Union workers celebrate at Dodger Stadium


LAX workers were the first to begin the cheers.

“Obama! Obama! Obama!”

It didn’t take long for others to follow when the news broke out at Dodger Stadium on election night that Barack Obama had been re-elected president. That’s where hundreds of supporters gathered as part of a party organized by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

“Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!”

The crowd at the Stadium Club, a bar and dining area that overlooked the lit-up stadium, looked up eagerly at flat-screen TVs to take in the news. Union workers, community leaders and Obama supporters didn’t have to wait long to get worked into a frenzy. News outlets called the election for the incumbent just 15 minutes after the party started at 8 p.m.

Then Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, addressed the group, speaking from a podium and denouncing “the super rich and powerful.”

“Their money is nothing compared to the power of firefighters, teachers … and truck drivers, and nurses,” she said.

What Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, expected to be a long night ended rather quickly. He tipped his hat to Florida Jews, saying that Obama carried Jewish counties in Florida by huge margins.

“Jewish voters by-and-large stood with the president,” he said. “This is a great victory for us today.”

Still, when Bauman took the stage later he reminded the crowd that the presidency wasn’t the only important contest up for grabs.

He didn’t have to tell Lowell Goodman, director of communications for Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents 80,000 public employees in Southern California, including librarians, nurses, social workers and trash collectors.

Goodman said he had been out since 1 p.m. knocking on doors to mobilize people to vote against Proposition 32, which proposed reforming California’s campaign finance rules and banning the use of employee payroll deductions for political purposes. Union leaders opposed it, arguing it would limit their ability to participate effectively in the political process.

“Yes on 32 silences the voices of our 80,000 members, and what it says is the only ones who should have a voice in politics in California are the 1 percent,” he said.

Goodman, whose children attend preschool at Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, lives near the stadium in Angelino Heights in Echo Park. Asked if he was going to walk home, he answered:

“If it’s a good night, I’ll stumble home.”

Waxman faces Bloomfield in redrawn 33rd


Sitting in his recently rented campaign office on West Third Street in Los Angeles one afternoon in late August, Rep. Henry Waxman listed — one by one, from memory — some of the coastal and South Bay neighborhoods and cities that are included in the newly redrawn 33rd Congressional District where he’s running for reelection in November. 

“El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, part of Hawthorne — and then there’s the whole Palos Verdes Peninsula,” Waxman said.  

Waxman is on unfamiliar ground this year, literally and figuratively. The district where he’s running stretches from Malibu all the way down the coast, incorporating a few inland neighborhoods along the way, including the chunk of the Westside where his campaign office sits. It’s a big change for Waxman, who used to represent a lot more of the Westside, including West Hollywood, Beverlywood and Pico-Robertson. By his count, 45 percent of the voters in the newly drawn 33rd District are people he’s never represented. 

And this year, Waxman, the fifth-most senior Democrat in Congress and dean of the chamber’s Jewish members, who has won his last five elections with at least 65 percent of the vote, faces a challenger unlike any he’s faced before. 

Bill Bloomfield, an independent, is a retired businessman who has never held public office and was, until relatively recently, a lifelong Republican. 

At a time when Congress has an all-time-low 10 percent approval rating, Bloomfield’s reform-minded campaign slogan — “He’ll fix Congress” — should have at least some impact. Bloomfield spent more than $1 million in the run-up to the June primary, coming in second in a field of eight candidates, with about 24.6 percent of the vote. He said he’s willing “to spend what is necessary … and not a dollar more” in order to get out his message of reform — a pledge that anyone with a mailbox in the district probably believes. 

Waxman, meanwhile, spent about $200,000 leading up to the primary and took 45.3 percent of the vote in June. But even though he expects to be outspent in the race — as of June 30, he had just over $1 million in cash on hand — Waxman is confident that he can beat Bloomfield, especially since registered Democrats, who make up 44 percent of the district’s voters, outnumber both Republicans (29 percent) and independents (22 percent). 

“I just have to make sure that he doesn’t outspend me so much that I don’t get my message out,” Waxman said. 

Waxman’s message focuses on a legislative record that stretches back nearly four decades. Since he first began serving in Congress in 1975, Waxman, now the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has passed legislation addressing the problems of air pollution, preserving safe drinking water and cracking down on the marketing of cigarettes aimed directly at minors, among other matters. He’s also been a staunch Israel supporter throughout that time. 

Waxman is determined to continue serving in Congress, in part to pursue new legislation — he’d like to address climate change, perhaps by instituting a tax on carbon emissions — but also because House Republicans lately have made efforts to roll back existing laws protecting the environment. 

“This past year, the Republicans in the House voted to repeal most of what’s in the Clean Air Act by trying to stop regulation of pollution in a number of different areas,” said Waxman, who was one of the primary authors of the reauthorized Clean Air Act in 1990, which for the first time addressed air toxins, acid rain and ozone depletion.

With Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House, Waxman said he knew such efforts would not succeed. “I worry a great deal what will happen in the next couple of years if we don’t have President Obama and have Republicans in control of the Congress,” he said.

Bloomfield, for his part, professed having great respect for Waxman and said he would never let his opponent’s signature piece of legislation be overturned. 

“I like clean air,” Bloomfield said. “I like the fact that the Santa Monica Bay is cleaner than it was.” 

Instead, Bloomfield is running a campaign that focuses less on replacing Waxman in particular and more on reforming Congress in general. 

“I am not running because of how liberal he [Waxman] is, although he’s a lot more liberal than I am,” said Bloomfield, who is a co-founder of No Labels, a two-year-old nonpartisan organization that aims to reform Congress. “I’m running because of how partisan he is, because the institution is not working.” 

Partisanship, for Bloomfield, is the problem in Washington — yet until recently, his own record of campaign donations appeared to be that of a devoted and generous adherent to the Republican Party. 

Bloomfield spent a year working as an unpaid volunteer with Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid and has been a major contributor to Republican candidates. 

In the two years leading up to the 2010 election, Bloomfield donated $140,000 to the California Republican Party, more than $50,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidates and another $39,000 to other Republicans seeking statewide office, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. 

He also donated at least $24,000 to individual Republican House and Senate candidates outside California and $30,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

But in March 2011, Bloomfield switched his registration, becoming an independent. He said he didn’t know that he’d be running for Congress when he dropped out of the GOP (which he now calls “my former party”), and Bloomfield explained his decision to reregister as a reaction to the frustration with Congress’ “hyper-partisanship.”

“You’ve got people in congress who basically think that their job is to politick 24/7,” Bloomfield said. “The hyper-partisanship is causing the gridlock.”

In a video posted on his Web site, Bloomfield calls Waxman “10 times more partisan than the average Democrat.” But Waxman contends that he has worked across the aisle many times over his long career. 

“I believe in compromise,” Waxman said. “Unfortunately, we have the extreme right wing in the Republican Party right now in control and everybody else in the Republican Party is so co-opted that they think compromise is a bad word and something that should be avoided at all costs.”

If Waxman blames Republicans for Congress’ dysfunction, Bloomfield assigns roughly equal measures of responsibility to both parties. 

“It takes two to fight,” the former Republican said. 

There’s a double irony to Bloomfield’s running as a reformer. Not only did Waxman himself get elected as part of a crop of reform-minded “Watergate babies” in the wake of Nixon’s resignation in 1974, but Bloomfield’s current bid is a direct result of two recent reforms to California elections he has backed financially. 

He gave a combined $150,000 to support two ballot measures in 2010: One took control over drawing California’s congressional districts away from elected officials and handed it to an independent commission; the other established the “top-two” system of primary elections, in which all voters are given a ballot with every candidate on it, regardless of party. 

Both passed, and as a result, the 33rd Congressional District, as drawn by the independent redistricting panel, is more competitive than Waxman’s former district, and the new so-called “jungle primary” system is far friendlier to independent candidates, especially those with deep pockets. 

But if Bloomfield makes clear his aim is to reform Congress, it’s unclear how he’d vote on specific issues, should he manage to unseat Waxman. 

During an hour-long interview with the Journal, Bloomfield avoided picking sides on a number of issues that have divided Congress over the last two years. On the fiscal front, Bloomfield praised the Bowles-Simpson debt-reduction commission, whose conclusions were rejected by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and were not fully embraced by the Obama administration. He bemoaned the Democrats’ passing the Affordable Care Act without any Republican votes, but also assailed Republicans for wasting time passing legislation repealing Obamacare, knowing that such efforts wouldn’t move in the Democratic-controlled Senate. 

Asked what he would have done had he been a member when the health-care reform bill came up before the House, Bloomfield declined to say how he’d have voted, saying only that he wanted “to improve it.” 

Bloomfield also declined to say who he’d be voting for in the presidential race this fall. 

“The problem with answering that question is I get labeled,” said Bloomfield, who in early 2011 donated a combined $7,500 to Republican nominee Mitt Romney and a pro-Romney PAC. “I will support whoever the president is when I think he’s right, and I will be totally against him when I think he’s wrong.”

The growth in the numbers of “decline-to-state” voters and the shrinking number of Californians who are registered Republicans, coupled with the top-two primary, gives moderate Republicans like Bloomfield an incentive to run as independents. 

“The party label ‘Republican’ in California — and especially in a district like Henry Waxman’s — is absolutely toxic,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles and a Jewish Journal columnist. 

Bloomfield qualifies as a moderate Republican — he drives a Prius, believes that climate change is caused by human activity and voted against the ballot measure that outlawed same-sex marriage in California — and as such, he’s “much more threatening to a Democrat than conservative Republicans are,” Sonenshein said. 

Still, Sonenshein added, “I’d be beyond shocked if Waxman lost.” 

Waxman isn’t resting on his laurels. Waxman’s campaign manager recently held a conference call with leaders of about half a dozen synagogues around the South Bay, looking to plan ways for the congressman to reach out to the community. The South Bay could take on an outsized importance in this campaign, particularly as two candidate debates already scheduled will both take place in Palos Verdes. 

In the parts of the 33rd District that are new to him, Waxman might have some ground to make up. Rabbi Yossi Mintz, the director of Chabad of the Beach Cities in Redondo Beach, said he’d received many Bloomfield campaign mailers in the recent months but hadn’t gotten anything or seen any signs pushing voters to choose Waxman. 

Mintz said he’d met Bloomfield once, and that although he hadn’t yet met Waxman, Mintz said he knew the congressman’s reputation. 

“I know about his support for Israel, which is very important to me,” Mintz said. “He’s a person that other people look up to on how to vote. That’s a very powerful thing.”

In August, with the election less than three months away, the Waxman campaign office didn’t yet have the lived-in feeling of Bloomfield’s larger, more well-worn headquarters in Manhattan Beach. A neat stack of “Waxman for Congress” signs sat in the entryway.

Waxman said he was working the phones that day, soliciting donations from supporters in a way he hadn’t done in years past. 

“I’m calling people, telling them that I’ve never asked for their help in the past,” he said, “and this is a time when I really need it.”

Obama and Villaraigosa: The not-so-odd couple


At President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress a week ago, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sat in an honored seat near first lady Michelle Obama.

The path that brought Villaraigosa from an outspoken advocate in the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2008 (and, some say, the doghouse with the Obama team) to his prime seat in the Capitol offers an intriguing story of shared interests, coinciding ambitions and changing political dynamics.

There are obvious similarities between these two men. Both had to surmount significant early challenges in order to rise to their current prominence. Both spent time as grass-roots organizers. Both represent “firsts” for minority politicians, and both know the possibilities and unique obstacles such candidates face. They stand at two ends of a new dynamic of black-Latino relations — an African American president elected with Latino support and a Latino mayor elected with African American backing. But, aside from all this, as personalities, they are very different.

The mayor experienced grievous political and personal damage through the breakup of his marriage due to an affair, and he would be the first to say that he is a flawed human being. Yet his peripatetic personality and his pursuit of big goals — such as ambitious growth in police hiring and his 30/10 plan to expedite mass transportation — have provided a foundation for a political comeback. Villaraigosa was re-elected in 2009. Termed out in two years, he has now begun dipping his feet into statewide and national waters as president of the United States Conference of Mayors and by giving speeches about the future of the Democratic Party. The mercurial Villaraigosa may yet crash and burn, but he will definitely fly close to the sun. While some do not trust the mayor as a person, it is hard to dismiss his significant accomplishments in office.

Obama, on the other hand, is seen as the world’s most stable guy. Voters like and trust him, even in hard times. His steady, calm personality has made him a formidable professional in foreign policy. Nevertheless, in the face of the domestic economic crisis that has enveloped his presidency, his distant, professorial, avowedly bipartisan, and often-cautious approach has brought him and his party to the verge of political catastrophe. Obama will never crash and burn by flying close to the sun, but he may collapse from a lack of drive or thirst for getting things done no matter what is in the way.

Back in 2008, Villaraigosa supported Clinton against Obama in the epic Democratic nomination battle. He was in tune with Latino voters, who heavily supported the former first lady. Near the end of the primaries, the Clinton-Obama struggle became extremely tense, as the Clinton camp hinted that Latinos and white Democrats would be unlikely to support Obama should he become the nominee. In a much quoted line, one of Clinton’s pollsters, Sergio Bendixen, told a reporter that “the Hispanic voter — and I want to say this very carefully — has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.”

When Obama won the nomination, Villaraigosa nevertheless immediately began to work hard for Obama in the general election. Rumors persisted that the mayor was on the outs with the Obama camp, especially when he was not invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It would make sense that the Obama people would respond first to those who had supported him all along, and Villaraigosa had to work his way in.

The Clinton people’s predictions about Latinos were dead wrong. Latinos came out and voted heavily for Obama, helping him carry Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida. Villaraigosa’s own experience provided the best explanation of what had happened. Latino voters knew and trusted the Clintons and had to learn to trust the new black guy. It was a lesson Villaraigosa himself confronted when black voters who had known and trusted the Hahns then had to learn to trust the new Latino guy.

In the first two years of his presidency, Obama got much legislation passed, including the health care plan. So, early on, Obama seemed to be a sure bet for re-election. Latinos gave high approval ratings to the president.

But the bottom fell out in 2010, as Obama showed little flair for the political work of maintaining his base of support, while his advisers focused his attention instead on the illusory “independents” (at least as brilliant a strategy as searching for unicorns and moderate Republicans). The White House’s disdain for the Democratic base drove down party turnout in the 2010 races and demoralized even the president’s supporters. After the Democrats lost the House in 2010, along with many state houses, Obama’s prospects worsened. His approval ratings among white Democrats, among Jews and even among African Americans all have shown declines.

No drop has been bigger than the president’s support among Latinos. The Gallup Poll found that between June 2009 and August 2011, approval of Obama among Latinos fell from 78 to 48 percent, the largest decline of any group. Latino voters are urgently concerned with the economy and with education, as working people seeking to make it into the middle class. While Latinos are divided on how to deal with illegal immigration (despite the stereotypes), they react strongly against what seem to be unfair policies that target Latino immigrants, including those who are undocumented.

As part of his strategy to win Republican support for immigration reform, Obama greatly expanded deportations on the erroneous assumption that Republicans only opposed immigration reform because he had not compromised enough. As immigration activists raged, the White House dithered. In July, Obama told immigration activists that he could not do anything without Congress, and that they should concentrate their efforts on influencing Republicans.

On the jobs and public investment fronts, Obama’s focus on the deficit and the national debt, aimed at independent voters, offered little to Latinos, who like most Americans want the focus to be on spurring job growth and on education and other public purposes.

Obama’s first step back from the brink came in the form of an announcement that the White House could, indeed, do something without Congress, which is to re-examine the cases of 300,000 people slated for deportations, to focus priority on criminals. Latino and immigrant-rights groups were very pleased. Further, last week’s big speech, with its emphasis on jobs and public investment, should appeal strongly to Latinos.

