A Judaism of public service

When I asked Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky whether his Judaism has influenced his work as a supervisor, which involves helping some of society’s sickest and poorest people, his answer was as complicated as the man himself.

I’ve found that asking Jewish politicians how Judaism affects their work produces replies more introspective and thoughtful than their usual carefully crafted responses. This was also the case with Yaroslavsky, who is beginning his last year on the board, forced out by term limits. Previously, he was a Los Angeles city councilman, and before that he was a young leader in the movement to free Jews from the Soviet Union.

Yaroslavsky and his colleagues — Gloria Molina, Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas — are responsible for administering welfare, foster care, public health, county hospitals, the jails, homeless services — in fact, just about everything dealing with the low end of the economic scale in Los Angeles County.

He paused to consider my question, then said: “I think the answer to that is no. It doesn’t give me any special insight. I think that anyone who suggests that a Jewish politician has any advanced insight over social justice issues over anybody else hasn’t read the New Testament or talked to any of my colleagues. … I don’t think you can pigeonhole people based on religious upbringing.’’

And yet, Yaroslavsky said, there’s something different about being Jewish, influenced by the concept of tikkun olam, repairing and healing what is broken in society. “We know what it is like to be marginalized or persecuted, and if we can’t respond to people who are now being marginalized and persecuted or eliminated, then who are we?” he asked. “So there is definitely a sense of obligation for all the right reasons.”

But, he added, “We are not the only people who believe that. There are many religions [that do]; the Catholic Church has made incredible sacrifices in countries in Central America, in other parts of the world. … I think what is unique about the Jews is that we are such a small number of people on the planet … 13 million and dropping … a small number of people who, because of this obligation to tikkun olam, and to step into the breach, we carry a disproportionate impact. … Where there is a social justice cause, where there is a civil rights cause, where there is a human rights cause, the odds are you are going to see Jews involved. … And that’s who we are.”

As we talked, I referred to him as an “observant Jew,” which I thought he was.

Yaroslavsky interrupted. “I’m not observant in the sense that I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t go the synagogue every Saturday,” he said. “I was raised in a Labor Zionist home; religion was not part of the Jewish atmosphere of the house, but it was a very Jewish household. Israel was the centerpiece of the household. My parents were both Hebrew teachers. My first language was Hebrew. … My sister immigrated to Israel. We celebrated the Jewish holidays, not as religious holidays so much, but as Jewish festivals. Passover was a tradition; Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the only two religious holidays we celebrated. I still do. We keep kosher at home.

“When you say observant,” he clarified, “I think of people who don’t drive on the Sabbath, [who] go to shul every morning, or once a week. I’m not religious in that sense; I’m traditional, I identify with the Jewish people. Rabbis of course will debunk everything I am about to say, but I just don’t find you have to be a religiously observant Jew to be a good Jew or an active Jew. With 13 million Jews on this planet, there is enough room in that tent for a variety of ways to celebrate your Judaism.” 

A great influence on him was Labor Zionism — the socialist-oriented movement born amid Europe’s anti-Semitism. “Labor Zionism was basically a movement to create a Jewish state with social justice values. … Everybody had a stake in society, not just the people who were wealthy, not just people who had it made,” Yaroslavsky said.

“A lot of the people in the union movement in the early part of the 20th century came out of the Labor Zionist movement,” he added, “people who were in the civil rights movement disproportionately came out of the Labor Zionist movement. I was inculcated in values of social justice, civil rights and the story of the persecution of the Jewish people, of my own family.

“When I was growing up, going into government was a way to advance the values of social justice. On all levels, the international level, the national level, the local level. That’s what got me interested in politics in the first place … certainly what got me involved in the Soviet Jewry movement,” he said.

“I certainly didn’t think I would stay in local government for four decades. But what has kept me motivated and going in this field was the opportunity to make a difference. It’s a cliché, but its true.”

I wondered how this translated into action in Los Angeles County, where the problems are so great that, I suggested to him, “You must feel like you are banging your head against a wall.”

Yaroslavsky replied, “Almost everything we do in county government can make you feel as though you are banging your head against a wall, because Los Angeles County is the biggest county in the United States, 10 million people, almost 2.5 million at one point were uninsured, had no health insurance. In Los Angeles, the problems are on steroids. … You can throw your hands in the air and say there is no way you can house 55,000 homeless people.  I say, ‘That’s right, there’s no way.’ But we can house 5,000. And the template we use to house 5,000, we can then use to house 15,000 or 20,000. Pretty soon we can pretty much take care of the problem. It’s a matter of doing it in bite-sized chunks.

“It’s like we’re a football team that is down 45-to-0 at halftime. All we need to do is score seven touchdowns. It isn’t going to be easy, but you’ve got to take your shots. So I am not intimidated by the numbers, not even intimidated by the county jail situation,” he said, referring
to the overcrowded jails facing charges of brutality by sheriff’s deputies and, at the same time, dealing with growing numbers of mentally
ill inmates. 

After our conversation, I realized I had forgotten to ask him what he’d be doing after his term ends. He replied by e-mail: “I have made no plans at this point. I’m still focused on finishing my term and completing the goals I set for this final year. I plan to write a memoir about my work as a public servant in Southern California and to stay involved in one or more capacities in the civic life of Los Angeles. I have not yet decided how I’m going to allocate my time or where.”  

It should be a valuable book.