Anyone from the Western part of the United States aspiring to national Jewish leadership has “got to be an 11 on a scale of one to 10,” Burton Levinson says. “We’ve got a lot of eights and nines in Los Angeles and elsewhere, but that’s not good enough.”
Put another way, “For American Jewry, Jerusalem is in New York,” the Los Angeles attorney asserts.
And that may well be the downer if not outright deterrent that is serving to discourage young fresh California faces from becoming active players on the national scene.
It’s not a case of sour grapes for Levinson. Despite his Western home base, he served a four-year term as national president of the Anti-Defamation League, and earlier chaired the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
There are other Angelenos who have stormed the ramparts of Gotham and Washington to become national leaders. However, even they will acknowledge that, if only for logistical reasons, it takes an extraordinary sacrifice in time, and often money, to play with the big Eastern boys on their own turf.
With few exceptions, the conventions and board meetings of national organizations meet in New York or Washington, and heavy lobbying efforts focus, naturally, on the nation’s capital. Chicago, Florida, Houston or Los Angeles are rarely chosen, and then only for specifically regional meetings.
Levinson recalls that during his 20 years on ADL’s board of directors, he would fly to New York every three weeks, come to Washington every other month and, in addition, attend three national meetings a year and three overseas conferences.
For residents along the Boston-New York-Washington axis, it’s no big deal to attend a meeting in each others’ cities by hopping on a plane in the morning and returning in the evening. For Levinson, each transcontinental trip meant an investment of two to three days.
Since he accepted no reimbursement for his travels, the constant jaunts also ran into real money.
If you live on the West Coast and want to cut a national figure, he concludes: “You really ought to be semi-retired and wealthy.”
Beyond the mechanics, though, there is a less tangible feeling among some Westerners that, like Rodney Dangerfield, they “don’t get no respect” from a smug Jewish establishment along the Eastern Seaboard.
While this perception is by no means unanimous among Westerners, and is firmly rejected by Eastern leaders, it cannot be entirely shrugged off as a provincial inferiority complex.
Levinson recalls chairing a session at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations some years back, at which an overflow audience stood in the back while scattered seats were still available in the front rows.
When Levinson asked the persons sitting next to vacant seats to raise their hands to allow standees to find places, an organization professional from New York complimented him by saying, “I’m so impressed that someone from the West Coast came up with this idea,” the New Yorker said in all seriousness.
Joel Kotkin, an astute public policy analyst and commentator in Los Angeles, believes that “Institutionally, the West Coast is out of the loop. Read the Forward, which bills itself as a national Jewish weekly, and the West Coast barely exists.”
Just as in the general society where California “is defined not by itself, but by East Coast journalists,” so “West Coast Jewry is being colonized intellectually by New Yorkers,” Kotkin asserts.
Gary Wexler, whose marketing and advertisement firm counts numerous national organizations, ranging from Chabad to Steven Spielberg’s foundations, among its clients, believes that “by-and- large, East Coast leaders discount the West Coast.”
The perceived attitude may be based on different thought processes characterizing the two coastal enclaves. Non-traditional Westerners thrive on pragmatic experiments, while New Yorkers prefer “an intellectual approach that speaks to the elite, but not to amcha,” or the man on the street, Wexler notes.
Los Angeles civil rights attorney Douglas A. Mirell says his long service as board member and president of the regional American Jewish Congress chapter validates his belief that the “Torah comes down from Manhattan.”
Mirell cites the constant friction between centralized national control exerted from New York and independent initiatives by outlying regions as one factor in the recent split between the national AJCongress and the Los Angeles chapter. The latter has reconstituted itself as the Progressive Jewish Alliance, with Mirell as president-elect.
In general, Mirell says, “We on the West Coast attempt to push the envelope and frequently serve as early-warning systems for the rest of the nation. Some national organizations find that helpful, others view it as an annoying disruption,”
For Donna Bojarsky, a young Jewish leader who is well-connected to politics and the entertainment industry, some of the fault may well lie with her fellow Angelenos.
“It seems that many leaders here don’t follow or play a part in national Jewish issues, or are as familiar with the structures and challenges of national Jewish organizations,” she says. “I’m not certain whether that’s due to lack of interest or geography.”
Smaller cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, are more active on the national Jewish scene, because, among other reasons, such involvement is passed on as a family responsibility from generation to generation.
By contrast, Bojarsky says: “There appears to be less of a tradition or expectation here and it seems fewer of the younger generation are involved. We see too few fresh faces. While we have some good, innovative ideas, we’re not part of the national structure, so we don’t have as much impact.”
Many Jewish leaders on both coasts take issue with these arguments, but grant that some power imbalance is inevitable, given the basic demographics.
In 1997, the most recent year cited in the American Jewish Yearbook, 46.8 percent of America’s 6 million Jews lived in the Northeast, compared to 20.5 percent in the West, the latter overwhelmingly along the Pacific Coast.
