When you meet Felice Gaer, you don’t immediately realize that you are sitting across a café table from someone who has stared down dictators, has listened to shattering stories of abuse and torture, and has had the brains, tenacity, stomach, and overall decency to make a difference — a very real difference — in this often terrifying and senseless world.
You think, at first, that you are meeting a calm, soft-spoken, certainly worldly but still regular person.
Then you ask about her life, and the more you hear, the more you stare in wonder.
Ms. Gaer has lived in Bergen County for most of her life. She was born in Englewood and grew up in Teaneck; after she married in 1975, she moved to River Edge. Now she and her husband live in Paramus.
When she was a child, Ms. Gaer’s father was in a business that must have made her the envy of all her friends. He owned a toy store in Englewood. “It was called Gaer Toys, and it was on the corner of Palisades and Dean,” she said. “It was okay, having him have a toy store. You’d go in and pick out whatever you wanted, and he would scowl, and then he’d say okay.”
Her father, Abraham Gaer, grew up on a truck farm in Patchogue, out on eastern Long Island; her mother, Beatrice, grew up in Hackensack and graduated from Hackensack High School.
“I have only positive memories of Teaneck,” Ms. Gaer said. “It was progressive. I had a top-level education.” Students had concerned, involved parents, who valued education. Many of them, as stereotypical as it seems, were Jewish. “And there were really smart kids in my grade, and in the school,” she added. The school offered many advanced placement courses; it also had typing classes that were mandatory for all seventh graders, girls and boys alike.
“I was interested in science, and we had advanced placement biology,” Ms. Gaer said. So she took it. But it wasn’t biology that set Ms. Gaer on the path she’d follow for her entire career. It was Russian.
As a result of the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Russia’s first satellite, American politicians rushed to beef up U.S. education to counter the threat of Russian technology through the National Defense Act of 1958. Schools adjusted to the challenge, offering many more science and math classes. They also occasionally offered Russian. Teaneck High School was among those schools. “I wasn’t going to sign up for Russian, but I couldn’t be in band and take advanced math and also take the language I wanted — I don’t even remember what that language was anymore — so I took Russian,” Ms. Gaer said. “It probably was the most significant thing I did.”
Ms. Gaer went to Wellesley College in 1964; she was one class ahead of Hillary Clinton. “We were in a class together in my senior year,” she said.
She majored in political science and took as many classes as she could in Russian history and “Russian-related stuff.”
There had been no Russian-born students in her high-school class, she said, and none in college either. “It was only when I was in college that we began to hear complaints about Soviet Jewry. I remember an argument on campus about whether Russian Jews were treated worse than or the same as other Russians.” The consensus back then was no, Jews were not treated worse than other Russians.
After college, Ms. Gaer went to graduate school, studying political science in general and at the Russian Institute there in particular. “I worked with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Marshall Shulman there,” she said. Both were famous and influential statesmen and scholars. “Brzezinski was Carter’s national security adviser,” she said. “He was a hawk and a founder of the Trilateral Commission. Shulman was a specialist on Russia for Cyrus Vance; he was for détente and working things out. The two of them were very different.” She learned much from both of them.
“I got my master’s degree and took my doctoral exams, and then one day I got a note asking ‘Would you be interested in a job in New York?’ I said I might, although I was told that it might delay my dissertation.
“The note was from the Ford Foundation.” The delay in writing her dissertation became infinite — she never did finish that degree — but Ms. Gaer’s move to the Ford Foundation, as an assistant program officer, in 1974, “opened up another world. A world not of books and learning and the like, but of people and processes and institutions, and the power of philanthropy.”
As Ms. Gaer described the wide world that opened in front of her as she left the confines of uptown academia for the midtown east glass tower that housed Ford, with its hanging gardens and atrium and “huge doors of brass and leather with the interior all glass, literally transparent for a nontransparent organization,” it sounded as if she were describing Dorothy opening the door once her house had landed in Oz, and going from the black and white of Kansas to the glittering land of Oz.
Of course, Ms. Gaer was an extraordinarily sophisticated Dorothy.