And that’s where the Los Angeles mayor comes in.

Villaraigosa has been a major advocate for urban transportation and has won support for it from key Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. His idea is to get a bridge loan for Los Angeles’ transportation construction from the federal government and to use the sales tax revenue voters approved in 2008, in a campaign he led, to pay it back. He has been seeking a federal commitment, to date with limited success. Now there is much greater incentive, and it looks like there is a confluence of interests. With the president finally pushing an aggressive jobs agenda, fast-track transportation projects like those proposed by Villaraigosa can make things happen. Normally, cities don’t get much love from the federal government, but in times like these, there is no better place to quickly invest lots of jobs-producing funding than a metropolis with lots and lots of willing and able workers and big things to build.

If Villaraigosa (along with other local officials around the country) can help Obama restore a bit of his lost support, the polls and the president’s prospects could start to look better than they do today. And if greater public investment occurs as the White House moves its focus consistently and effectively onto jobs, there is every reason to think that some of that effort will help Los Angeles. This odd couple of breakthrough politicians may yet make an effective team.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

5th District Plays Big Role


The Los Angeles elections on March 3 turned out to be more interesting than most of us had expected, especially the role of the Fifth Council District.

The Fifth, which is a mixture of Westside (think Fairfax) and Valley (think Encino) is also the “Jewish district.” In a city that’s about 6 percent to 7 percent Jewish, the Fifth is perhaps 35 percent to 40 percent Jewish. It’s the best-educated district, and one of the most affluent. It has tremendous voter registration and high turnout year after year.

Of the city’s nearly 1.6 million registered voters, 167,668 are in the Fifth, more than 10 percent of the total. On March 3, the Fifth cast around 12 percent of all city votes, with only 7 percent of the population.

The Fifth played a pivotal role in the rise and dominance of the Tom Bradley coalition, as its voters provided massive support to Bradley. Combined with the African American community, the Fifth and other white liberal districts consistently outvoted white conservatives. The Fifth is one of the few council districts that bridges the divide between the Valley and the rest of the city, joining more liberal Westsiders to more moderate Valley residents.

Winning the Fifth District’s council seat is a big achievement, because there are lots of talented and ambitious people ready to run and mount effective campaigns in those two parts of the city, and anyone who wins becomes a prospect for bigger things. Think Roz Wyman, Ed Edelman, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Feuer and now Jack Weiss, who is in the runoff for city attorney against Carmen Trutanich.

While the voters in the Fifth District are disproportionately Democrats, they can be very unpredictable on one local issue, and that is growth. When Bradley experienced a lot of political trouble in the 1980s, it was over growth, development and traffic, and much of this agitation was in the Fifth. The proliferation of billboards and city hall’s weakness in regulating them has energized another neighborhood rebellion today.

The race to succeed Weiss generated six strong candidates who split votes so evenly in the primary that the percentages looked like a box score on a night that the Lakers have everybody in double figures. Weiss has lots of defenders and lots of enemies in his own district on the hot-button issues, and he was charged with being too pro-development.

The two candidates who made it into the runoff, Paul Koretz and David Vahedi, are both critics of development and billboards. They are each likely to further activate the voters who are fighting growth.

With his early lead in fundraising and endorsements, Weiss contested the open seat for city attorney as if he were the incumbent. While he was able to preempt other strong candidates from challenging him, he also inevitably became the target of the anti-city hall sentiment that in this low-turnout election made its will known by apparently (pending the counting of some remaining ballots) defeating Proposition B, the solar power measure.

He came in first, but with only 36 percent of the vote, and he will face a tough runoff. And because the Fifth District is also going to have a heavily contested runoff, its turnout will likely affect the citywide result.

Ironically, Weiss’ best chance of winning is to expand his appeal beyond his own council district, where he has lots of active opponents, and draw on organized labor and other communities. He has to broaden the issues beyond development. If he does, he stands a good chance of winning. He did, after all, finish first in all but the 15th District, which represents Trutanich’s San Pedro home base.

Weiss’ best showing was in the three predominantly African American districts (Eighth, Ninth and 10th), where he polled 43 percent, 44 percent and 45 percent, respectively. He also polled 45 percent in the Latino and working-class First District.

These are pro-labor areas, where Measure B did well, winning 71 percent in the First and 71 percent, 75 percent and 67 percent, respectively in the Eighth, Ninth and 10th districts. He received only 37 percent in his own Fifth District.

The last Fifth District councilman to run for city attorney was Mike Feuer, in 2001, and Feuer’s situation was quite different. He was exceptionally strong in his own district, and he piled up a huge edge among Jewish and other white voters. But while Feuer had major labor support, Rocky Delgadillo pulled off the upset by linking Latino voters to a majority of African Americans.

Delgadillo also was bolstered by a late endorsement from Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters. This time, a number of African American elected officials are behind Weiss, while Waters endorsed Trutanich. It’s all consistent with the mix-and-match coalition politics of today’s Los Angeles.

Much of labor is in Weiss’ camp, as are the mayor and Police Chief William Bratton. Having apparently been beaten on Measure B, labor is likely to want to win a big one citywide to go along with the re-election of Villaraigosa and the election of Wendy Greuel as controller.

Trutanich has the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News, both of which might be influential in a low-turnout election, and Sheriff Lee Baca.

There are two types of Los Angeles electorates, the one that appears in partisan, statewide elections in even-numbered years and the one that appears in odd-year municipal races. The May 19 runoff election is scheduled to be held in tandem with a special statewide election with ballot measures negotiated as part of the state budget deal.

Labor may or may not have some big horses in this race. So this election is a kind of hybrid, maybe bigger than a quiet municipal runoff but less noisy than a true statewide partisan battle. Most likely, the election will be decided not just by how people vote, but by who votes.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.

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Danoch says ‘shalom’ to the Southland


When a 34-year-old Ehud Danoch arrived in Los Angeles three years ago as Israel’s new consul general, he had to learn three things — real fast.

One was how to make sense of a new community, including not only multiethnic Southern California, but also all the rest of the Southwestern states and Hawaii. Another was how to explain, defend and promote an Israel facing rapid political changes and external threats. And the third was how to be a first-time father.

Danoch and his wife, Miki, had had to delay their trip to the United States until their newborn daughter, Daphna, was old enough to travel.

Now, like a second bookend marking the end of their stint here, the Danochs once again have to postpone a departure, this time to allow their second child, due Oct. 2, to make the flight to Israel.

Last week, sitting in his high-rise Wilshire Boulevard office, which overlooks a stunning view of the city north to the Hollywood Hills, Danoch talked about the highlights and low points of his three-year tenure, the lessons learned, as well as his future plans to run for a seat in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, which is how he can be found even on hot days and during informal meetings, the slim and curly- haired Danoch measured his words as he spoke and occasionally pondered whether a given remark should be off the record.

One of his accomplishments, however, hits the visitor right in the eyes. Hanging on his wall is a framed full-page ad that ran in the Los Angeles Times in August 2006, signed by Hollywood actors, producers, writers and studio chiefs. Included in the list are Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Danny DeVito, William Hurt and James Woods, as well as moguls and studio chiefs Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone, Haim Saban, Amy Pascal, Ron Meyer, Sherry Lansing and Meyer Gottlieb. The ad ran soon after the beginning of last year’s Lebanon war, and the signatories were denouncing the terrorism perpetrated by Hamas and Hezbollah and demanding support for democratic societies to stop terrorism at all cost.
Danoch and his wife Miki speaking with Sharon Stone

After it was published, the ad received a huge amount of press coverage worldwide and marked a break in Hollywood’s customary silence in the face of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks.

For Danoch, who composed and initiated the ad, it was the payoff for his intense cultivation of the entertainment industry, which started the day he arrived in Los Angeles.

“I realized the tremendous global impact of Hollywood movies and television stars, but past attempts to mobilize them on behalf of Israel had largely failed, and many people thought that Hollywood was a lost cause,” he said.

The key to activating the stars, he felt, was through the old-fashioned, laborious method of intense personal contact, in particular by establishing continuing one-on-one relationships.

In meeting after meeting and letter after letter, Danoch conducted private tutorials on Israel, invited name-brand celebrities to visit the Jewish state to see for themselves and urged studio chiefs and producers to consider Israeli locations for their next movie shoot.

He summarized one key to his successful method as “I simply don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer.”

He has been a good listener, too, as has been well noted by the Jewish community. Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the Los Angeles-based national director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, described Danoch’s service as “extraordinary.”

“When Ehud first arrived, he called on me and asked me to tell him about the Jewish community here. I must have talked for an hour straight, and I could see that he really wanted to understand the issues and personalities.

“Ehud challenged the Jewish community to be its best. He, and Yuval Rotem before him, represented a new generation of young Israeli diplomats who face problems head on.”

Danoch was also popular in the Israeli expatriate community. Moshe Barzilay, editor of the Hebrew-language weekly Shalom L.A., noted that “Danoch was here during an extremely difficult wartime period, had to deal with anti-Israel demonstrations and performed well.

“He was of considerable help to Israelis here, listening to both their community and individual concerns.”

Danoch’s grandparents arrived in Israel in 1950 as part of Operation Magic Carpet, the mass airlift of Jews from Yemen, bringing with them their 3-year-old son, who became the consul general’s father.

Both of Danoch’s parents were tapped by Israel’s education ministry to serve as overseas shlichim, or envoys. As a result, young Ehud spent three years in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, where he became fluent in Spanish.

That linguistic skill has proved handy in tackling another priority, to strengthen ties between the Latino community in the western United States and Israel, and by extension, with the American Jewish community.

“Latinos here, and in South American countries, do not distinguish between Jews and Israelis; to them they’re one and the same,” Danoch said. “So by bringing Latinos closer to Israel, we bring them closer to American Jews.”

Looking at the demographics, Danoch also believes that it is inevitable that Latinos will play an increasingly influential role in United States politics, and as the United States is Israel’s closest ally, this is a crucial strategic relationship.

“Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, and Latinos 15 percent, a proportion that will rise to 25 percent in 20 years,” he said. “While some Jewish organizations, like the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC, are active in Jewish-Latino relations, it is time for the entire Jewish community to get more involved.”

Danoch feels so strongly about this subject that he is finishing an as-yet-untitled book on Latinos in the United States, taking Los Angeles as his laboratory. The book will be published in Hebrew and then English, but Danoch’s target audience is Israeli policymakers, “who need to understand the internal changes coming in the United States,” he said. “So far, the Latino community is focusing mainly on domestic issues, but I believe that within less than a decade, they will play a role in foreign relations.”

Danoch ticked off other areas in which he believes he has made a difference, with the help of favorable trends.

Red Date, Blue Date


My friend Rachel invited me to the “Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) 39-and-under mixer.” I wanted to go, but I had the “Really Tall Jewish Council’s 39-and-under mixer” that night. C’mon, was she serious? Republicans? Jewish Republicans? Hello, oxymoron. I’m a blue state girl. Solid blue. I’m talking Smurfette with a bod. I’m not about to wingman it at some Republican round-up. I wouldn’t vote for one, and I wouldn’t date one.

Rachel begged, she pleaded. But I stood firm. No, no, no, you cannot make me go. Then Rachel hit below the low-rise belt and kindly reminded me I’m single with no prospects. So it was settled. I was about to become a bipartisan flirt.

I cannot tell a lie. This wouldn’t be the first time I crossed the Mason-Dixon dating line. But I was young then; I didn’t know what I was doing. My college boyfriend, Stuart, was as Republican as they come. He wore a Rush Limbaugh tie to my AEPhi formal. Emmes! We’d just started voting when we met, so we’d stay up all night flirtatiously mocking each other’s political views. Of course we’d just started college, so we stayed up all night flirtatiously doing a lot of things.

But in adult dating, political differences can be a real relationship roadblock. The die-hard Democrat I dated in ’04 erroneously assumed I was a Republican for the first month he knew me. So naturally, he kept things casual. It wasn’t that he couldn’t commit, it was that he couldn’t commit to a Republican. Then he saw me in my tight pink “Vote for Kerry” baby tee. His chad wasn’t hanging that night.

(Yes, I just turned a 7-year-old joke into a sexual pun. But you laughed at my retro humor. C’mon, you smiled a little. Or were you just smirking, thinking of me in that tight tee?)

A guy’s political stance says a lot about who he is. If he’s standing far away from me, I’m not sure we could be close. Can I date a guy who views the world from such a different perspective? Can I love a man who lives at the opposite side of the spectrum? Can I respect a man who voted for George? Twice? Does it matter if we both love weekend road trips, “Saved by the Bell” and Island’s cheddar fries if we don’t share political beliefs? Where does he stand on the war? The environment? A woman’s right to choose? What does he think about the court? The school system? My new mini-skirt? Made you smirk again, huh?

I wonder if straddling the ballot could actually help a relationship. Give us something to talk about, broaden our conversations. It’d be nice, for a change, to debate if we should take health care public, rather than if we should take the 405 freeway or Sepulveda Boulevard. That kind of intellectual foreplay could really spice things up. You know what they say about a guy with big political beliefs? OK, fine, no one’s said anything yet, but I’m hoping to find out.

Which brings me back to the RJC mixer. Having now completed my unsuccessful world tour of bars, parties and weddings, I’m looking for new ways to meet new men. And things are heating up on the campaign trail. I should get involved, donate my time. I’ve always thought volunteering for a candidate could be a great way to meet a man – and get someone elected. While it wouldn’t be a Republican candidate, it couldn’t hurt to check out RJC’s platforms – and members.

I throw on a short aqua sundress, my irresistible smile and boldly go where no Democrat has gone before. No, not Alabama. To hang with the RJC. The event is held at Falcon on Sunset Boulevard. With its dark wood, packed patio and overpriced drinks, it’s the perfect place to exchange opinions and digits. The event is jammed, the alcohol’s flowing; this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Or not.

I’m not sure what I expected from this happening soiree. I mean, really, what kind of young guys are drawn to the right? I was hoping rich, handsome, Jewish men, with pro-Israel leanings. With all the nuckshcleppers I’ve been set up with lately, if the only thing wrong with these men is their registered Republican status, they might get my vote.

But they didn’t. There was no tall Jewish Texan with an accent, no Alex P. Keaton with a kippah. There was one really hot guy, but he spent the entire night talking to the rail-thin hostess. Who I don’t believe was Republican or Jewish. The crowd at this event was just like the crowd at all the other organized Jewish events I brave. Slim pickings. Right, left, middle – a room of single Jews looks like a room of single Jews. Kinda disappointing. No matter what group is hosting, what cause is benefiting, these singles parties all feel, well, a little lame. Which means, we’re not so different after all. Maybe there’s no red date-blue date divide. Maybe standing on different sides of the political spectrum doesn’t have to be a relationship buster.

Could I pull a Shriver? I don’t know, maybe. This upcoming primary has people impassioned. For the first time since I cast a ballot, people seem to care about who they choose to lead. Rather than simply scan the Time’s cliff notes on election eve, people are already talking – at the bars, at the beach, even at Shabbat dinners. Everyone’s reading Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” and watching Clinton “Soprano”-it on You Tube. They’re arguing whether Rudy Giuliani is too liberal for the right, and whether Al Gore is coming off the bench. It’s got me fired up. Republican, Democrat, whatever – maybe I’d just be happy dating someone with an informed political view. OK, fine, I’d be happy just dating someone.

So, like a true politician, I’m backpeddling. Moderate, liberal, conservative – maybe it doesn’t matter, boys. As long you can rock my vote.

Freelance writer Carin Davis can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com.

