Spirit Up, Tally Down on Super Sunday


Leon Weinstin has spent much of his life fighting on behalf of the Jewish people.

In his late 20s, he participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis and somehow managed to escape a near-certain death. Later, he immigrated to the United States, opened a successful clothing manufacturing business and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to mostly Jewish charities, especially yeshivas.

The 95-year-old Weinstin volunteered his time Feb. 26 to call prospective donors on Super Sunday, the annual mega-fundraiser of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. In just two hours at Federation’s headquarters at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Weinstin, resplendent in a blue blazer, red tie and wool slacks, raised $15,000.

“I believe in tzedekeh. I believe in helping people,” said Weinstin, who has participated in 26 Super Sundays. “As long as I’m alive, I’m going to come to Super Sunday.”

Seated next to Weinstin, Beverly Hills resident Esther Brenner could hardly contain her excitement whenever she landed a contribution, big or small. The retired Hebrew school teacher seemed to become especially animated when lapsed donors ponied up.

“Hey,” she announced to nearby volunteers, a smile crossing her face. “I just got somebody to give $10 who hadn’t given since 1990.”

An estimated 1,700 volunteers working at three locations obtained pledges for about $4.4 million this Super Sunday, about $200,000 less than last year. Participants included young and old, the religious and non-religious, Israelis, Persians and Russians — a veritable rainbow of Southland Jews. Given the diversity of and interaction among the volunteers, Super Sunday seemed as much about building community as raising money.

“This gives everybody a chance to come out and make this community a better place,” Federation President John Fishel said. “Super Sunday’s a unifying event.”

It’s also an opportunity for politicians to show solidarity with Jewish voters. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss each dropped by the midtown Federation headquarters and the phone banks in West Hills. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl both volunteered at headquarters. The third fundraising hub was the Torrance Marriott.

“I want to make some calls. Let’s do it!” said Weiss as he made his way to the phones at 6505 early Sunday morning.

The stakes were especially high this Super Sunday, because many of the Federation’s 22 beneficiary agencies have seen their government funding shrink. At a time when demand for its services have surged, Jewish Family Service, for example, has been unable to keep pace because of government cutbacks, said Jewish Family Service (JFS) Executive Director Paul Castro in an interview. The JFS Gramercy Place Shelter has lost about $180,000 in federal and state money over the past two years, a huge financial hit for the 57-bed homeless shelter.

Nationally, Super Sundays have proven so successful that, in recent years, many federations have added Super Mondays and Super Tuesdays to attract more volunteers and to increase the likelihood of reaching donors at home. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington even has a Super Week.

Participants caught up with one another at 6505 between calls, noshing on bagels and cream cheese, pastries and ice blended coffee drinks. Clusters of purple, red and white balloons decorated the main call center. Gummy bears and bottled water seemed within arm’s reach of most callers.

Anne Blank worked the morning shift. The Beverly Hills psychotherapist said she attended her first Super Sunday to pay homage to her late father, an active philanthropist in Jewish causes who passed away nearly two years ago at age 82. “He’d be thrilled I was here,” she said.

At the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, mothers and fathers came with young children to enjoy the family-friendly amenities, including a daycare center, a bounce house and inflatable slide. Teenagers dropped by with buddies to make calls and gossip.

Twelve-year-old Shani Mesica staffed the phones from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. By early afternoon, she had landed a $75 donation. Although she said the majority of callers reacted positively to her pitch, a couple told her they weren’t Jewish and demanded that she place them on a do-not-call list. Still, the seventh-grader at Kadima Hebrew Academy in West Hills said she planned to participate in Super Sunday again next year, even if her school waves its community-service requirement.

“It’s nice to help people who can’t afford to get flu shots or buy food for themselves,” said Mesica, amid the cacophony of voices that filled the gymnasium where volunteers seated at long tables made calls.

A contingent of 20 well-heeled members from El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana were among those staffing the phones at Milken. Many of them pitched fellow club members, who are expected by El Caballero to give 3 percent to 5 percent of their income to charity, said Donald Marks, a club member who personally raised $150,000 from fellow club goers. His pitch?

“I tell them that if Jews don’t give to Jews, who’s going to give?” said Marks, a 61-year-old industrial real estate developer. “We’re not talking about cancer or other catastrophic diseases. We’re talking about helping our Jewish brothers.”