“I was responsible for a number of things dealing with Soviet and Eastern European arms control,” she said. “I was assistant program officer and then promoted to program officer and I was on the foundation’s public policy commission,” she said. She analyzed defense systems and worked on arms control. “We were trying to address the global desire of people in the military to have new toys,” she said. “We looked at whether it was necessary for what they needed to accomplish.”
Her expertise in both analytics and in firsthand experience — her job then, like her job now, and all her jobs in between, entailed huge amounts of travel — allowed her to put together the plan that she said “probably is the most influential thing I did in my life.
“I decided that there was an enormous division between experts on Soviet Eastern Europe and the people who worked on arms control, on bombs and bullets,” she said. One side knew about technology and the other knew about the emotional truth of people’s lives, “but there was an enormous gulf between them.” The elegant answer to a gulf is a bridge. “So I came up with a dual program where they would study each other’s stuff,” Ms. Gaer said.
Condoleezza Rice, later President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, was in that program. “Hers was an unusual application,” Ms. Gaer said. “She was a specialist on the Czech army. That was unusual. And all the others were from the Ivies and Stanford. She came from the University of Denver. Almost all of the others were men — not all, but most. And she was African American. Not one of the others was African American.
“So we had a number of telephone conversations, and I pushed for her, and she got it.” But as much as the two women knew each other’s voices, they never met. “And then, when I was on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2001, she came to the meeting, walked around to shake everyone’s hand, I told her my name, she stopped dead in her tracks, turned around to the rest of them, and said, ‘I don’t know if you have any idea how important this woman has been to my career and my life.’”
Ms. Gaer was at Ford from 1974 to 1981. “In my later years in graduate school, and then when I was at Ford, the dissident movement was growing in the Soviet Union,” she said. “I had gotten involved in supporting Soviet émigrés when I was at Ford. They were professionals in the Soviet context — scholars, teachers, engineers, social scientists — but they lacked skills in the American context. We set up a program to help them with their resumes, with learning how to interview, and sometimes we subsidized their first year. It was an enormously important program. Imperfect, but enormously important.”
In 1981, she became the executive director of a small New York-based NGO, the International League for Human Rights. It was “closely aligned with Andrei Sakharov, the dean of the Soviet dissident movement,” who won a Nobel Peace Prize. She also “worked on human rights in the rest of the world outside Europe,” Ms. Gaer said. “I developed an expertise on Chile, on China, on some African countries, on how multilateral institutions really operate.
“I was there for 10 years, and when the Clinton administration was elected I was asked to be what they called a public member of some commissions.” Through that role, which no longer exists, “the commissions had State Department officials and also experts to serve the delegation and to be part of it. Some of the public members were honorific — they didn’t work — but not me.”
Those commissions were the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations World Conference on Women, and the World Conference on Human Settlements.
During those busy years, Ms. Gaer and her husband had two children. Her husband, Dr. Henryk Baran, is a retired professor who was at SUNY Albany’s department of languages, literature, and culture; he specialized in Russian language and literature. Unsurprisingly, he has had a highly distinguished career. The couple’s two sons are Adam, a filmmaker, and Hugh, an attorney.
Meanwhile, she kept adding more professional commitments as well. “In 1999, the Clinton administration nominated me to be an independent expert member of the committee against torture,” she said. “It’s a treaty-monitoring body administered by the U.N., but it has an independent mandate. I’m vice-chair.
“You get to engage with officials from all the ratifying countries,” Ms. Gaer said. “There now are 163 of them. We meet face to face and raise issues of how their laws and practices conform with what the treaty requires.
“The treaty requires criminalizing torture and taking a whole series of very specific measures to prevent it, including investigating alleged torture, providing complaint mechanisms, and ensuring that places of custody are inspected and that both torture and ill treatment are addressed.
“It’s a 10-member committee, and we divide the work up by country. When I started, it was five weeks a year; now, we spend 12 weeks a year in Geneva, where we meet. We have challenged the Chinese, the Russians, Saudi Arabia, the Uzbeks, Qatar, and Ireland.
“I have been the person who pushed the issue of the Magdalene laundries at the U.N. level,” she added. The laundries were church-run institutions that imprisoned women who were not considered adequately respectable or responsible; they were horrific places, places of torture and confinement, shrouded in secrecy. The first one opened in 1765, the last one did not close until 1996, and the Irish government finally offered apologies and reparations in 2013.