Jews still have big role in changing L.A. political scene


It was not so long ago that Los Angeles City Hall and the Los Angeles Unified School District school board were filled with Jewish elected officials. The first winning Jewish
candidate of the 20th century, Rosalind Wiener (later Wyman) was elected to the council in 1953. From then on, Jews translated their high degree of political interest, disproportionate turnout at the polls and generally progressive politics into remarkable electoral success.

At one point, as many as one-third of the City Council members were Jewish. During the height of the school busing controversy in the late 1970s, the leadership of the anti-busing movement, as well as the most active whites in favor of busing, were Jewish and fought each other over school board seats.

Today, Jews remain a key constituency in Los Angeles politics and generate plenty of strong candidates. The dramatic rise of Latinos in local politics, though, has carved out another niche for minority candidates that once largely belonged to African Americans.

On the City Council, three seats (Districts 8, 9 and 10) are likely to remain African American for at least a while longer and then may shift toward Latinos. Another four (Districts 1, 6, 7 and 14) are likely to be Latino seats. Of the remaining eight seats, Jewish candidates have good chances to be elected but are only certain to be elected in one, the 5th District.

Jewish candidates also have an excellent chance at citywide races for mayor, controller and city attorney. On the school board, the Westside and Valley seats and maybe one more are still fair pickings for Jewish candidates.

The City Council’s 5th District stretches from the Fairfax district to Bel Air and Westwood on the Westside and into the near portions of the San Fernando Valley. It was Wyman’s seat, and then it fell to Ed Edelman, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Feuer and now Jack Weiss.

The 5th District is roughly one-third Jewish in a city with a 6 percent Jewish population. It regularly turns out the highest number of voters in city elections. (As one measure in the recent city elections, there were 185 precincts in the 5th District, compared to only 59 in the working-class Eastside 1st District. The more registered voters, the more precincts.) It has the highest level of education among the voters of any L.A. City Council district.

It’s a very tough seat to win, because there are so many strong Jewish candidates in the area. Those who win it have a good chance to move up. Edelman and Yaroslavsky became L.A. County supervisors. Feuer was nearly elected city attorney in 2001 and just won a state Assembly seat. Weiss has just announced his candidacy for city attorney in 2009. His candidacy opens up the 5th District seat in the same year.

Term limits in Los Angeles create the usual game of musical chairs. Until last year, all the elected officials were limited to two terms. In November, Measure R scrambled things by adding a term for City Council members, while leaving the three citywide offices at two terms. So Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Controller Laura Chick and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo are all termed out in 2009.

City Council members who thought they would be termed out now have another term. Even with that extra council term, the citywide openings will draw some like Weiss to give up their seats to go for the gold. Chick is thinking of running for the 5th District seat, and the popular controller would be a strong candidate.

Weiss has collected the endorsements of two popular mayors, Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan. He is hoping to preempt major competition early on. A strong challenger would be Bob Hertzberg, who can draw on the Valley Jewish base, which outnumbers the Westside Jewish constituency.

The mayor’s endorsement may keep major Latino candidates out of the race, a relevant factor, given Delgadillo’s upset victory over Feuer, another 5th District City Council member with even more endorsements. Having endorsed Villaraigosa early in the mayoral campaign, Weiss earned that crucial mayoral support. Chick is closely allied with the mayor, having helped his campaign with tough investigations of former Mayor James Hahn and having formally endorsed him.

The school board elections offer another window into the changing Jewish role in Los Angeles. Jewish voters are immensely and intensely interested in public education, even when their children are grown or in private schools. As in the school busing controversy, Jews are on both sides of the power struggle between the school board and the mayor.

Marlene Canter, the school board president, has been the strongest critic of the mayor’s plan. David Tokofsky managed, sometimes narrowly, to hold onto his Eastside seat against Latino challengers but finally stepped down this year to be replaced by a mayor-endorsed Latina, Yolie Aguilar. At the same time, the mayor’s potential control of the school board likely comes down to a Jewish candidate endorsed by the mayor in the Valley’s 3rd District.

Incumbent Jon Lauritzen is being supported by the teachers union and is under heavy challenge from Tamar Galatzan, who is supported by the mayor’s reform coalition. Before joining the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, where she is a deputy city attorney, Galatzan was Western states associate counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. In the primary election, Galatzan outpolled the incumbent, 44 percent to 40 percent, setting up a tight race in the runoff.

So why are Jews on both sides of the school debate? Jews have long ties to the school board and to the teachers union. But on the other side, there is a long tradition of supporting reform in all its varieties, and Jewish voters provide the city’s most reliable bloc of pro-reform voting.

Valley Jews especially were friendly to Riordan, who has strongly backed Villaraigosa’s moves on education. And warm views of Villaraigosa himself, who has long cultivated the Jewish community, add to the mix. If Galatzan is elected, Villaraigosa will have his school board majority.

So as the rise of Latinos has moderately edged out the role of Jews in one way, the linkage to Villaraigosa (for Weiss, Chick and Galatzan) has brought Jews another advantage in a way akin to the Bradley alliance. This is, of course, typical of Los Angeles politics in that nobody makes it on their own anyway, but only in alliance with other groups.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

It’s official: Jimmy Delshad elected new mayor of Beverly Hills


After a cliffhanger vote count, Jimmy Jamshid Delshad is preparing to claim two titles at his March 27 inauguration — mayor of Beverly Hills and top Iranian-born public official in the United States.

The milestone is being celebrated not only by his compatriots in Beverly Hills but also by the extended Iranian Jewish community of 30,000 in the Los Angeles area.

Delshad, 66, marked his all-but-certain victory on Saturday morning by attending services at three synagogues to thank congregants for their support. The first stop was at Sinai Temple in Westwood, where he had cut his political teeth by serving as president of the prestigious Conservative and traditionally Ashkenazi congregation from 1999 to 2001. He also visited Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills and the Nessah Educational and Cultural Center.

Once the remaining absentee ballots were counted on Wednesday, Delshad hadreceived 22 percent of the ballots cast, overtaking his closest challengerby 171 votes. The Beverly Hills city clerk will certify the election resultsby next week, and Delshad will be inaugurated as mayor on March 27.

Beverly Hills is governed by a five-person City Council, which in turn annually rotates the job of mayor among its members in order of seniority. The mayor presides over council meetings, but the city’s chief executive is the hired city manager.

Delshad was initially elected as a city councilman in 2003 and this year served as vice mayor of Beverly Hills.

In the current election, voters had to choose among six candidates, half of them Iranian Jews, to fill two council seats, with Delshad assured of the mayor’s post if he placed first or second.

When the polls closed March 6, Nancy Krasne, a city planning commissioner and board member of the National Council of Jewish Women, was the top vote getter. However, since she has less seniority on the City Council than other members, she is not yet in line for the mayor’s job.

Delshad was in second place, ahead of incumbent Mayor Steve Webb by a mere seven votes. After the partial count of absentee ballots, Delshad had widened his lead over Webb to 86 votes.

At that point, Webb conceded and Delshad declared victory.

“I feel blessed to have been chosen by the people of Beverly Hills,” Delshad said in a phone interview. “As a Jewish youngster in Iran, I was a second-class citizen and kept running into closed doors.

Through my example, I hope to open doors in America for other people like me.”

The English-language Tehran Times, published in the Iranian capital, reported the election as a straight news story. Delshad said he had received congratulatory e-mails from some Muslims in Iran, especially from former neighbors in his native city of Shiraz.

Beverly Hills was an early destination for wealthy Iranian émigrés after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Today, Beverly Hills counts some 8,000 residents of Iranian birth or descent, primarily Jewish, among a population of 35,000, according to Delshad.

However, global and Middle Eastern issues played no part in the election campaigns, with Delshad and other candidates running on such local preoccupations as traffic tie-ups, water conservation and bringing advanced computer technology to city government.

Like every previous immigrant group, the Iranian newcomers were met with some suspicion and incomprehension upon their arrival, and not all frictions have been resolved. Veteran residents frequently complain about Iranians who buy large, handsome homes, only to tear them down and replace them with huge “Persian palaces” to accommodate the social needs of large, extended families.

Another flashpoint came during the election itself when, for the first time, ballot forms were printed in Farsi, in addition to English and Spanish. The city clerk’s office was deluged with complaints, with one resident sneering that the new ballot “looks like a menu from a Persian restaurant with an English translation.”

In both the housing and ballot controversies, Delshad has played his characteristic role as mediator, trying to explain the viewpoints of the Anglo and Iranian communities to each other.

Delshad has come by his American success story the old-fashioned way, by initiative, enterprise and hard work.

One of three brothers, Delshad left Iran as a 16-year-old in 1956, more than two decades before the shah’s downfall, lived in Israel for 18 months, returned to Iran and left his native land for good in 1959 to settle in the United States.

After working for some time in a small Minnesota town, “where there were hardly any Jewish girls to date,” he and his brothers bought a car and drove west, with no final destination in mind. The trip ended with his enrollment at CSUN, where he earned an electrical engineering degree.

To put themselves through college, the brothers formed The Delshad Trio, with Jimmy playing the santur, a dulcimer-like Persian stringed instrument. The trio played at bar mitzvahs and weddings, performing “Israeli music with a Persian touch,” said Delshad, who still plays the santur for recreation.

After graduation, Delshad joined a fledgling computer firm and then formed his own company, specializing in computer hardware for backup systems. He sold the company in 1999, when he was elected president of Sinai Temple. When his civic duties allow, he does consulting and has established an import company for food packaging materials.

Delshad and his wife, who was born in Kfar Vitkin while her American parents were staying in Israel, have a son and daughter, both graduates of Jewish day schools and now in college.

“Being Jewish is part and parcel of my life,” Delshad said.

Jewish Journal Contributing Writer Karmel Melamed contributed to this story.

City Voice: We’re not who we think we are


There is a preconceived notion about the Los Angeles Jewish community being affluent, increasingly conservative and preoccupied with Israel to the exclusion of other issues.

There is some truth in this, as is the case with all preconceived notions and stereotypes. There is also some untruth.

Before the 2004 election, for example, we pundits wrote much about an anticipated Jewish shift to the Republican Party. But on Election Day, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, received 78 percent of the Jewish vote, according to a post-election study conducted for the Solomon Project by five established political pollsters.

“This number has been remarkably stable over the last three presidential elections,” they said in their report.

And there’s poverty among us. In November 2004, Jewish Journal senior writer Mark Ballon reported on a Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles study that found one in five local Jews earn less than $25,000 annually. In greater Fairfax, with its large senior and immigrant population, the figure was one in three.

Aiming to puncture more stereotypes, I visited the single-room office of the Jewish Labor Committee and talked to the western executive director, Cookie Lommel, an African American woman, a journalist and the writer of books on famous people for young adults. She is, to her knowledge, the first African American woman to head a Jewish organization.

“Stereotypes are hard to kill,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”
The liberal Jewish Labor Committee was founded in 1934 on the Lower East Side of New York by unionized Jewish garment workers organizing a movement against Hitler’s assault on independent trade unions. The Los Angeles operation began eight months later. Soon their efforts expanded to try to rescue German and East European Jewry. Today, the committee works closely with unions representing teachers and other public employees, supermarket workers, janitors and other elements of the labor movement in Los Angeles.

“We are the link between the organized Jewish community and the labor movement,” Lommel said.

In 1991, as a journalist, she became interested in the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. She wrote about it for black publications.

Afterward, she started Operation Unity, bringing African American and Latino high school students to Israel, where they worked on a kibbutz. Eventually, that led her to the small Jewish Labor Committee office on the second floor of the Institute of Jewish Education building, a few blocks east of the Beverly Center. Shifting from computer to desk to work table, answering the phone and my questions, Lommel was commander of her one-woman show. Her door was open, and the sounds of a preschool in the yard below provided the background to our chat.

I had called Lommel because it had occurred to me that the news media was not telling the entire Jewish story. We see Jewish Hollywood, Jewish business tycoons and Jewish political contributors, all of them at the top of the economic ladder.

Lommel knows a blue-collar side to Jewish life.

“There is a high percentage of Jews in the membership and leadership of unions,” she said.

Not all of Hollywood’s Jews are studio execs. Plenty are members of IATSE, the union representing technicians, crafts people, artists and stagehands.

Another place where you find large numbers of Jewish members is in the fast-growing unions representing government employees. I can’t think of a grittier, more blue-collar job than being a Los Angeles County social worker, driving through the poorest neighborhoods, checking up on dysfunctional homes, always worried that one wrong decision could leave a kid in the hands of a brutal parent.

Another tough job is being a school teacher. Jews are also supermarket checkers, as Lommel discovered while on the picket line during the 2003-2004 market strike. She told me about a striking checker encountering a longtime Jewish customer, who was shocked at seeing a nice Jewish woman carrying a picket sign. The customer’s surprise reflects how much of the Jewish community accepts stereotypes about itself.

Accepting these stereotypes takes the Jewish community out of the game on important issues vital to poor, working class and middle class Jews.

Certainly Israel is of great importance. The Jewish Labor Council was quick to join other Jewish organizations in protest when the United Teachers of Los Angeles’ (UTLA) 25-member Human Rights Committee planned a meeting at UTLA headquarters to discuss economic sanctions against Israel. The union, which has a total membership of 48,000, decided to deny the use of its headquarters for the event.

But there are issues besides Israel, including one of tremendous importance: the public schools. The people I’m writing about — the teachers, the social workers, the movie industry artists and technicians who don’t work in slow months — can’t afford private schools. They are entitled to send their children to good public schools. It is their right, just as it is the right of every American.

The influential, high-profile elements of the Jewish community are missing in action on this issue. To them, the public schools are a Latino thing or an African American thing. Actually, public education has always been a Jewish thing. And, considering what our community is really like, it still is.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. He can be reached at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

The Lion in Waiting


Last Friday evening, I was pacing backstage at the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Gindi Auditorium, rehearsing my introduction for Ehud Barak.

Born on a kibbutz, 36 years in the Israel Defense Forces, fought in three wars, architect of the Entebbe raid, disguised as a woman to kill Munich terrorists in Beirut, Israel’s most decorated soldier, elected Prime Minister in 1999…

That’s when I saw him, sitting on a stage box in the shadows: Ehud Barak.

In person Barak is somehow both more and less imposing than he seems from afar.

He is stocky, with a healthy paunch for his 64 years. Glasses give him the professorial air — he received his master’s in engineering from Stanford University. But when he addresses me — How many people are here? What are their politics? What time do we end? — it’s clear I am in the presence of a man used to quick orders and decisive action. He tells an aide to have his driver come to the UJ on Mulholland Drive.

He turns to me: “There’s a David Lynch film about that?”

“Mulholland Falls,” I say. “A strange movie,” he says. “Very strange, but interesting.”

For an instant, I panic — is he going to order me to explain David Lynch?

For three days last week, Barak’s comeback trail to Israeli politics detoured through Southern California. On Monday he spoke to 6,000 people at the UJ lecture series at the Universal Amphitheatre; on Sunday he spoke at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin. And on Friday night he joined 200 guests for a Shabbat dinner at the UJ, followed by an onstage interview with me at Gindi Hall.

To prepare, I’d e-mailed a mutual acquaintance who’d worked closely with Barak at Camp David. I asked him what sort of questions would elicit the most interesting responses. “Barak is a highly educated, well-read person with exceptional (!!!!) analytical ability,” he wrote back. “You will enjoy asking him big picture questions and letting him elaborate.”

Our conversation began on familiar ground — the failed Camp David negotiations between Barak, President Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat — then quickly circled the globe.

It was the collapse of Camp David in 2000, followed by the second intifada that brought Barak’s term as prime minister to a quick, crushing end. For Barak, it was the risk Israel took for peace that laid bare Arafat’s true intentions.

I realized for him it was not about “undoing 1967” — the occupation of lands captured in the Six Day War — but about “undoing 1947” — the year before Israel became a state.

