation cantor, his mother a homemaker; both lost relatives in the Holocaust. The family lived in Bridgeport, Conn., but moved frequently during the Depression.
Mann served in the Army before receiving a bachelor’s degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1949. After his father persuaded him to try law school for a year, he enrolled at Temple University and “surprised himself and everyone else by loving it,” said his son, Marcus Mann. Drawn to the performative aspects of courtroom trials and the rigorous questioning he had previously practiced while studying the Talmud, he graduated in 1952 and practiced law until 2007.
In retirement he published a memoir, “If I Am Only for Myself . . .” (2012).
His wife of 56 years, the former Rowena Weiss, died in 2010. In recent years he liked to say he was “permanently engaged” to Bebe Weiss, who happens to share his late wife’s maiden name. She survives him, in addition to three children, Julie Mann of Wyncote, Pa., and Rachel and Marcus Mann, both of Philadelphia; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
As chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Mann had a front-row seat to history during the Camp David Accords and the ensuing Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin tipped him off about the treaty and later invited Mann — and his wife, after learning it was their 25th wedding anniversary — to celebrate with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Cairo.
In an essay for the Jewish Exponent, Mann recalled that they flew there with Begin, escorted by Israeli fighter jets, and mingled with Egyptian officials over dinner outside one of Sadat’s palaces. Mann fell asleep during a belly dance performance.
“But the most memorable part of the trip happened back at the hotel bar, where Egyptian musicians were playing ‘Haveinu Shalom Aleichem’ and other Israeli songs of peace,” he said. “Israelis and Egyptians danced together, clapped hands together and sang together. It was simply unbelievable. Even now, 30 years later, I have tears in my eyes as I recall it.”