 

A Few Jews Focus on Props, Too


With a few notable exceptions, Jewish politicians, activists and community leaders are getting into the controversies over Propositions 53 and 54 late and lackadaisically, having focused most of their attention and fundraising efforts on the recall election.

Proposition 54, The Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI), backed by University of California regent Ward Connerly, bans the state from classifying people according to race, ethnicity, color, or national origin.

Supporters maintain it would move society closer to a color-blind society, while opponents maintain it would impede the collection of data needed to redress discrimination.

Though opponents claim it would also block collection of data that could be helpful in addressing genetically transmitted diseases such as Tay Sachs, which affects Ashkenzic Jews, supporters say the measure would not affect health-related issues. The state’s independent legislative analyst said the matter is unclear.

Among Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the Progressive Jewish Alliance oppose Proposition 54.

Jewish politicians including U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Con. Howard Berman (D-26th) and Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss oppose it as well.

The statewide Jewish Public Affairs Committee, a coalition of mostly Federation-based groups, has not taken a stand on RPI, though the San Jose/Silicon Valley Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) unanimously passed a resolution opposing it.

"There’s been a trend among JCRCs of not wanting to get involved in controversial measures," JPAC Director Coby King said. "Federations don’t see how taking a position benefits them."

For many groups, RPI brings dangerous echoes of the highly controversial Proposition 209, a 1996 initiative designed to dismantle state affirmative action programs based on sex or race. That ballot measure caused considerable division between liberal and more conservative Jews. "A lot of people feel [Proposition 54] is not worth the risk," King said.

Democrats for Israel’s Howard Welinsky said his organization follows the Democratic party position on such measures, and the party opposes it. Welinsky, who sits on the California Post-Secondary Education Commission, said Proposition 54, "will make it impossible to determine if there are civil rights violations or equal opportunity violations."

The Southern California chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition has not taken a position on RPI, said the chapter Chair Bruce Bialosky, because members have been so focused on the recall. But Bialosky, speaking for himself, said he would support it. "As long as we continue to classify people by race," he said, "we are going to continue to think of them by race."

If Proposition 54 is getting relatively attention, Proposition 53 is going positively unnoticed. If it passes in Tuesday’s recall election, Proposition 53 will set aside up to 3 percent of the annual state budget for repairs of California’s infrastructure of highways, hospitals and libraries.

"One of the tenets of the Jewish religion is to improve our community, to leave our community a better place than we found it," said State Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge). Richman, who is Jewish, helped create the legislation that later led to Proposition 53. "If California is going to be successful in the future, then we need to ensure that the proper infrastructure is in place," he said.

The measure’s supporters include the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the California Chamber of Commerce and Caprice Young, former Los Angeles Unified School District president. Opponents include the California Tax Reform Association and the Congress of California Seniors.

State Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) said he finds himself, "smack dab in the middle," about supporting Proposition 53, formerly known as the "Funds Dedicated for State and Local Infrastructure" state constitutional amendment.

"The basic concept is that we have not done enough and are not doing enough … to pay for the infrastructure needs of the state," Koretz said. "When you have a surplus, this would trigger some of that surplus money to go to infrastructure. It’s one of many initiatives that can strain a state budget left with fewer and fewer options. I see its pluses and its minuses."

On the left, Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) director Daniel Sokatch called Proposition 53, "another conservative, far-right fake fix-all. It’s not going to solve any problems, just shift the problems around."

Despite no formal endorsement, RJC of Southern California Executive Director Michael Wissot spoke supportively of Proposition 53.

Richman said Proposition 53 protects against pulling funds out of the state education budget and transferring that money to rebuild roads, hospitals, libraries and state buildings.

The assemblyman added that from the 1960s through the 1970s, California politicians regularly poured 15 percent to 20 percent of annual state budgets into building the state’s extensive freeway system — plus hospitals and libraries and other public entities to be covered by Proposition 53.

But since 1990, Richman said, "our state has spent two-tenths of 1 percent of the General Fund annually on infrastructure. There’s no question why our roads are congested why they’re crumbling. This money is specifically going to infrastructure projects and capital outlay, not for operations."

Koretz also noted that, "There are Jewish values, I would say, on both sides of this issue. It’s really a compelling case of what do you do right? We can never do everything right. It’s a question of are you more concerned about social services or are you more concern about the long-term effects of the state crumbling?"

"I’m actually leaning in favor of it," the assemblyman said. "I think the pluses and minuses are about equal. People need to think this through themselves."

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