“They should have taken away Arafat’s Nobel Prize and given him an Academy Award, for Best Actor,” he said.

Barak defended his offer to trade parts of Jerusalem and give the Palestinians control over the Temple Mount. His reasons were brusque and pragmatic. Why should Israel control Arab villages that have nothing to do with Jerusalem?, he said. As for the Temple Mount, it has long been in control of the Muslim waqf; he was codifying the status quo.

Right now, Barak doesn’t see a partner for peace among the Palestinians; not Hamas, and he has his doubts about Mahmoud Abbas. And so, where does that leave Israel? For now, he said, Israel can sit tight. When the Palestinians are ready to negotiate, he said, “we will stretch out one hand, and keep a gun in the other.”

In the meantime, Israel faces grave regional problems, the prospect of a nuclear Iran chief among them. He said that within a short time Iran could “cross the nuclear threshold.” He has no doubt their engineers are capable — he studied with some of them at Stanford.

How to thwart them? A multilateral solution that involves the United States, Russia, China and the Europeans is preferable. Would it work? He was pessimistic. And then what?: “I don’t believe in speaking openly, as some in the government do, about our other options.”

I asked Barak if the Iraq War has made Israel safer. The initial military victory, he said, took out an avowed enemy. But the subsequent occupation, the descent into civil war, and the rise of the Shiite influence, has made Israel less safe. (When I asked him if, as former commander-in-chief, he believes 21,000 more troops would solve anything, he took whatever the Israeli equivalent of the Fifth is).

The war in Lebanon — which Barak made clear the current Israeli government mishandled — did not erase the threat from Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists in southern Lebanon. I asked if he believes the military inexperience of some current Israeli leaders was a factor in the war’s outcome.

He declined to answer directly: “Napoleon said an army is like a noodle. Lead it from the front and it follows straight behind. Try to push it from the rear, and it goes all squiggly.”

The upshot of these events, said Barak, is that Israel faces a Middle East in which radical Shiite power could extend from Teheran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut — “the Shiite banana,” he called it. And make no mistake, the virulently anti-Israel rantings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are but the vocalization of beliefs that even more “moderate” Iranian leaders hold.

Bad as that scenario is, the world would be a safer place, he said, if America would work closely with China and Russia to set and enforce international norms. That means, Barak said, Democrats would have to overcome their revulsion to Russian and Chinese human rights abuses, and Republicans would have to overcome their antipathy to Russia and China. But, Barak said, there is no better way in today’s world to confront the threats of nuclear proliferation, Islamic fundamentalism and terror than for the three most powerful countries to band together.

On a more optimistic note, Barak offered the audience reassurance about Israel’s security.

GA taps into passion, will, power of the people


Perhaps it was the civilian, Karnit Goldwasser, who said it most clearly: “There are so many powerful and important people gathered together here. Together, we must raise up our voices.”

Goldwasser’s specific intent was to urge the thousands of Jewish leaders and a cadre of Israeli ministers present at the United Jewish Communities 75th annual General Assembly to keep up the pressure to rescue her husband, Ehud, who was kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists in July along with two other Israeli soldiers.

But in a larger sense, tapping into the power of the collective passion, will and resources of the Jewish establishment was at the heart of this year’s GA, which had as its highlight an address Tuesday by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The event concluded on Wednesday after four days at the downtown Los Angeles Convention Center.

The GA brings together federation leaders and representatives of just about every Jewish organization in North America and Israel for a combination trade show, policy conference and marathon pep rally. Officials said the event attracted 5,000 participants and volunteers — protected by a hypervigilant private security battalion and a phalanx of LAPD officers — making this the largest GA since the 2003 gathering in Jerusalem.

GA officials would not say how much the event cost, but The Los Angeles Federation estimated it expended about $200,000 in staff time and hard costs, money that leaders have been saving since they began planning the L.A. GA 13 years ago.

The mood was dark at many of the plenaries, which focused on the threats to Israel, the international fear of Islamic fundamentalism and the specter of a nuclear Iran.

Speakers from the prime minister on down, at numerous sessions and speeches, hammered home the point that Israel’s first and foremost security threat was a nuclear-armed Iran ruled by a president who has declared his intention to “wipe Israel off the map.”

“We in the intelligence community are willing to pay billions of dollars to learn what our enemies are thinking,” Israel’s Intelligence Minister Avi Dikter told an audience at a Tuesday panel with Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. “The president of Iran is putting it on the table free of charge.”

The GA’s theme, “Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny,” emphasized Israel’s security, politics and relationship with the Diaspora. Yet in addition to the spotlight on Israel, more than 150 organizational exhibitors and 60 sessions cut a wide swath through Jewish life, highlighting issues such as reaching out to family caregivers, raising young philanthropists and innovations in Jewish education.

Speaking at the opening plenary, Goldwasser’s anguished but unfathomably poised plea to Israel and the international community to keep attention on the abducted soldiers brought choked-up delegates in the enormous exhibition hall to their feet. It was a moment of emotion that speaks to why a GA is important: Being in a room with so many people who are so moved by the same thing ignites a passion and energy that reminds people that Jews belong to each other.

“It’s a remarkable ingathering of all of these people, where we have an opportunity to share ideas and talk and teach each other,” said Marvin Schotland, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles. “I’m not sure there are too many moments of this magnitude where you can get a sense of Jewish peoplehood the way you do here.”

This year brought an unprecedented six Israeli Knesset members and six Cabinet ministers — including Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — and dignitaries such as French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy and Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria.

The star power was also on hand with appearances by the likes of Mare Winningham, Jeff Goldblum and Jon Voight and Jewish musical favorites Debbie Friedman and Mike Burstyn. But what the conference was for was pumping up leaders for another year of raising both Jewish consciousness and philanthropic dollars. The networking over dinner and in organizational receptions and the casual contacts made on the perennially snaking line to the Starbucks in the Convention Center lobby were just as key to strengthening the Jewish network as the official program.

A highlight was the sold-out Monday night show at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with a Yiddish theater revue and selections from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.

Before the war with Hezbollah this summer, the theme of the GA was “Be With the Stars,” a Hollywood-esque way of highlighting the community’s major players and programs, as well as looking to the future stars — the next generation of leaders.

But the upbeat star theme gave way to the more earnest “Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny,” focusing on Israel and international Jewry’s responsibility for and relationship with Israel.

“The program really touched on topics and issues that were on people’s minds. We focused on what people are thinking about, and we had overflow crowds,” said Glenn Rosenkrantz, director of media affairs at UJC.

The organization, which last year raised $3 billion among all the federations, has raised $350 million for Israel since the war this summer (which probably explains the presence of the 12 Israeli politicians).

Many participants interviewed said they were glad to have the chance to more deeply understand what feels like an existential crisis.

John Fishel, president of The Los Angeles Federation, said he understood and supported the decision to focus on Israel but regretted some of the compromises that had to be made.

“I guess I would have preferred more of a balance in terms of some of the domestic issues,” said Fishel, the conference’s host and go-to guy for all sorts of situations. “The Federation’s mandate is not only Israel or overseas projects, it is about local and domestic issues, whether that be public policy, service delivery or discussions about Jewish identity and innovations in Jewish education,” he said.

It also meant that sessions that had been scheduled to feature local Jewish organizations ended up being pushed aside.

L.A. Times in turmoil: is it good for the Jews?


Thinking about the mess at the Los Angeles Times, I can’t help but raise the question we usually bring to matters great and small. How does it affect the Jews?

The paper is going through hard times. The owner, Tribune Co., unhappy with the paper’s substantial profits, ordered publisher Jeffery Johnson and editor Dean Baquet to make big cuts. When they refused, Johnson was forced out. Baquet is hanging on, trying to forestall the inevitable.

For this particular Jew, it’s a sad time. I worked there more than 30 years. I retired in 2001, and I still have friends at the paper. I talked a lot to two of them last week and shared their worries over their futures and those of their families. It’s also sad to read the paper, to see it shrink, to watch the editorial staff drop from 1,200 to 940 and, likely, eventually to Chicago’s goal of about 800.

Why is this bad for the Jews? It’s bad because as residents of the Southland, we have a long and great tradition of civic activism, going back to early in the 20th century and continuing today in homeowner groups, neighborhood councils, public school support organizations, political parties, sports leagues and all the other activities that permit this sprawling area to function.

Because of their intense activism, Jews have been among the paper’s most devoted readers and fiercest critics. A substantial part of the paper’s circulation base has long been in the broad Jewish belt extending from the Westside through the West Valley.

Granted, the base has dwindled. Each year, I see fewer copies of the Times in front yards in my Westside neighborhood early in the morning. Some of the losses come from exsubscribers who now get their news on line. Other former Times subscribers are single-issue Jews who abandoned the paper after parsing every story about Israel, looking for imagined bias or anti-Semitism.

But a large number of us remain. For us, and for everyone else, a strong Times is important because it is one of the few institutions that holds this vast region together.

When I went to work there in 1970, covering politics, I was overwhelmed by the geographic immensity of my beat. In those ancient days, before the Global Positioning System, I was given a thick book known as a Thomas Guide, and I used its maps to navigate through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley, through Watts and Reseda, from Malibu to Boyle Heights.

Everywhere I went, the Times was a big deal. It connected these diverse regions, saw things in a regional way and championed regional solutions to the problems of the Southland, whether they were smog, education, health care or transportation.

As I began at the Times, less than a decade had passed since Otis Chandler had raised the paper from its long years as a right-wing rag to a publication of national renown. Jews, who had been brought up to read the old Daily News and to scorn the Times, had become loyal Times subscribers, depending on the paper for news of the state Capitol, their city halls, their freeways and their schools.

Public affairs was just part of the package, not as interesting to many readers as the sports pages and Jim Murray. And not as vital to many as the stories produced by the foreign staff, the Washington bureau and correspondents around the country. And not as important to many as news of movies, food, music, books, galleries and other aspects of the arts.

The secret of the Times’ success was the package, putting it all together. No matter what their interests, we knew our readers had something in common — they were readers, and they found something in the paper to interest them.

Now the management of the Tribune Co. is tearing up the package or at least diminishing it.
You can see it in the paper. The sports section grows thinner. I can get more and better sports news from the Web. The front section is squeezed for space, as is the California section.

This means that reporters who dig up good stories have to fight for a place in a paper that can barely find enough room for daily news. And as the staff shrinks, the remaining reporters are spending their time catching up with fast-moving events, rather than digging below the surface.

This is the way to lose readers. And as space and staff dwindles, the Times will no longer be able to exercise its function as the one regional voice of the Southland. Our problems are regional. What happens in a school in Carson has an impact on one in the Valley. The closing of an emergency ward in Inglewood will have a direct affect on emergency care on the Westside. If the paper can’t cover this — extensively as the news breaks, as well as with in-depth investigative reporting, both of which take substantial resources — we all lose.

This is why the dismantling of the once great Los Angeles Times is bad for the Jews and everyone else.

Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Radio Host Barry Gordon: It’s All Right to Be Left


“I don’t come in until the sax solo,” Barry Gordon says to the technician in the cramped, second-floor studio in the North Hollywood area.

Gordon takes off his glasses, places them on a pile of books, and, light-green highlighter in hand, he begins marking up another text, this one by Noam Chomsky, Gordon’s first radio interview on this Sunday. Gordon has been host of “Barry Gordon From Left Field,” a political talk show on KCAA 1050 AM, since earlier this year, and as he tilts forward in his swivel chair, he studies the tome 15 minutes before his 1 p.m. show begins. With his gentle rocking motion, salt-and-pepper beard, and Talmudic concentration on the prose, Gordon suggests an Orthodox Jew davening during prayer, a fitting image for a man who may be most famous of late for his portrayal of the rabbi on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

But Gordon has played many roles over his long, multifarious career, which started when he was a 3-year-old singer on the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour.” He has morphed from child singer to recording artist (his rendition of “Nuttin’ for Christmas” remains one of the top-selling Christmas records), child actor on Golden Age TV shows like “Leave It To Beaver” and “Dennis the Menace,” Tony-nominated performer for his role in Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns” and president of the Screen Actors Guild.

He also graduated Summa Cum Laude from Cal State L.A. in his 30s; got a law degree in 1991, when he was in his 40s; ran as the Democratic candidate for Congress in the late 1990s; recently co-wrote the musical, “Dorian Gray”; and now, in his late-50s, has become a radio personality.

In working in radio as a political commentator, Gordon is returning to his roots in many ways. In addition to his own radio and TV performances as a child singer, his father was a DJ in Albany, N.Y., before the family moved to Southern California, when Gordon was about 7. A few years later, the young Gordon became entranced by the Kennedy phenomenon and read “Profiles in Courage.”

On this day, though, he is reading Chomsky as the technician cues Supertramp’s “The Magical Song,” a hit from the late 1970s. We hear the lyrics, “They’d be calling you a radical, a liberal…,” before segueing to Gordon, who says, “We’re here to cut through the white noise of the right wing.”

Dressed casually in gray corduroys and faded-pink floral shirt, Gordon speaks in animated fashion, and unlike many actors, he can do so off the cuff with great elocution and diction.

After telling listeners about his “packed” show, whose interviewees in the later segments include Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Gordon introduces in almost hushed tones his opening guest, “one of the most extraordinary minds of the 20th century, Noam Chomsky.”

In an era of talk radio, where political discourse is often reduced to shouting, Gordon conducts his program with much civility. The morning after the show, he will say over the phone, “The biggest mistake liberal talk radio can make is to copy conservative talk radio. I think you can have a passionate program without trashing people. There can be respectful disagreement, but it’s disagreement.”

There is no doubting Gordon’s political perspective, and not just because of the baseball metaphor used in the title of his eponymous program. Gordon ran for Congress in 1998 against James Rogan, the Republican representative from Glendale, best remembered for his role in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Gordon lost a close race but paved the way for Adam Schiff, a Democrat, who won two years later.

Yes, Gordon is on the left. On his blog, BarryTalk.com, he has criticized the Israeli reprisals against Hezbollah that resulted in the killing of civilians, even if many were used as shields by terrorists. Now, as he interviews Chomsky, Gordon says, “As you’re a professor of linguistics, let me ask you a question about language. ‘How would you define a terrorist?'”

Chomsky, who has written many books on the Middle East and has voiced his disapproval of U.S. foreign policy and Israeli military activity, responds that a terrorist engages in “the calculated use of violence against civilians.”
Gordon, who is extremely well-informed, holds forth about the Israeli media and Middle East politics. He mentions that he has joined the organization, L.A. Jews for Peace, which he regrets does not have a large membership.

He and Chomsky discuss the failed peace talks at Taba. According to the MIT professor, the Palestinians and even the Iranians had signed on to a two-state solution in Israel and the Palestinian territories, but the Israelis backed out of an agreement.

If Gordon seems to be one of the lone liberal voices on the radio (he jokes that listeners are as likely to hear Gordon Liddy as him on KCAA), he follows in a tradition that goes back to FDR, whose “fireside chats” showed his mastery of the then-new medium, and has included everyone from Orson Welles to Robert Scheer to Al Franken.

“The trend in the medium is not to take a position,” he says. “I’m not interested in playing devil’s advocate. ‘On the one hand, this; on the other hand, that.’ I’m interested in taking a position.”

As the first of his many interviews today ends, Gordon relaxes in his swivel chair. He says he is reaching as many as 3.5 million listeners on KCAA but is hoping to go national. That will take a lot of resourcefulness, but Gordon is great at improvising, and he’s a quick study. He once filled in for the cantor at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts (“I was the temple’s Ruby Keeler”), he learned how to write and read music without any formal training, and he returned to college and law school in middle age.

So, how will he take his radio show national?

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” he chuckles.


