Big AIPAC turnout signals newfound voice for Angelenos

When the largest-ever Los Angeles delegation to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference swept into Washington, D.C., last week, excitement over an upsurge in Jewish Los Angeles’ pro-Israel activism spread contagiously throughout the vast convention center.

It was a momentous occasion for Los Angeles’ Jewish community, which has typically been generous with financial contributions to Israel but light on direct engagement. Many West Coast liberals are frequently accused of having a cavalier attitude about Israel and of not considering pro-Israel politics to be imperative. So when 1,000 area Jews traveled cross-country to participate in the three-day conference this year (twice the number from last year), the effort signaled a marked shift.

That shift was made especially clear at the opening plenary breakfast on June 2, when the pro-Israel lobby announced that three out of four synagogue delegations with more than 100 people in attendance were from Los Angeles: Sinai Temple (240), Stephen S. Wise Temple (160) and Valley Beth Shalom (105).

Overall attendance was strong given that it is both an election year and Israel’s 60th year of independence. More than 7,000 Israel advocates came to hear the most powerful people in Congress — including Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — voice their political support for Israel.

The Southern Pacific region represented the country’s largest delegation to the conference this year with 1,500 attendees from Southern California, Southern Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona.

“Clearly there is something special happening throughout the various Jewish communities across the L.A. area,” said Josh Block, director of strategic communications for AIPAC. “The enormous and record-shattering turnout is a genuine tribute to the strength and passions of the pro-Israel community in L.A. and those that led the effort, including the area’s lay leadership, rabbis and their congregants, and pro-Israel activists, all in partnership with dedicated staff.”

The Los Angeles numbers suggest a shift from the usual East Coast dominance. New York, home to a Jewish population twice the size of that of Los Angeles, brought slightly more than 900 delegates; Miami and Philadelphia, both highly populous in Jewish demography, brought even fewer numbers — approximately 350 delegates — combined.

“When I first went out to L.A. in 1978, my brother told me the granola joke — that Los Angeles is like a granola: Fruits, nuts or flakes — and that’s not true anymore,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, who brought the single largest synagogue delegation in the country.

The trip was organized by congregant Jan Zakowski, whose father, Larry Weinberg, is a former AIPAC president and chairman emeritus of AIPAC’s strategic planning committee.

Los Angeles has matured and grown its own indigenous political culture that is no longer comprised of first generation East Coast expats, Wolpe said. “Maybe the Los Angeles community, unlike say, the New York community, feels they have something to prove.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, perceives a Jewish cultural renaissance happening in Los Angeles, even while demographics of the larger American Jewish community suggest a diminishing vibrancy.

“We’re a superior Jewish community. We’re a community that cares — you can be a Jew in New York without even trying; if you’re a Jew in Los Angeles, it’s because you want to be,” Feinstein said.

Los Angeles’ newfound voice at the conference stems from several factors, including the AIPAC staff here as well as the overflowing pool of pro-Israel support found in Los Angeles. But the bulk of the upswing in support has come from synagogues, where lay leaders have taken an active role in engaging with legislators, and rabbis increasingly use their pulpits to educate congregants on how to support the Jewish state short of living there.

Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple, believes that as Israel celebrates 60 years of existence, American Jews are searching for meaningful ways to engage with the country.

“How do we find a meaningful relationship with an Israel that is now strong, that is vibrant?” Herscher asked. “How can we be partners — not just during times of crisis, not just when there’s war — but how can we have an ongoing relationship with Israel that isn’t only good for Israel, but gives deepened meaning to our Jewish lives here?”

When Stephen S. Wise was founded in 1964 and named for one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement, there was a Zionist culture ingrained in the vision of the synagogue, Herscher explained.

Four years ago, it was high school senior Drew Steinberg, now 21, who first brought AIPAC to the attention of the synagogue’s president — who also happened to be her mother. After interning at the Los Angeles AIPAC office, Drew inspired her mother, Eve Kurtin-Steinberg to galvanize support for AIPAC.

“I had been a Washington Club member not knowing anything, just sending them my money,” said Kurtin-Steinberg, referring to the minimum $1,500 annual contribution level that qualifies members for special programming during the conference.

The 54-year-old managing director of Pacific Venture Group met with AIPAC staffers over breakfast before persuading Herscher to throw in his support. Next, she hosted a parlor meeting at her home in Beverly Hills for the synagogue’s board of directors.

“I basically gently — maybe not-so-gently — said that I expected every member of the board to join AIPAC at least at a Washington Club level,” Kurtin-Steinberg said. “I told AIPAC, ‘If there’s somebody not doing what they should be doing, let me know and I will sit down with them and have a one-on-one.'”

Now, at her fourth policy conference, Kurtin-Steinberg can say that Stephen S. Wise brought the second-largest synagogue delegation in the country, and she can also boast about the substantial political network she has created in her community, which she said hosts from six to eight senators and representatives each year.

“We’re here. We’re a force. We want to be visible when it comes to our commitments to Israel,” said Herscher, who has seen his synagogue delegation double each year since 2006. “I think people are drawn to the policy conference because there’s an excitement generated. Where do you find 7,500 Jews in one room not fighting with each other? It’s a lovefest.”