“I will never forget the junior minister in charge of justice for Ireland, when we asked him questions about the Magdalene laundries,” Ms. Gaer said. “First of all it was run by the church, he said, and second of all the girls who were there all were there voluntarily, or with the consent of their parents. I said, ‘Consent. What does that mean?’ We went through a scenario. I asked, was the door locked? Was there barbed wire? Were the girls locked in cells? If they escaped, did the police bring them back?” The answers to all those questions were yes.
In fact, Ms. Gaer said, she as was told informally that one of the reasons that the laundries ceased to exist might have been human rights, but another was “when they invested in automatic washing machines, all that went away.
“This was a story about transparency,” she continued. “Before this, our meetings had been audiotaped, but now they were videotaped. Someone took the clip and sent it to the media and to the Irish Senate, and there were exposes written about it.
“Within three weeks, the president of Ireland appointed a state commission to look into it, and within six months he apologized.”
In 1993, Ms. Gaer left the League. “I went to the American Jewish Committee, where I have been ever since,” she said. She’s the head of the AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, “which works trying to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other instruments a little closer to reality.” The institute, according to its website, “focuses on pro-Israel, human relations, as well as human and civil rights.”
“Jacob Blaustein was an industrialist,” Ms. Gaer said. “He was the inventor of the gasoline pump and a founder of Amoco and a president of the American Jewish Committee. He believed, as people did in the 1940s, that you can’t protect one group of people without protecting all groups of people. You can’t protect Jews unless you protect everyone.
“He was at the U.N.’s founding meeting in San Francisco, and he ensured that human rights would be in its charter. Russia and England didn’t want it, but it’s there. And he stayed with the issue of human rights until he died in 1970.
“He created the institute; the focus on multilateral institutions came from there, and we have stayed with it. It is our pre-eminent focus.
“I bring my philanthropic experiences together with my advocacy experiences together here,” she said. “It’s an unusual perch.”
Her move was “logical,” she added. “When I got there, I was appointed, first by “ Gephardt” — the Missouri congressman who was the House Minority Leader — and then Nancy Pelosi” — the Californian who has that position now — “and the Obama administration, to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom” — where she finally met Condi Rice — “where I was able to bring both a human rights and a Jewish perspective. I was the only Jew there for a number of years.
“I remember going there and saying ‘What about anti-Semitism?’ There were a lot of evangelicals there, and a Catholic bishop, and they said ‘Anti-Semitism is not a religious issue,’ and I said ‘The heck it isn’t religious.’ And I made sure that we put a lot of effort into the issue.”
She recalls talking to the Saudis about anti-Semitism in meetings both in Washington and in Saudi Arabia, which she visited twice. “We sat there with the Saudis’ minister of religious endowments. I asked about their textbooks, and the fact that they appeared to teach the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in higher education.
“The Saudi minister said, ‘We are against anti-Semitism. I have to tell you that we opposed anti-Semitism. It is not accepted.
“‘But this book, the Protocols — well, it is a different matter. It has quite a history in this country. My father used to have it at home. We are not prepared to denounce it.’
“And we said ‘This is a forgery. It promotes anti-Semitism. It establishes Jews as demons trying to establish world control.’ And he said, ‘Well, we will have to see.’
“When you have a commission like this, with the right people on it, you can raise issues like that. And we were able to report accurately on the Saudis.”
It’s not as if more clarity on Saudi Arabia has changed official U.S. policy. “Before we started pressing on the issue of Saudi Arabia, all we got were excuses for Saudi conduct from our government,” Ms. Gaer said. “In about 2003 or ‘04, we were able to get the Bush 43 administration to designate Saudi Arabia as a severe violator of religious freedom. But the bad news is that they would waive any penalties. Everyone else, even Obama, has waived sanctions against Saudi Arabia.”
When she went to Saudi Arabia, “I did not wear a chador,” she said. “I asked about it, and they said, ‘You are not Muslim, so you do not have to. I would have in a mosque, as a sign of respect, but not in an office building.”
In all her work, “I raise individual cases within countries,” she said. “I ask about people who were tortured or ill treated. I also raised issues about gender-based violence.”