“Barry Gordon From Left Field” is broadcast live Sundays from 1-4 p.m., on KCAA 1050 AM, webcast live on ” TARGET=”_blank”>www.BarryGordonFromLeftField.com and the blog,

An Open Letter to Harvard’s Stephen Walt


At an Aug. 28 Washington forum hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy Center and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago expanded on their paper “The Israel Lobby,” first published as a faculty working research paper at Harvard.
That paper charged supporters of Israel with undue influence on American policy. At the forum, the two accused Israel of working in concert with the U.S. government to find a pretext for war with Hezbollah.

Reports of the forum prompted Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former student of Walt’s, to pen this letter to his one-time mentor.

Dear Steve:

I’ve been meaning to write you since I read your and John Mearsheimer’s paper, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Coincidentally (or,
perhaps in your view, not coincidentally), I read your paper on the plane on the way back from a policy conference in Israel this spring. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We met when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. You were an up-and-coming assistant professor of politics, a devotee of Berkeley professor Ken Waltz’s realist school of international politics. I looked to you as one of my intellectual and career mentors. We were both influenced by Mearsheimer, who at the time had published important work on the balance of conventional forces in Europe.

As you may recall, I focused on superpower arms control. You looked over my shoulder for my junior paper on SALT I and for my senior thesis on verification policy (to this day, I wish I had taken your advice and written instead about former U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze).

When I left Princeton, you recommended MIT’s political science Ph.D. program to me — and me to them. While I deferred my entry there (and later opted for law school instead), you and I spent countless hours together in Washington, D.C., during your sabbatical engaged in a running critique of the Reagan administration’s ideologically driven foreign policy initiatives.

If I had to distill the many lessons you taught me about international political analysis over the years, they would come down to this — be rational. Focus on interests, not ideology. Be logical, and don’t be swayed by partisanship, emotions or hidden agendas.

It was thus with great dismay that I read your and professor Mearsheimer’s paper. It has by now been well explored and debunked elsewhere. For example, Dennis Ross has explained the paper’s many foreign policy misconceptions (“The Mind-Set Matters,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2006), while Eliot Cohen has explained how the paper’s “obsessive beliefs about Jews” are consistent with anti-Semitism (“Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic,” Washington Post, April 5, 2006). I will only add that the paper came as a tremendous disappointment to this former student, because you and professor Mearsheimer so clearly neglected the lessons you taught me about academic rigor.

To take just one example, you suggest that radical Islamic terrorists would be less likely to attack the United States if we reduced our level of support for Israel. This fundamentally misapprehends the causes and goals of global jihadism. As Lawrence Wright demonstrates in “The Looming Tower,” terrorists such as Osama Bin-Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were radicalized principally in reaction to moderate Arab governments, such as Egypt. Indeed, these religiously motivated terrorists’ main goal is to institute strict Islamic governments in the nations where Islam currently and previously flourished, establishing a caliphate stretching from China to Spain.

Do these terrorists also wish to destroy Israel? Sure. Is U.S. support for Israel the reason we find ourselves in their cross-hairs? Far from it — indeed, Bin-Laden and Al-Zawahiri largely ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years, due to the Palestinians’ track record (until recently) of secular leadership.

Yet on account of my respect for you, I was still considering filing all of these academic differences under the category of “let’s agree to disagree” — until last month, when you made it personal.

According to the Washington Post, you and professor Mearsheimer headlined an event last month sponsored by a Muslim group with a spotty record for objectivity. The Post noted that you singled out Jewish administration officials for having “attachments” that drive their views on American foreign policy.
Steve, I want you to understand what a tremendous insult this is. With your strong personal encouragement, I have gone on to a career in our nation’s service. In 20 years, I have served in each of the three branches of the federal government, at times in sensitive positions, and have twice been elected locally. I have continued my focus on national security issues and now devote much of my efforts to homeland security and local preparedness.

Do I, as an American Jew, have to look over my shoulder at you the rest of my career, wondering when the day will come when you question my loyalty? When will I say or do something that you will determine emanates from my “attachments” and not from the skill sets you helped me develop?

Steve, just what academic rigor do you employ before leveling charges of disloyalty against fellow Americans?

And then I reached the penultimate line of the Post article: “Before leaving for an interview with Al Jazeera, Mearsheimer accepted a button proclaiming ‘Walt & Mearsheimer Rock. Fight the Israel Lobby.'”

Steve, I will proudly continue my public and intellectual pursuits in the manner you taught me two decades ago. Please let me know when you are again ready to practice what you used to preach.

Jack Weiss is a Los Angeles city councilman.

Israel Donations Stimulate — and Don’t Hurt — Local Fundraising


Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon has left the Jewish state spiritually and financially drained. The overall cost of the conflict, including the amount spent on the war and business losses in northern Israel, exceeds $7 billion, according to The Israel Project, a nonprofit, pro-Israeli advocacy group.

Responding to Israel’s plight, American Jews have sent tens of millions of dollars to the beleaguered country, much of it through Jewish charities, including Jewish federations across the country. Given that Israel’s needs remain vast, undoubtedly the upcoming High Holiday season will see rabbis across the Southland encouraging congregants to open their hearts — and their pocketbooks — to the Jewish homeland.

But will Israel’s needs trump those of local synagogues and Jewish nonprofits? Will the charitable dollars flowing to Israel during the giving season mean less support for maintenance of Southland temples and for the social services that Jews traditionally support, such as Jewish day schools or food and psychological counseling for the needy?

An informal survey of rabbis and agency executives suggests that they remain optimistic that donors this year will not hold back. They will find a way to help both the Holy Land and causes closer to home.

For synagogues, the stakes appear especially high. That’s because fundraising during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can generate the largest portion of a year’s total fundraising. With a large, semicaptive audience, it is not uncommon for rabbis or temple presidents to make three or four appeals during holiday services. The season’s emphasis on teshuvah (repentance); tefillah (prayer); and tzedekah (righteous) giving, helps Jews understand the importance of contributing and puts them in the right frame of mind to do so, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which has 285 members.

Rabbi David Eliezre of the Chabad synagogue, Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen in Orange County, feels confident that the act of giving only begets more generosity.

“People with a charitable heart will reach a little deeper in their pockets this year,” he said.

Similarly, Rabbi Don Goor, senior rabbi of Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills, said he is hopeful his synagogue will raise as much for its own operations this year as last. In a reflection of the appeal’s importance, which accounts for more than 50 percent of Temple Judea’s annual fundraising, Goor will make the pitch himself at services, while another rabbi will make an appeal for Israel. Goor said that his sermon will address how centrifugal forces, including America’s rugged individualism, have pulled the Jewish community to “the outside, while the synagogue pulls Jews back to the core of Judaism.”

Goor said he has little concern that charitable giving to Israel will dilute the synagogue campaign. Last year, he said, congregants gave generously to victims of Hurricane Katrina but still managed to keep up their temple giving.

University Synagogue in Brentwood, with 60 full- and part-time employees and a planned renovation, relies on holiday fundraising for a “significant” portion of its operating budget, said senior Rabbi Morley Feinstein. That’s why its president will make a pitch for synagogue donations on Rosh Hashanah, while a separate appeal for Israel will be made on Yom Kippur.

Feinstein said he is hopeful that temple members will come through, even though they have already contributed tens of thousands of dollars to various Israel emergency campaigns.

“Our people are known as compassionate, and our children are compassionate,” Feinstein said. “Our compassion has to enter our checkbooks so that we help those in need.”

Like synagogues, local Jewish philanthropies often build fundraising campaigns around the High Holidays, although to a lesser extent. The picture here seems a bit murkier.

Because Jews “get that warm, fuzzy feeling of Judaism” during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) steps up its fundraising in the last three months of the year, said Mark Meltzer, the organization’s executive director. Typically, the nonprofit takes in about one-third of its donations from October through December, he said.

However, Meltzer worries that charitable dollars now earmarked for Israel could impact JFLA fundraising and cause the nonprofit to miss its 2006 targets. If that happens, he said, Free Loan would have less money available for interest-free loans for university students or Jewish couples seeking fertility treatments or Jewish campers.

“For the donor who wants to make an impact both locally and internationally, it’s going to stretch their pocketbook,” Meltzer said.

To coincide with the High Holidays, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger recently kicked off its campaign “Corners of Our Fields,” a reference to the biblical practice of leaving corners of a field untouched for the poor to harvest. For a variety of reasons, though, Mazon can’t predict how this year’s holiday drive will fare, said Jeremy Deutchman, Mazon’s director of communications and development. Deutchman said at least two rabbis he tried to enlist to talk up Mazon told him they plan instead to focus their holiday sermons on Israel this year.

Mazon funds food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens locally, as well as nationally and internationally. The nonprofit, Deutchman said, has seen demand for its contributions jump in recent years because of the squeeze on America’s middle class.

By contrast, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has seen an increase in contributions, including from new donors in recent months, because the Jewish philanthropic organization set up one of the major Israel emergency campaigns, according to Craig Prizant, executive vice president of financial resource development. The Federation now has the chance to “convert” crisis-fund donors into regular givers, Prizant said. It hopes to do so by making first-timers aware of all the ways the organization supports the Jewish state — and then ask for a donation at a later date.

The success of the L.A. Federation’s Israel in Crisis fund, which has raised $15 million so far, appears to have had little or no impact on The Federation’s annual campaign, Prizant said. He projects this year’s campaign to hit $50 million, a 5 percent jump over last year.

There are those who would like to keep discussions of money out of the sacred days. At least one Southland rabbi, Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades, thinks Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should not be synonymous with fundraising. She said her temple makes, at most, a quiet solicitation during the High Holidays and holds its two major fundraising events at other times during the year.

“We try to keep the sanctity of the High Holidays without having it be so commercialized,” she said.

Local Christian Leaders Maintain Support for Israel


Even in the face of recent international criticism of Israel’s war tactics, American Christians, especially Evangelicals, have remained steadfast in support of Jews and the Jewish state. Whereas vicious anti-Zionist attacks in much of Europe and the Arab world have lately bled into rank anti-Semitism, even those American Christians critical of Israel’s recent actions have gone to great lengths to stress their support for the nation’s right to exist.

As a tenuous cease-fire takes hold in Lebanon, local Christian leaders, like the majority of Americans, appear largely supportive of Israel’s military campaigns, according to Board of Rabbis of Southern California Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark S. Diamond. He says that for the most part they believe that Israel has acted properly to ensure its security and bring about a lasting peace.

Simply put, as David Brog pointed out in his recent book “Standing With Israel” (Front Line, 2006), American Christians have a more favorable view of Israel than Christians almost anywhere else in the world, and that sentiment has not abated in the face of the recent embattlements.

The Rev. Lorraine Coconato of the Leaves of Healing Tabernacle in Northridge considers herself among Israel’s staunchest supporters. She said the 70 members of her new Evangelical congregation pray often and passionately for Israel.

Coconato, has visited the Jewish state twice, including a nine-day mission in 2005; she said she has a special relationship with the country.

“To me, Israel is a home away from home,” Coconato said. “The Bible comes alive in Israel.”

She also serves as vice president of the Israel-Christian Nexus, a pro-Israel group.

“When I was there, I felt like this is God’s land; these are God’s people, and I’m connected to them by faith in the one, true living God,” she said.

David Hocking leads weekly Bible classes in Orange County and believes God made an unbreakable covenant with Israel and the Jewish people. Hocking also runs a national radio ministry called “Hope for Today,” and he said he regularly speaks out in support of Israel and encourages all Christians to do the same.

“You know, the biggest subject in the Bible next to God himself is Israel. It’s mentioned 2,655 times,” Hocking said. “Whether we like it or not, God chose [Israel] above all nations of the world to show his love and faithfulness. His covenant is everlasting.”

If Evangelical Christians base their support for Israel and the Jews largely on theological grounds, at least one African American Israel partisan would add the shared histories of Jews and blacks to that equation.

The Rev. Sherman Gordon of the New Philadelphia African Methodist Episcopal Church in Rancho Dominguez said Jews and African Americans have both experienced brutal repression — the Jews with the Holocaust and African Americans with slavery. Both groups also have survived — not always comfortably he added — in diasporas far from their original homelands.

Given those commonalities, Jews and blacks should “come together and sit down at the table of brotherhood,” Gordon said.

Mormons have long felt an affinity for Israel and the Jews, said Mark Paredes director of Jewish relations for the Mormon Church in Southern California. As a reflection of that affinity, he said, the Mormon church recently contributed $50,000 to Magen David Adom, the Israeli affiliate of the International Red Cross, to help with ambulance response, among other needs. The church also sent aid to Lebanon.

On a personal note, Israel has held a special place in Paredes’ soul since childhood. Growing up in Michigan, he said he felt “at home” visiting synagogues. Later, Paredes had several “marvelous spiritual experiences” while posted in the mid-1990s as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Tel Aviv.

“My support for Israel in this conflict is unconditional,” Paredes said. “I really think they are battling for their survival, and I think all decent peoples need to side with those who are battling terrorism.”

Peter Laarman’s support of Israel is anything but unqualified. As the executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting sees it, Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon went too far and only succeeded in galvanizing support for Hezbollah.

Still, Laarman described himself as a “reluctant critic” and stressed his support for a two-state solution. He said he condemned the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as the latter’s rocket attacks on the Israeli city of Haifa.

“I would never vilify Israel as a bad actor here,” Laarman said. “But I would say I have serious questions about proportionality and where this is leading for Israel and for the region.”

The Rev. Gwynne Guibord also said he has no interest in vilifying Israel or any of the other combatants in the Middle East. Assigning blame, said the officer of ecumenical and inter-religious concerns for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, does nothing but waste time. Instead, everybody, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew, should push to end the fighting throughout the region, she said.
“Everybody lay down your arms!” Guibord said. “Take off your shoes! The ground on which you stand is holy: Palestine, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. At some point, as the family of humanity, we need to say enough is enough.”

Far From Home


Amotz Zakai is vice president of production and manager at Echo Lake Productions, an independent film company that has produced films like “Tsotsi” and “Water.” Needless to say, Zakai is very busy right now.

But when the 33-year-old Israeli American dual citizen heard about the fighting in Israel, he immediately called his army commander to see if he should return to Israel to serve.

For Zakai, who served for four years as a lieutenant in the artillery division of the Israel Defense Forces, the battle in Lebanon is especially significant, because he fought there between 1991 and 1995 — and lost three friends.
“When I was in Lebanon we thought we’d rather be killed than be captured, so to go back down there is not a good situation,” Zakai said.

Going back into Lebanon, he said “is the most horrible thing we could do but because of the terror, we must do it.”


“It’s hard to see your people suffer when you’re out here in Beverly Hills”

Zakai and his wife are expecting their first child, and his wife, who used to be a sniper in the Israeli military, does not want him to serve. But he still may go to Israel, with thoughts of volunteering for the army spokesman’s division. “My family is there and it’s hard to see your people suffer when you’re out here in Beverly Hills.”

L.A.-based demographer Pini Herman estimates that 30,000 Israelis live in Los Angeles, although others claim there are as many as 150,000. And while for most it’s not a question of army service — citizens abroad are rarely called up — it’s a question of ties to the homeland. Most Israelis here still have family in Israel, many of whom are now under siege.

“I’m petrified,” said Iris Mertzel, a software engineer who lives with her American-born husband and baby in Sherman Oaks. Mertzel, 30, moved to Los Angeles six years ago, but she grew up in Nahariya, a Northern city hit hard by Katyusha rockets.

“I see it on the news, the Katyushas hitting the place I grew up, and I’m just really scared,” she said.

Mertzel was 6 during the Lebanon war, and she remembers sleeping in bomb shelters.

