There are a lot of firsts in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s life. The 47-year-old, who was raised in the San Fernando Valley by Sukey Roth, the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, the son of Mexican immigrants, is the city’s first elected Jewish mayor, and its youngest.
A lifelong Democrat and a vocal supporter of Israel, Garcetti has hinted he may make a presidential run in 2020. Were he to do so and win the election, he would become the first person in history to ascend directly from mayor to president. As rumors abound about his plans for national office, the Journal asked to meet with him to talk about his Judaism, how he celebrates the High Holy Days and, yes, a little bit of politics, too.
Garcetti, who studies Talmud regularly with IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous and keeps a Humash and tefillin on the bookshelf in his office, happily obliged.
Jewish Journal: You’re Jewish on your mother’s side but did not grow up practicing. When did you become more connected to your faith?
Eric Garcetti: A little bit in college at Columbia, but it was when I was studying graduate studies at Oxford. It was interesting. I have people from Oxford who now are all over the news, from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a pretty conservative voice, to Peter Beinart, who was in my Rhodes class and got arrested. Not arrested. Detained at the airport in Israel [on Aug. 13]. (Editor’s note: Garcetti was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford from 1993-1996).
JJ: Do you consider yourself of any particular denomination?
EG: No, I go to IKAR, so I guess that would make me more Conservative in practice. And I love that, but there’s something about the strands of social justice that permeates Reform Judaism that appeals to me, too. IKAR is a Conservative practice that brings in the urgency of social and political reflection.
JJ: What are some of those social issues that are most important to you these days?
EG: The biggest issue is poverty in this time of plenty. It’s reflected in homelessness. It’s reflected in educational gaps. It’s reflected in racial disparities. Poverty is the defining issue of our age. I think the second is kindness and decency. The Trump era has called everyone’s bluff about do you want to be yellers and fighters and screamers or do we have a space for peaceful dissent and for listening? It’s a very specific thing, but in material terms, devoting our lives to ending poverty and providing equal starting lines for people is what keeps me awake.
JJ: It sounds like a Rabbi Brous High Holy Days sermon.
EG: There you go. Let’s do it. I’m ready. I’ll tell her she can take a day off.
JJ: Are you going to IKAR this year for the High Holy Days?
JJ: There is a video of you online singing “Lean on Me” at IKAR last year. Are you going to be singing something this year?
EG: I do whatever my rabbi [Brous] asks of me. That was a last-
minute change and since it was the High Holy Days, I couldn’t look up the lyrics. I was supposed to sing [Woody Guthrie’s] “This Land Is
Your Land,” which I’d done the last two years for the prayer for our
nation. She [Brous] was like, “What about [Bill Withers’] ‘Lean on Me?’ ” We had 10 minutes’ notice. With a couple of bad notes, I think we pulled it off.
JJ: Will you attend other synagogues over the High Holy Days?
“The Pico Union Project is great. It makes me feel at home in a Latino neighborhood with Jewish practice and the strands woven in from the surrounding areas.”
EG: I’m going to be at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I think for Kol Nidre, I’m going to be at Temple Aliyah. And we’re going to try to get to an Orthodox synagogue, B’nai David-Judea. And maybe, if I have time, go to the [Pico Union] Project. It’s great, it’s awesome. [It] makes me feel at home in a Latino neighborhood with Jewish practice and the strands woven in from the surrounding areas.
JJ: If you do decide to run for president, how do you feel about the wing of the Democratic Party that is anti-Israel?
EG: I think that the overwhelming majority of Jews are Democrats. I think they’re progressive Democrats who understand that sometimes the overly conservative politics of Israel don’t represent them, but it is a core part of who we are that Israel should be defended and she should be uplifted and our loyalty should be about improving her, not about abandoning her.
JJ: When did you first visit Israel?
EG: I think [it was] 1987. I was 16 years old and I had spent time on a relief mission with the North American Conference of Ethiopian Jewry in Ethiopia.
JJ: Do you see any parallels about what the Ethiopians faced and what asylum-seekers are facing today?
EG: Absolutely. It’s very easy in both nations to see the power of closing the gates, of walling up the nation and of pointing fingers. That’s not, to me, what Judaism has ever been about or who we are. I think we’re at our greatest when we’ve been able to integrate in Israel, and here, Soviet Jewry, Ethiopian Jewry, North African Jewry. That’s when we are at our best, not just as Jews but as human beings.
For the full transcript of this interview, click here.