While a continuing long-range trend shows a steady flow of Jews moving from the Northeast and Midwest to the Southern and Western sunshine states, the demographic heft remains along the Boston-New York-Washington line.
As a result, the latter area supplies 75 percent of the 54 members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, its executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein says.
But he discounts any prejudice against the West Coast. “The New York centrism of Jewish life in America was broken as the communities dispersed across the country,” he says.
Steven Grossman of Boston, past president of AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby, says: “I have never heard a disparaging word about the non-East Coast leadership. On the contrary, the wider the geographic spread of an organization, the more effective it is.”
Grossman did a quick count to show that among AIPAC’s 44 national directors, 26 live east of Chicago, 14 west of Chicago and four in Chicago.
Historically, the initial Jewish migrations westward produced small outlying communities devoid of a Jewish agenda, but in a very short time, they created a Jewish infrastructure, says George Kekst, chairman of the board of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Good ideas can come from anywhere, he adds, and cites the Brandeis-Bardin Institute near Los Angeles as an institution that East Coast educators have repeatedly tried to emulate — so far without success.
New York lawyer Robert Rifkind, the immediate past AIPAC president, agrees that it’s the force of ideas that power organizational life, more than location or even large check books.
“I resist the notion that 20 people sitting in New York, like some Elders of Zion, make up the Jewish agenda,” he says.
Rifkind advances the frequently heard argument that the technology of the information age, from e-mail and faxes to teleconferencing, has made the geographical location of participants irrelevant.
“I may join in a phone conference linking New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, London and Jerusalem,” says Rifkind. “Where is the center of the conference? It’s in the heart of AT&T.”
The concept of instant, worldwide communication replacing long, weary flying schleps is an attractive one, but it is met with skepticism by some.
“There is still a certain premium on being at the table when discussions are held,” says Grossman in Boston. “Especially in citizen lobbying, nothing is as effective as being there in person. It shows that you’re serious about the matter.”
Levinson of Los Angeles agrees that nothing can replace face- to-face contact. “When you live in New York, you socialize with other national leaders. You have power breakfasts at the Regency. You develop fraternal relationships,” he says.
Those who argue against the existence of an Eastern Seaboard power monopoly have one persuasive exhibit — a list of Angelenos (and leaders from other Western cities) who have made it to the top of national organizations.
Besides those already mentioned, the Angelenos include past AIPAC presidents Edward Sanders and Lawrence Weinberg; William Belzberg at Israel Bonds; Irwin Field and Bram Goldsmith, past national chairmen of the United Jewish Appeal; and Max Greenberg at ADL.
Sanders recalls that when President Carter asked him to serve as the White House adviser on Jewish and Middle East affairs, the Los Angeles lawyer called the 12 most prominent Jews in America for advice.
“It didn’t matter where they lived, in New York, Chicago or elsewhere, they all said ‘go.’ There was certainly no prejudice because I was from Los Angeles,” he recounts.
Last year, the national associations of both the Reform and Conservative rabbinates were headed by Los Angeles rabbis. The national president of the American Jewish Committee is Bruce Ramer, one of the top lawyers in the entertainment industry.
“The old idea of a kind of continental tilt no longer applies,” Ramer says.
New York-based journalist J.J. Goldberg, author of “Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment,” thinks that Los Angeles Jews just don’t realize how much influence their leaders actually wield on the national stage.
“The New York people listen very carefully when they talk to a Bruce Ramer, an Irwin Field or a John Fishel,” Goldberg says. “Then there’s the Hollywood crowd with its money and tremendous impact on the popular culture, like a Barbra Streisand or a Lew Wasserman. And the Wiesenthal Center also exerts considerable influence.”
John Fishel, president and top professional at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, says: “In all the national Jewish organizations I’ve dealt with, I find an eagerness for more input from the West Coast. We, in turn, have to recognize that what happens on the national level affects our community.”
An interesting aspect of the East Coast vs. West Coast discussion is raised by Dr. Jack Wertheimer, provost and professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Based on an extensive study, he found that Conservative congregations in the West were markedly more open to innovation and change, especially in the participation of women and in ritual practice, than their East Coast brethren.
Along the same lines, he found a much more casual attitude in the West toward traditional denominational boundaries, with easy transitions among Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregants.
Wertheimer’s conclusions reinforce a study conducted 3 years ago by the Council of Jewish Federations, which asked whether there was a distinctive Western Jewish identity, contrasted to Eastern and Midwestern Jews.
With a nod to the Hollywood cliche of the Westerner as an individualistic, independent-minded loner, the study showed that Western Jews, compared to their counterparts in other regions, shunned religious and community affiliation, suspected central authority, gave least to charities and were less concerned about intermarriage and the fate of Israel.