“We’re used to being hit, but never with such intensity,” she said.
She is in constant contact with her family — her parents, grandparents, brother, aunts, uncles and cousins are still there. Many friends have evacuated, and her uncle went to Tel Aviv, but most of her family is staying.

“They won’t leave their homes”

“They don’t know when it’s going to end, and they don’t want to leave their homes,” she said.

For some people, it seems harder to be here watching than it is there.
“I’m more worried than they are,” Gal Shor, editor-in-chief of Israeli newspaper Shalom L.A., said of his parents and siblings and their children, who live in Kibbutz Yir-On in the Northern Galilee, where Shor grew up.

“We’re too small to try and hit us,” his father told him.

His family is used to the situation — a terrorist once walked over from Lebanon and blew up a small bomb in their house, killing no one.

Shor said everyone in the Israeli community here is worried and constantly watching Israeli TV or listening to the Israeli radio (www.kol-israel.com). But travel to Israel continues unabated. Many people from Los Angeles were already in Israel when the conflict started. This summer was slated to be a record high of tourism for Israel.

“The economy is better, and it was calm until two weeks ago, and it looked like a nice summer until what happened happened,” Shor said. He doesn’t believe that many people will cancel scheduled trips.

There is a Hebrew word for such stiff-necked pride, davka, which means “in spite of the fact,” with an in-your-face connotation. That’s how Shikma Geffon feels about her trip, which has been planned for months.


“Morally, I feel like I have to be there”

“When I heard what was going on, I wanted to go more,” said Geffon, a religious-school teacher who is studying for her master’s in psychology.
“Morally, I feel like I have to be there,” she said, adding that she is considering volunteering, maybe to work with children, using her teaching and psychology skills. “When your home is being attacked, you want to be there, you don’t want to feel out of the picture.”

But some people have to consider their national pride versus their family situation. Dalit Shlapobersky, 37, a film translator in West Hollywood who has lived in America for 10 years, debated with her husband about whether she should travel to Israel with their two kids as planned on July 20.

“We’ve been thinking about it all the time. Part of our family [in Israel] says come, part says don’t come,” she said. “Not going is a statement that we don’t belong anymore, and going is a sign of solidarity that although we’ve been there for 10 years, we’re still Israeli.”

And yet, with two children, she wasn’t sure. Her son, 11, is just back from Habonim Dror camp, a Zionist camp here, where he heard about what was going on in Israel, and he still wanted to go. Her daughter, 5, keeps asking about the situation, wanting assurance that the conflict is not where they are going to be. (They will be in central Israel.)

“I have mixed feelings, Shlapobersky said. “As an Israeli, I don’t want to be afraid. And on the other hand, I don’t want to do something stupid out of pride.”

In the end, as of press time, she had decided to go.


Stay in USA or Return to Israel?

For some Israelis, it’s not about whether or not to go visit, but whether to go back. Betzalel Engelberg’s mother came to America in May, and was supposed to leave Sunday for Haifa.

“She was not that easygoing about it, but we all persuaded her to stay,” said Engelberg, who worked with his two siblings in Israel to convince their mother to stay in America.

“I hope that within less than a month it will be easier to go,” said Engelberg, who has lived in America for 26 years and works in oil production. At the end of the summer his niece has a wedding planned. “If they are not changing the plans to have the wedding, I’m not going to change my plans about going.”

Keeping up with routines is one defense that Israelis — both in Israel and in America — have always used to fight terror. “Israelis are very good about dealing with routine in the midst of craziness,” said Oren Rehany, an actor and writer who works here at CinemaNow.com, an online pay-per-view movie web site.

“The purpose of terrorism and war is to disrupt routine and normal life. When you don’t give these people what they want, that’s part of the psychological retaliation. The message that comes across is you’re not going to disrupt our lives. You’re not going to ruin what we’ve established.”

Rehany’s father lives in Nahariya, his sister lives in Haifa and his mother in Tel Aviv. “Every single person of my family that I’ve spoken to is doing just that — nobody is evacuating or stopping to work or sitting home all day. And I’m proud of them.”

Federation Support of Civic Group Wanes


When former Democratic Congressman Mel Levine agreed to chair the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), he hoped to infuse it with the passion and purpose of its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, the JCRC — which is one of the major voices and faces of The Federation to the non-Jewish world — was a high-profile entity. It took up the cause of Soviet Jewry and Ethiopia’s Jews. It was assertive locally, too, whether in denouncing the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 or reaching out to non-Jewish communities in need.

But something has happened during the John Fishel era at The Federation.

Critics say that starting in the mid-1990s, the JCRC slowly began losing its voice and shirked a core mission: to be as visible and forthrightly active as possible.

As Levine saw it, the community relations committee could once again become a powerful voice by taking principled stands on controversial public policy issues, thereby strengthening coalitions with African American, Latino and other ethnic groups.

Levine’s appointment came at a time when JCRC staff morale was low. The committee had largely abandoned public policy advocacy in favor of its more traditional roles of ardently supporting Israel, reaching out to other religious and ethnic communities and lobbying for government dollars for social programs. Under Fishel, the JCRC has seen its influence, as well as staff and budget, shrink.

“John Fishel doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand it,” said Howard Welinsky, a former JCRC chair. He said that Fishel constantly pushed to downsize the JCRC during Welinsky’s two-year term in the late ’90s.

But Fishel’s view is that the political climate simply evolved. The JCRC has “a unique function,” he said, but the community itself no longer always coalesces, through the committee, as one voice. There are no longer such issues of broad agreement, such as support for Soviet Jewry.

“I think it’s become much more difficult for the JCRC to define what becomes an issue of Jewish concern,” Fishel said.

To be sure, JCRCs across the country have seen budgets shrink as federations’ resources dipped. After the successful immigration to Israel of nearly 1 million Soviet Jews — a Herculean undertaking that community relations councils around the nation helped orchestrate — several JCRCs experienced periods of “searching for meaning,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the New York-based parent organization for 125 community relations councils nationwide.

Which is why the appointment of former Rep. Levine was so welcomed. Given his political connections in Sacramento and Washington and his energy and dedication, JCRC supporters believed Levine would restore the committee’s lost luster.

When the Israeli embassy contacted Levine, seeking JCRC public support for Israel’s planned withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza, he set about building consensus. Although Levine eventually succeeded in putting the JCRC on record as favoring the withdrawal — a position shared by the majority of American Jews — he said he felt frustrated that it took so long for The Federation to sign off on the public pronouncement. And by this time, The Federation was following the train of opinion shapers, rather than leading it.

Time was, the local JCRC, with The Federation’s blessing, took controversial stands on issues of the day, said Steven Windmueller, the committee’s director from 1985 to 1995. In those heady times, the JCRC opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and spoke out in support of abortion rights, he said.

Although those positions angered some Jews in the community, Windmueller said the committee’s views reflected those held by the majority of the Southland’s liberal-leaning Jews. The JCRC’s willingness to take those and other positions, Windmueller said, attracted scores of young people to the committee, which served as a gateway to the Jewish community for many. Some later went on to became Federation donors, he added.

About a decade ago, however, the L.A, Federation, like some others around the country, began discouraging the local JCRC from venturing into controversial public policy matters, Windmueller said. With competition for charitable dollars heating up, many federations concluded that the risk of alienating conservative donors outweighed the benefit of taking liberal stands. Increasingly, most JCRCs left political advocacy, whether liberal or conservative, to other groups.

In Southern California, that void was filled by the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), among others. Ironically, the PJA’s willingness to fight against sweatshops and the exploitation of hotel workers along with its boldness in embracing the sort of left-of-center causes once championed by the local JCRC has helped swell its ranks to 3,500. With half its members under 30, the alliance, which just opened a second office in the Bay Area, has succeeded in reaching a demographic coveted by Fishel’s Federation.

“What we find is that pursuing a positive, progressive Jewish response to the issues of the day is profoundly inspiring , especially to young people who one day will be our community leaders and donors,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

Two of the nation’s most robust JCRCs are among the most politically liberal. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston has a staff of 24 and a $3 million budget, while the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council employs 20, with a budget of $2.1 million. By contrast, the local JCRC has five full-time and two part-time staffers and an annual budget of $1.2 million. Unlike Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco have taken bold policy stands recently, with San Francisco, for instance, coming out in favor of same-sex civil marriages.

A left-leaning JCRC wouldn’t fly everywhere, but the formula has consonance with liberal Los Angeles.

Levine had expected the L.A. JCRC to take positions on ballot initiatives, legislation and other political issues, provided he could build consensus. But The Federation’s new chairman of the board, Michael Koss, worried about alienating donors. Koss said he also thought the JCRC would benefit if led by someone who was not strongly identified with either liberal or conservative politics. Koss, who had the authority as Federation chair, did not reappoint Levine. The former congressman, for his part, said he had no interest in a second term given the lack of support.

“Losing Mel Levine for the JCRC or anyplace Mel puts his hat is a loss,” said Harriet Hochman, a former Federation chair.

Fishel said he respects Levine but added that Federation chairs make their own appointments. Fishel’s critics counter that it’s his job to show leadership.

Koss tapped corporate attorney Ron Leibow as Levine’s successor. Leibow, former chair of The Federation’s Planning and Allocation Committee, said he plans to revitalize the JCRC and has made reaching out to ethnic groups, especially Latinos, a priority.

Those involved with JCRC are determined to make a positive difference. Under new JCRC Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, the committee has added paid staff and seen its budget increase. Several JCRC programs have grown in importance. The Holy Land Democracy Project, for instance, has helped teach thousands of area Catholic high school students about Israel, while, simultaneously, tightening links between Jews and Catholics. The JCRC continues to take elected leaders on trips to Israel — to expose them to the Jewish state and to Jewish issues.

But a recent, tentative step back into the political fray was telling, when the JCRC encountered some Federation resistance and withdrew, for now, a pro-immigrant statement. The scenario unfolded in mid-May, when the JCRC board approved a statement saying that it supported better border security but opposed legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants. The statement also favored normalizing immigrants’ status, insiders said. JCRC members had hoped the resolution would demonstrate solidarity with the Latino community, she said.

The Federation board, however, barely approved the JCRC resolution, so the JCRC has pulled back, while it develops new wording that could attract more support, Schwartz-Getzug said.

That the JCRC still hasn’t come out with a statement weeks after one of the largest pro-immigration demonstrations in U.S. history reflects the committee’s — and, by extension, the Federation’s — cautious approach. Critics might go farther, arguing that this reluctance to take a public stand on immigration illustrate that those institutions no longer speak for the local Jewish community.

“If the Federation isn’t going to take a position on something as important to the Latino community as immigration, even after the huge marches all over the nation, then what in the world do they have to say to the Latino community?” commented Michael Hirschfeld, formerly the top JCRC staff member. Hirschfeld was himself the focus of an earlier JCRC furor: His unexpected 2003 dismissal, after 24 years with the JCRC, generated a firestorm of criticism, and a few calls for Fishel’s resignation.

Levine believes that until Fishel’s Federation either allows the JCRC to become independent or have more autonomy, the committee will serve as little more than an administrator of such programs as KOREH L.A, a well-regarded tutoring program.

“The CRC and Federation are no longer a meaningful political force in the structure of Los Angeles,” said Levine, now a partner in international law at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “That’s unfortunate.”

 

John Fishel


On Feb. 26, more than 150 volunteers gathered early at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for the annual Super Sunday megafundraiser. Having filled up on conversation, coffee and bagels, the enthusiastic, well-dressed men and women sat side-by-side at tables holding banks of telephones.

In 12 hours, 1,700 volunteers at three locations knew they had to raise almost 10 percent of The Federation’s entire annual campaign. Super Sunday can set the tone for the year. And with government funding shrinking, The Federation’s 22 aid agencies counted on this day as never before to help them meet the growing demand for their services. The Federation is a like a Jewish United Way; it acts as a single central source for donations, which it then distributes to various worthy causes. More specifically, The Federation supports Jews in need and programs that reflect on Jews here in Los Angeles, as well as around the world.

Before things kicked off, with so much at stake, the assembled got a final pep talk, but Federation President John Fishel, the man who holds possibly the single most important Jewish job in Los Angeles, didn’t deliver it. On this, the most important money-raising day for The L.A. Federation, where was Fishel?

Over the past 14 years, Fishel, a young-looking 57, has quietly, firmly and steadily led the Jewish philanthropic organization, determined to somehow unify the Southland’s geographically dispersed and largely unaffiliated Jewish community. In a city that prizes glitz and glamour, Fishel has shunned the spotlight, the backslapping and the glad-handing, preferring a low-key, almost professorial approach that places a premium on methodical problem solving. Whether attending the 50th anniversary party for the Westside Jewish Community Center, lobbying politicians to loosen the purse strings for Jewish nonprofits or taking a potential donor on a tour of Beit T’Shuvah, a Federation beneficiary agency that treats addiction partly through Jewish spirituality, Fishel routinely works six- or seven-day, 70-hour weeks.

“He’s the James Brown of the Jewish community, the hardest-working man in L.A. Jewry,” Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss said. “I see him everywhere.”

Although in some ways, Fishel is everywhere but nowhere. A bearded, slender man with a direct gaze, the shy Fishel seems to prefer keeping his own counsel. He sometimes materializes at events in his well-tailored suits and then slips away after talking to but a handful of folks.

Like Howard Hughes, The Federation president keeps his private self private. It is unlikely that many in the community know that the buttoned-down Fishel once sported long hair and promoted blues festivals in the early ’70s, or that he has never had a bar mitzvah.

Still, Fishel has left a notable mark in the Jewish world. He holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from the University of Michigan and once considered becoming an academic, and he has earned praise for his efforts on behalf of Jews abroad, especially in Israel. An internationalist in a largely domestic job, Fishel helped create the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership and has put the plight of Ethiopian Jews on the North American Jewish agenda.

Closer to home, his calm, analytical demeanor has allowed him to react effectively during crises, from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake to Hurricane Katrina. When others might panic, he coolly devises a plan of action for bringing far-flung members of the community together.

Fishel has fared less well on some of The Federation’s bread-and-butter everyday challenges. On his watch, several Jewish community centers have shut down and the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) has lost influence and standing (see stories on page 17). Most important, The Federation’s annual campaign, has grown sluggishly at a time when community needs have exploded.

So where was Fishel?

On this year’s Super Sunday, he was just where you’d expect: at The Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. In keeping with his low-key persona, though, Fishel stayed in the background, while others delivered inspiration to the volunteers.

Arriving at 7:30 a.m. — a full hour and a half before the fundraiser officially began — he greeted participants with a smile and expressions of thanks. Fishel spoke with Federation staff members to ensure that everything was under control. Then, he called potential donors and gave an interview to a KTLA reporter: “It’s wonderful to see people who live in different parts of the community, with different backgrounds and different ideologies, come together in a unified manner,” and chatted with bigwigs, including Councilman Weiss.

Fishel was just getting started. Around 11 a.m., he and a couple of Federation lay leaders left headquarters for the phone banks in the Valley. Later, he made his way to the Super Sunday fundraiser in the South Bay. That night, The Federation president returned to Wilshire Boulevard to mingle with the last shift of volunteers, mostly college students. He finally left The Federation to return to his Cheviot Hills home sometime after 10 p.m. — logging more than a 14-hour day.

This year’s Super Sunday raised about $4.4 million, about $100,000 less than last year, but still a solid financial foundation. And those involved included young and old, the religious and nonreligious, Israelis, Persians and Russians — an unprecedented rainbow of Southland Jews.

FEDERATION MATTERS

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is the central address for the local Jewish community, from helping to underwrite the cost of Jewish burials to subsidizing free groceries for the poor, The Federation is involved in myriad vital facets, big and small, of Los Angeles Jewish life.