She makes a point to visit minority religious communities whenever she can, Ms. Gaer said. “That means Bahais in Egypt and Iraq. When we went to Syria in 2007, we met with Yazidis. We meet with Jewish groups whenever we can. We meet with Catholics in Protestant countries and with Protestants in Catholic countries, and whenever we are in Muslim countries we try to meet with Jews.”
Now, at the AJC, “I am able to focus on religious freedom for everyone, not only for Jews, but all my work is based on Jewish values.
“Human rights do not defend themselves,” she said.
The world is in a perilous place just now, Ms. Gaer said, and she is not sanguine about the future. “We are not seeing American leadership,” she said. “Instead, we are seeing American leavership.
“Instead of mobilizing our resources and using our diplomatic clout, we are denouncing and leaving institutions rather than shaping them.
“Around the world, we haven’t been appointing top people, and we’ve been leaving the second-tier people on their own out here. It is really sad and troubling. We have spent years building up connections so that we can use them, not lose them. It will take years and years to rebuild them.”
And, she added, talking about the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville and President Trump’s statement that there were fine people on both sides of that march, “words have consequences. When you give legitimacy to that kind of sentiment, other terrible things follow. This is a terrible moment.
“We need more people to speak up, because as Elie Wiesel said, ‘neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’
“The Jewish community is stronger when it sticks to its core values,” she added.
In May, the Jewish Theological Seminary gave Ms. Gaer an honorary doctorate, honoring in particular her “steadfast advocacy on behalf of international human rights causes.”
Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck is the AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “It’s a remarkable gift to work at the AJC side by side with people who are acknowledged leaders in their field,” he said. “Felice is one of those people.
“She is among a handful of pre-eminent leaders in human rights, religious freedom, the protest against torture, and women’s rights in the world. For me to have that contact with a repository of knowledge and activism every day is wonderful. And I have that gift every day at the AJC.
“Felice is one of those people who is universally acknowledged as an expert. Has anyone served longer on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom? She has served five terms, several of them as its chair.
“And she does it as an expression of Jewish values.”
Ms. Gaer is a prime example of someone who can blend the universal with the particular, Rabbi Marans said. “If we don’t care about the world, we can’t expect the world to care about the Jewish people. So we do it both because it is right, and out of enlightened self-interest. Everything we do of course is on behalf of the Jewish people, but it is clear that our Jewish values are manifest in this seemingly universal endeavor.
“Felice is first and foremost about the Jewish people. In an age where we have to guard against Jewish particularism, it is this kind of work that enables us to manifest our concern for the Jewish people by showing that we show up for everyone who is in need.
“And what else is amazing about Felice is that she knows everything. She’s what the Talmud describes as a well that never leaks. Everything comes in, and she doesn’t lose any of her knowledge. She is a voracious reader of the Jewish world. She always knows something that most of us gloss over but she does not.”
And there’s something else. “Felice is a tough woman,” Rabbi Marans said. “She’s like a sabra, tough on the outside and sweet on the inside. And given what she’s done in her career, she has to be tough. Do you think she’s welcome in these countries? No. She is not welcome in these countries.
“She writes reports about the lack of religious freedom. That doesn’t make you popular in the places that she visits.
“I am glad that she is out there fighting the good fight not only for the Jewish people, but for all people who care about human rights and religious freedom and opposition to torture and women’s enfranchisement.”
“I am so proud that the institution that ordained my father” — Rabbi Arnold Marans — “and ordained my wife” — Rabbi Amy Roth — “and ordained me had the good judgment to present Felice Gaer with an honorary doctorate,” Noam Marans said.
One other thing. It’s striking that Felice Gaer — who has worked on so many committees and commissions and in so many other important groups that we can’t list them all here — is named as she is.
In Hebrew, Gaer means stranger. It’s not clear where the name comes from; “I have seen ten different spellings of it,” Ms. Gaer said. The family is Russian; “I always have a crazy theory about it, that I have no backup for whatsoever, that an Irish customs officer changed it, because Gaer is a place in Ireland.”
Still, it is hard not to think that there is some meaning to this consummate insider, whose life’s work has been helping outsiders, is named “stranger.” It is her mission to make sure that strangers remain outsiders no longer.