“If we didn’t have The [L.A.] Federation, we would have to create it,” said Steven Windmueller, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “Ultimately, a community needs an infrastructure for prioritizing, organizing, programming and crisis management.”

Federation initiatives include literacy programs for elementary and preschool students, a venture philanthropy fund that invests in fledgling businesses that benefit the Jewish community and, most recently, a program that coordinates services to Jewish children with developmental or severe learning disabilities.

The Federation most often makes its presence felt through 22 beneficiary agencies. Federation dollars help subsidize the SOVA Food Pantry Program for the hungry, pay for job training offered by Jewish Vocational Service and support the Jewish Free Loan Association, which offers Jewish couples interest-free loans of up to $10,000 for fertility treatments, among other programs.

“There are old people, children, homeless people, the disenfranchised and other people who constantly need help,” said Terry Bell, a former Federation chair who headed the search committee that recommended hiring Fishel. “We do extremely important things that people aren’t even aware of that wouldn’t get done without The Federation.”

The Federation’s reach goes well beyond Southern California. In times of crisis, The Federation has raised millions to help struggling communities around the world, most recently in Argentina. Federation allocations support everything from sending local college students to Israel to subsidizing Jewish day schools. Overseas, Federation dollars have helped support the renaissance of Jewish life in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

In some ways, The L.A. Federation is flourishing as never before. The charity’s international programs are stronger than ever. Under Fishel, the organization has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to respond to emergencies both at home and abroad, despite the bureaucratic nature of the federation system. The Federation has raised millions for special campaigns for Israel, Soviet Jews and other causes, and has an endowment of $67 million.

Locally, KOREH L.A., a literacy program that is reaching more students than ever, has burnished the Jewish philanthropy’s reputation, introducing scores of volunteers and clients in need to The Federation and its mission. Moreover, at Fishel’s prodding, The Federation increased its annual allocations to the Bureau of Jewish Education by $1 million, funding scores of scholarships for Jewish day school students and capital improvement projects at their schools.

But The Federation’s annual campaign, its lifeblood, has grown anemically during the Fishel era. In particular, The Federation has been largely unable to reach Hollywood money or attract huge donations from affluent Jews not already involved. A shrinking and aging donor base poses a real threat to future giving. And there’s the looming challenge of appealing to younger Jews, a group more attracted to non-Jewish causes than past generations.

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WHO ARE YOU?

Federation supporters know surprisingly little about the person most responsible for The Federation’s current and future prospects.

Ask board members, even those who consider Fishel a friend, and a steady stream of generic adjectives tumbles out: “Kind,” “brilliant,” “committed,” “thoughtful” and “hard-working,” come up most frequently. A JDate profile would provide more than that.

What about anecdotes?

Bell, the former Federation chair, said she and her husband hosted Fishel; his wife, Karen, and their daughter, Jessica, for one week at their home, back when Fishel was undergoing a second round of interviews for his current job. The Fishels, Bell said, were “easy to feed, easy to be around,” she said. “They didn’t demand anything.”

And what about John Fishel? What’s he like?

He’s well-read and interested in “everything under the sun,” conversant about art, politics, food, music and wine, Bell said.

Another Federation board member said he once saw Fishel materialize late one Saturday night at a jazz club clad in a leather jacket. They exchanged pleasantries.

Who is John Fishel?

He’s someone who wants to reveal the answer to that question on only a need-to-know basis. Through The Federation’s spokeswoman, Fishel turned down a request to trail him for the day during Super Sunday or to spend a large block of time watching him in action. Nor would he agree to a lunch or dinner appointment. Near the end of a second recent formal interview — and after years of contact — Fishel opened up, a little.

He was born in Cleveland in 1948. His late father, Richard, owned a company that manufactured sweaters. His late mother, Adelee, stayed home to care for John and younger brother Jim. His family belonged to a local Reform synagogue, where Fishel was confirmed but never bar mitzvahed.

At a young age, Fishel decided that he wanted to venture into the larger world. Even then, other cultures fascinated him. He majored in anthropology at the University of Michigan and later began, but never completed, an anthropology master’s program there.

Leaving the university, Fishel parlayed his interest in blues and jazz into a turn as a music promoter in the early 1970s, partnering with his brother, Jim. John Fishel promoted shows featuring B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and went on to produce the famed Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He developed enough of a reputation that Rolling Stone once quoted him.

Tiring of the hectic life of a promoter, Fishel decided to become a social worker. Graduating from the University of Michigan in 1972 with a master’s in social work, he soon landed back in Cleveland as a caseworker in the Welfare Department. A year later, he headed to Africa for an extended backpacking adventure.

His Jewish journey began a few years later, when Fishel took a position doing community work for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. There, he began to consider issues of Jewish identity and, on his own, studied Judaism and Jewish history. In effect, he began applying his anthropological training to his own roots. Fishel soon became an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Two years after arriving in Philadelphia, he moved on to became director of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, which has helped Jewish and other immigrants coming to the United States for more than 100 years. Through his new job, Fishel developed a deepening appreciation for the plight of Jews around the world, especially those fleeing post-revolutionary Iran and the Soviet Union.

Years later, after becoming executive vice president of the Jewish Federation in Montreal, Fishel finally made his first trip behind the Iron Curtain. In 1986, he visited Moscow and Lithuania. He came armed with hard-to-obtain Judaica and blue jeans that he gave to local Jews. He also secretly met with Refuseniks, Jews denied permission to emigrate.

In Lithuania, Fishel joined a group of Refuseniks who, in a park near the capital city of Vilnius, placed homemade Jewish Stars, fashioned from cardboard, where Nazis had executed Jews.

“I was really scared,” Fishel said. “But you want to know something? I figured, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? They’ll detain me and then let me go. I’m an American citizen. Those guys were stuck there. They were truly courageous.”

THE GOOD; THE NOT SO GOOD

Fishel never visited Israel until after he turned 40, but he has since traveled to the Holy Land more than 50 times, spending time with prime ministers, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and fellow leaders in the Jewish communal world.

“I happen to believe that Israel is our Jewish state,” he said. “I think that the centrality of Israel as a focal point of Judaism and Jewish life historically and in contemporary times is very unique and very special.”

Fishel has played a major role in the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, a 9-year-old program that fosters cooperation and connections between local Jews and Jews in Tel Aviv in education, health, culture and economics.

Under the multifaceted partnership, 18 Tel Aviv and 18 local schools have been “twinned,” sharing programming and lesson plans and frequently interacting via video conferencing and e-mail. In addition, curators from museums in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, including the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have participated in institutional exchanges. Federation and other community leaders also successfully lobbied Israeli politicians to allow Tel Aviv to become the first Israeli city to issue municipal bonds (the proceeds funded a parking garage). The list goes on.

The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership is “a jewel and an unusually creative and innovative approach to relating to Israel in a new way,” said Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and the founding director of Hebrew Union College. “That is, as a partnership rather than the old liberal, colonial way of sending money to a benighted people.”

More than that, participating local residents have gained a greater appreciation of the larger Jewish world, their own Jewish identity and the importance of The Federation, experts said. The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership later spawned the successful Federation-sponsored Los Angeles-Baltics Partnership.

The Tel Aviv program might never have been birthed without Fishel’s dedication. Originally, the Jewish Agency, which called on federations across the United States to fund regional development in Israel, wanted The L.A. Federation to link with either Galilee in the north or the Negev in the south. Fishel, with the support of the lay leadership, rejected those options. Instead, he chose Tel Aviv, a large metropolis more appealing to local Jews because of its accessibility, sophistication, cultural life and large pool of potential individual and institutional partners.

Fishel’s willingness to defy the Jewish Agency, the bedrock of the Jewish communal establishment, reflects his ability to think, in his words, “out of the box,” especially on international issues. The Federation president would again employ that out-of-the-box thinking for the Jews of Ethiopia (see sidebar) and for Argentina’s Jewish community.

In December 2001, Argentina’s economy crashed. Almost overnight, the country’s middle class was plunged into penury; families lost their life savings. The crisis hit the Jewish community hard, with an estimated one-third of Argentina’s Jews falling into poverty.

Diana Fiedotin, a member of The Federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, viewed the economic collapse firsthand while visiting the country in February 2002, to attend a wedding.

After Fiedotin returned to the United States, she started the Lifeline to Argentina with local Rabbi Sherre Z. Hirsch of Sinai Temple. Fishel suggested that Fiedotin expand her fundraising to synagogues across the city. The Federation president put Fiedotin in touch with Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Fishel later made an unsolicited gesture that floored Fiedotin: The Federation would offer a matching grant of up to $1 million to Lifeline to Argentina. The campaign eventually reached that target and, thanks to Fishel and The Federation’s generosity, Lifeline contributed $2 million to alleviate the suffering.

“He’s always open to new ways of raising money and creative ways of bringing different elements of this community together,” Fiedotin said. “I never could have done this without John. I and the Jewish community of Argentina owe him.”

Fishel’s international efforts, dating back to his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry, have won him widespread respect from colleagues, said Bob Aronson, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “We turn to him for advice and guidance,” he said.

Still, some in the community think Fishel focuses on overseas issues at the expense of a domestic agenda. Carmen H. Warschaw, a longtime Federation board member and former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party, said Fishel’s international emphasis meant less money for such important beneficiary agencies as Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service.

“There has to be more of a balance, with more of an emphasis on things in our front and backyards,” Warschaw said.

Fishel said he believes The Federation allocates its resources well to ensure that the nonprofit meets both local and international needs. He makes no apologies about helping Jews in need wherever they are.

“I’m very committed to the concept of Jewish people-hood,” Fishel said.

About 70 percent of every dollar the local Federation raises in its annual campaign supports domestic programs. Thirty percent goes for overseas programming and relief.

COOL IN A CRISIS

Fishel receives consistently high marks, even from detractors, for his ability to bring the community together in times of crisis.

Within 48 hours of the devastating Northridge Earthquake, The Federation president had overseen the production of a manual containing names and numbers of the agencies victims could call for counseling, health care, shelter and other services, said Irwin Field, a Federation Executive Committee member and past Federation chair.

“He was the one who really got everything rolling, made things happen and saw them through to the end,” said Field, who also chairs the board of L.A. Jewish Publications, publisher of The Jewish Journal. (The Journal is not affiliated with The Federation.)

At the same time, Fishel had to ascertain whether The Federation staff would have to leave the 6505 Wilshire headquarters because of earthquake damage. After experts concluded the structure had become unsafe, Fishel oversaw the evacuation and move into temporary quarters. He later helped raise $22 million to renovate and retrofit 6505, said Herb Gelfand, former Federation board chair.

After the 1999 shooting spree by a white supremicist at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, Fishel quickly showed up on the scene. The Federation helped arrange counseling for traumatized victims and took measures to improve the center’s security.

Fishel recently again displayed his knack for quick response. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Fishel contacted Jewish federations and other agencies in Baton Rouge, La.; Jackson, Miss., and Houston to find out what evacuees fleeing to those cities needed. In just a few days, the L.A. Federation had raised $600,000 to help the Jewish and non-Jewish refugees.

The philanthropic group also brought local Jewish agencies together to provide therapy, job training and other services to homeless Katrina victims who made their way to the Southland. In addition, The Federation rented about a dozen trucks that transported clothing, canned food and other supplies collected by area synagogues to the Gulf Coast.

The Federation, at Fishel’s behest, also gave Hillel $20,000 to help underwrite the costs of sending students from USC and Cal State Northridge to the Gulf Coast to help with rebuilding efforts, said David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. The Federation’s generosity, he said, has improved its image among many Jewish college students, a demographic the philanthropic organization desperately wants to reach.

“John may be at his best when things are at their worst,” said Gelfand, the former Federation chair.

But some community leaders offer a more mixed assessment when it comes to issues not so clear-cut as providing emergency aid. One such complicated task is community building, which embodies the challenge of raising and distributing money, while simultaneously fostering Jewish identity.

The Boston Federation oversees two innovative adult Jewish education programs that have touched the lives of more than 2,700 area Jews and, in the process, strengthened ties to The Federation.

Me’ah (which means “100” in Hebrew) is a two-year, 100-hour intensive learning program that includes immersion in core Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible and rabbinics. More than 1,800 Bostonians have graduated from the course, which is heavily subsidized to maintain the low tuition price of $500 per person. The Boston Federation and Hebrew College also offer Ikkarim (“essence” in Hebrew), which provides Jewish education (and free child care during classes) for the parents of preschoolers.

“We want people to think it’s just as important to know Maimonides and love the Torah as it is to love Plato, Homer or Shakespeare,” said Barry Shrage, a leader of the effort and president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

The Boston Federation’s investment has probably already paid off. From 1995 to 2006, the annual campaign of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies increased by 57 percent to $34.2 million in a city of 200,000 Jews, growing at a significantly higher rate than the nation’s federations as a whole.

In contrast, a high-profile community-building effort in Los Angeles proved a bust.

In 2001, Fishel’s Federation lured Rabbi David Woznica to come West from New York City’s prestigious 92nd Street Y. In New York, Woznica oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures per year. More than 1,200 Jews regularly attended his High Holiday services. His travels and lectures around the world enhanced both his and the Y’s reputation.

In Los Angeles, Woznica was hired at a six-figure salary on the eve of Federation layoffs.

Then, critics said, The Federation never maximized Woznica’s talents by establishing forums for him to reach large numbers of Jews. So adrift was The Federation that it formed a special committee months after hiring Woznica to figure out how to best use him. The respected rabbi ended up becoming The Federation’s best-kept secret; he spent much of his time offering private tutorials to well-heeled donors and Federation executives. He left The Federation in 2004 for a rabbi’s position at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

“Fishel never really followed through,” said Pini Herman, a demographer and former Federation research coordinator who was laid off. “You would have thought that he would have paved the way for the success of a high-value personnel acquisition like Woznica, but he didn’t. Fishel left him kind of twisting in the wind.”

Woznica could not be reached for comment for this article. In the past, he has said he worked tirelessly at The Federation to help elevate the role of Judaism there and throughout the community.

Fishel responded that, in time, The Federation would have figured a better way to expand Woznica’s community visibility and impact.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Fishel has the challenge of raising money in a wealthy but difficult market. Failing in this task literally would mean fewer free meals for the hungry, the elimination of job-training programs or even the shuttering of homeless shelters.

On a macro level, federations, including Los Angeles, are “very healthy institutions, when you include all their assets, including endowments,” said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

But there’s reason for concern. The nation’s federations raised a total of $859.5 million in their 2004 annual campaigns, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That’s up only 4 percent from 2000.

Time was, federations received the lion’s share of Jewish charitable giving. In a world with virulent anti-Semitism and constant threats to Israel, federations were seen as the protector and exemplar of Jewish values and interests.

That began to change, though, as Jews became more assimilated. Hospitals, symphonies and universities that once shunned Jews not only began to accept their money but appointed them to their boards. That mainstream acceptance led Jews to give less to federations and more to secular institutions. Suddenly, the federations’ pull on Jewish giving began to wane.

“If you used to ask somebody about their Jewish giving, they would tell you about a nonprofit that had the word Jewish or Israel in its title,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, which represents more than 1,000 Jewish family foundations. “Now, especially with younger donors, they talk about charities that reflect their Jewish values, which could be a gift to a local food pantry or an environmental organization, rather than to a Jewish organization.”

Over the past eight years, the number of Jewish family foundations has exploded, jumping from about 2,500 to 8,000. Those foundations, Charendoff said, control an estimated $30 billion in assets and give to a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to education. They have undoubtedly siphoned money away from federations, which some megadonors see as distant, unresponsive bureaucracies.

Another problem is that L.A.’s Jewish community is geographically dispersed, lacking the traditional powerful machers who enforce community giving elsewhere. Recently, competing Jewish institutions such as the Wiesenthal Center and the Skirball Cultural Center have appeared on the scene, further complicating things.

And surveys show that Californians, including Angelenos, give less per capita than Americans in many other places. They also volunteer less, said Donna Bojarsky, a Jewish Community Relations Committee board member and a Democratic Party public policy consultant who advises such celebrities as Richard Dreyfuss.

“L.A. is a particularly hard nut to crack,” she said.

Fishel’s Federation has made some noteworthy attempts at trying.

In response to donor demands for more control, The Federation helped create the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles. Over the past four years, this self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to start-up and existing nonprofits that benefit Jews, including the teen magazine, JVibe, and a Jewish Vocational Service program that targets Jewish Russian and Iranian immigrants for training as certified nurses.

Several Venture Philanthropy participants, each of whom has contributed at least $10,000, were first-time L.A. Federation donors, said Andrew Cushnir, vice president of planning for The Federation and staff head of the Venture Philanthropy Fund.

“John has been a major champion of the fund,” Cushnir said. “He has been more than willing to let the fund experiment, learn and grow.”

The Federation has also greatly improved outreach to young Jews — tomorrow’s big givers. The Federation replaced a money-losing leadership program with the apparently more successful Young Leadership Division, which, unlike its predecessor, places more emphasis on Jewish education and spirituality, although a social component still exists. The Federation also funds Taglit-birthright israel, the New Leaders Project and young leadership groups within its women’s, real estate and entertainment campaign divisions.

Federation-supported programs have touched the lives of thousands of young Jews, said Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development. That outreach has more than paid off, he added. “On a yearly basis, our young leadership initiatives are now raising about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of our annual campaign.”

Not good enough, say critics. In 2005, The Federation’s annual campaign raised $47.3 million. (Overall, The Federation raised $55 million, when one-time gifts, special campaigns and other targeted giving are included.) Although last year’s annual campaign total represented a 6 percent increase over 2004, that’s only 2 percent more than the $46.4 million raised in 1990.

“I think at this point we ought to be around $60 million or $65 million,” said Leo Dozoretz, an ex-Federation board member and former president of the Valley Alliance, The Federation’s San Fernando Valley operation. “We’re the second largest community in the world behind New York. Los Angeles even has more Jews than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.”

Dozoretz doesn’t hold Fishel responsible for The Federation’s middling performance. A weak lay leadership, among other factors, has contributed, he said.

Others are less understanding. They point to Fishel’s lack of charisma, The Federation’s alleged indifferent treatment of donors who are not megarich and Fishel’s inability to entice Hollywood Jews and other potential megadonors.

Former President Bill Clinton meets John Fishel
Former President Bill Clinton meets John Fishel.

In Southern California, charisma counts. An actor, director or producer with a megawatt smile and engaging personality can get farther than an equally talented but bland counterpart. What’s true for Hollywood can also hold for the corporate and nonprofit worlds. That partly explains why a gregarious charmer like Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal center can so easily coax big donations out of supporters, said a former high-ranking L.A. Federation fundraising executive.

Fishel, by contrast, often fades into the background, appearing ill at ease at social gatherings. He lacks “star power,” said the fundraiser, who asked not to be identified.

Fishel’s low-key, no-nonsense manner might serve him well in a down-to-earth place such as Minneapolis or Milwaukee but is no asset in Southern California, the land of Botox and BMWs. “Look, people live next door to movie stars here. They want entertainment value,” the fundraiser said.

Fishel responded that he’d prefer being perceived as honest, ethical and committed, rather than as Mr. Personality.

Another former Federation fundraising executive said he thought the organization treated donors giving less than $25,000 with indifference. Sure, a $10,000 donor might get invited to a special dinner or to participate on a mission to Israel, but Federation officials, he said, make little effort to make that person feel special. That absence of a personal touch has turned off some givers, leading them to give elsewhere, the ex-fundraiser said.

“The attitude some donors have is that you come to me once a year, you get my money and you come back when you want more,” he said. “And, in between, I’m not really thought of a great deal.”

Fishel said The Federation tries to be accessible and engaged with the broadest base of donors, although, given the number of contributors, that can sometimes prove a challenge. Still, Fishel said, he personally calls or has the appropriate staff member phone all donors — and non-donors — who contact him for assistance.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

Critics say that one of Fishel’s greatest failings has been his inability to tap into Hollywood. Imagine, they ask, how much bigger the annual campaign would be if such Jewish entertainment royalty as Barbra Streisand, David Geffen and Michael Eisner began writing million-dollar checks? Supporters counter that Hollywood is a narcissistic world unto itself, virtually deaf to appeals by anyone outside its small circle of players.

Some of the industry’s Jewish titans are “self-hating Jews,” said Lynn Pollock, a Federation board member and a former vice president at Paramount Pictures. Others have long identified more with “American Protestant” traditions, she said, rather than Jewish ones in their films and in their lives.

“How in the world is John supposed to accommodate these types of whimsical people, who are used to getting whatever they want and living in a kind of la-la land?” Pollock said.

Former Federation Chair Gelfand remembers his own brush with Jewish Hollywood and its unhappy ending. In the late 1980s, he persuaded two powerful entertainment executives to co-chair a major fundraising campaign for Soviet Jewry. The co-chairs — one a former studio head, the other a former talent agency bigwig — hoped to attract $10 million from their Jewish colleagues. After just three weeks, the pair resigned, having raised a grand total of zero dollars, Gelfand said.

Not everyone gives Fishel a pass. Movie producer Scott Einbinder said The Federation missed an opportunity to engage young, Jewish Hollywood when it unexpectedly pulled its sponsorship from Vodka Latka, a party/fundraiser he co-founded, which raised money for Jewish nonprofits. Vodka Latka also increased young Hollywood’s awareness about The Federation and funneled dozens of new members to the Jewish philanthropic organization, he said.

“Vodka Latka was definitely meant to be a bridge to The Federation, to show young Jews in the entertainment industry that The Federation could be more than an organization that just asks for money,” Einbinder said. “We wanted to help The Federation compete with sexier philanthropic organizations around L.A., organizations that are considered cooler and have more celebrities involved.”

After the 2002 event, which attracted more than 1,000 revelers to the Hollywood Palladium, The Federation bowed out. At the time, Federation executives said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time. Fishel suggested the event was terrific but on the verge of becoming stale. The Progressive Jewish Alliance now holds the Vodka Latka soiree.

In the entertainment business, as in some other industries in town, Fishel said, “there’s no clarity in terms of what makes them want to be engaged Jewishly.”

The same apparently goes for potential new donors among the megarich, said Bubis, the former Federation vice president who has such praise for Fishel’s international work. The Federation president, Bubis said, has failed to provide an overarching vision that would inspire those givers.

Last year, The Federation received no million-dollar gifts for its annual campaign. The organization has made going after large donors a bigger priority going forward, Federation executives said.

And there’s some good news on that front. Earlier this year, an anonymous donor made a $3 million unrestricted gift, sources confirmed.

So has Fishel done a good enough job making The Federation attractive to donors?

Fishel himself believes more needs to be done.

“When need outdistances the means to do all of the good things brought to The Federation for support, you always want to raise more,” he said.

Fishel took the helm of the L.A. Federation in 1992, during a period of great uncertainty. The Southland’s recession had taken a bite out of the annual campaign; the institution was in turmoil. Fishel righted The Federation’s finances through spending cuts and layoffs.

Besides restoring stability, he also worked on inclusiveness, several Federation leaders said. Over the years, Fishel reached out to Persian, Israeli and Russian Jews, said attorney David Nahai, a Federation board member.

Fishel has received mostly positive marks from Federation watchers, despite much dissatisfaction over the handling of the Jewish community centers and the Jewish Community Relations Committee. Tobin of the Institute for Jewish Community Research called him “one of the most thoughtful and really analytical executives in The Federation field.” UJC President and Chief Executive Howard M. Rieger called Fishel “one of the best we’ve got.”

The pressures of running The L.A. Federation have sometimes gotten to Fishel. A few years back, he briefly considered leaving The Federation after other Jewish organizations expressed an interest in him, including the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These days, though, Fishel insisted that he couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve had 30-plus years working in Jewish communal life. I’ve had a lot of really amazing experiences meeting some extraordinary people here in this country and around the world, ” he said. “I love what I do.”

 

An Ugly Day in the Neighborhood


Dr. Warren Lent is sure he knows why he was treated with such contempt and hostility that day last June. It was the kippah he wore on his head.

He had come to vote in neighborhood council elections at a jam-packed fire station in Hancock Park. Amid the tension and confusion, an angry poll worker repeatedly accused Lent, a soft-spoken surgeon, of trying to vote twice.

Things escalated to the point where the poll worker asked Lent if he was “man enough to step outside” to settle it, Lent said.

The poll worker eventually backed down, but Lent reported the incident to Michael Rosenberg, a candidate for the council who, along with a group of allies, was recording slights against Orthodox Jewish voters. From his spot the requisite 100 feet away from the polling place, and from his office desk, Rosenberg gathered reports on shouting matches, fraudulent ballots and tense stand-offs between Orthodox Jews and other voters, many of them non-Orthodox Jews.

More proof, to Rosenberg’s mind, that the upscale neighborhood of Hancock Park was out to get Orthodox Jews.

On the other side, non-Orthodox residents were just as disgusted by what they say they saw on Election Day — fake membership cards, line jumping and all manner of deception by Orthodox Jews trying to secure as many votes as they could. Yet more evidence that this group of Orthodox Jews is willing to bend — no, break — the rules to get what they want.

What both sides wanted was control of the local neighborhood council, a relatively new city institution meant to bring grass-roots voices into city policymaking, an ideal that hardly seems worth fighting over in other parts of town. But in Hancock Park, it came to symbolize a battle between those who believed the Orthodox were trying to plant a shul and school on every corner, and the Orthodox who felt that established residents were trying to choke off their community.

Throughout that day and for months following, both sides wondered how the strife ever got this bad. How could it be, they asked themselves, that Jews in Los Angeles were at loggerheads, mosly with other Jews, in an embarrassing conflict that divided along religious lines?

To Rosenberg and his associates, the answer is simple: The neighborhood had been heading in that direction for years, and the election was the climax of years of intolerance.

Other residents challenge that interpretation. They tell a more complex tale, one that holds Rosenberg, an Orthodox Jew and real estate developer, personally responsible for ratcheting up the enmity and pulling the neighborhood into something like a civil war.

On that day in June, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews, as well as unsuspecting local residents who came out to vote, were caught in the middle, stunned. Yes, everyone knew there had been conflicts between the Orthodox and the rest of the neighborhood, mostly centered on land-use disputes. And even while tensions had escalated over several years, setting the whole neighborhood on edge, no one felt as if Hancock Park was roiling with ethnic prejudice, which is how things looked and felt to many on Election Day.

“I can’t say it was anti-Semitism, he didn’t call me ‘dirty Jew,’ or say, ‘you Jews,’ and I don’t want to falsely accuse anyone,” said Lent of the poll worker. “I don’t know what his true motivation was, but one thing was clear to me. He was ready to punch me, and he wasn’t going to give me a chance to explain.”

To moderate — and even extreme — voices on both sides, these elections were a wake-up call, setting in motion halting efforts at peacemaking.

Today, contentious issues and tough questions persist. Aside from continuing enmity over the election, residents are battling in court over the construction of a synagogue on a busy residential street. And an Orthodox school and its neighbors are testing just how far they can push each other.

But on both sides, there are people willing to face tough questions so they can begin to bridge the divide.

Do some Hancock Park residents harbor mistrust toward anyone who looks Orthodox? Is this a case of intolerance, or one of some Orthodox Jews behaving badly and now everyone paying the price? How much is just miscommunication? And is the community suffering because it let a few people, notably Michael Rosenberg, become the voice of the Orthodox community?

Conflicting Claims

In the first two years, starting in 1999, that civic activist John Gresham had been organizing the area’s first Neighborhood Council in the Midwilshire area, he hadn’t heard much from Orthodox Jews, even though he knew that Hancock Park, one of 15 neighborhoods in proposed council borders, was heavily Orthodox.

Michael Rosenberg

Michael Rosenberg: “I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews.” Photo courtesy Sheryl Rosenberg

So he recalls being stunned when, in December 2001, Rosenberg, a businessman he knew only peripherally, filed a rival claim on the territory Gresham and a group of about 150 involved residents and business people had staked out as the future Midwilshire Neighborhood Council.

Claiming to represent homeowners, Orthodox interests and other underdog groups he had allied himself with, Rosenberg applied to the city for certification as the official neighborhood council in Midwilshire’s borders, throwing two years of grassroots mobilization into tumult.

“It was essentially our map, but [Rosenberg] had changed the name at the top and said, ‘We represent everyone there,'” Gresham said.

“So my initial reaction was: Why? And my second reaction was: What do we have to do to prevent this? And then my third reaction was: Wait a second, who is in his group? Who does he represent?” Gresham said.

To Rosenberg, the question of why is an easy one to answer. He felt that the existing organization was not doing enough to truly represent the will of the people

“They were certainly not considering us as part of them,” he said. By us, Rosenberg meant Orthodox Jews, but not exclusively that group. He’d also recruited residents and business owners, including Asians, blacks and Latinos, outside Hancock Park proper.

Such a divisive confrontation was not what city planners had in mind when officials developed — and voters approved — the formation of neighborhood councils as part of the 1999 City Charter. The idea was to develop grassroots civic involvement, giving residents, businesses and neighborhood groups actual influence — but not outright voting power — on city matters that affect them. Today, there are 88 neighborhood councils, with influence over issues such as zoning, traffic patterns, utility rates, taxes and general decisions about the character of a neighborhood.

“The bottom line on a national and global level is that everything starts in someone’s neighborhood,” said Gresham, who lives within the neighborhood council’s borders, just south of Hancock Park, and who started mobilizing neighborhoods in the 1970s.

Gresham’s job as a vice president at M.L. Stern Investment Securities leaves him only late-night hours to dedicate to grassroots politics, but his earnest involvement has won him widespread admiration.

In fact, in 1999, when the city was first setting up the neighborhood council system, city representatives asked Gresham, who is also active at the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood, to organize the Midwilshire area. This effort had been proceeding for two years when Rosenberg suddenly stepped in.

Gresham said he is dumbfounded by Rosenberg’s claim that important segments of the community were willfully excluded. Gresham had spent two years forming the Interim Midwilshire Neighborhood Council, made up of homeowners associations, business associations, and representatives for renters, students and nonprofits. The council area includes 50,000 people in 15 distinct neighborhoods within the area roughly from just west of Western Avenue to La Brea Avenue, from Olympic Boulevard to Melrose Avenue.

“We kept trying to get more people to the table so we would have a true cross-section — including Michael — and we are accused by him of not doing that? I just have no comprehension of what he is talking about. It’s foreign to me,” Gresham said at a late night meeting in his office, glasses perched atop gray hair and eyes squinty with fatigue.

Gresham had first met Rosenberg when he came to a meeting of the Midwilshire interim board, a few months before he filed his rival claim.

Rosenberg appears in the minutes of that November 2001 meeting as having volunteered to help iron out the group’s by-laws and participate in outreach. Gresham invited him to be on the board. But, after the meeting, Rosenberg had a run-in with a board member who recognized Rosenberg as an advocate for a synagogue involved in a vicious land-use dispute.

Rosenberg says he was told that the neighborhood council process had already begun, and that he wasn’t needed — or wanted.

“After the way they treated me I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews,” Rosenberg said. “We are outsiders.”

So Rosenberg gathered a few signatures from friends and business associates, including Orthodox activist and developer Stanley Treitel, and in December 2001 filed his own application with the city to become the Greater Hancock Park Neighborhood Council.

The city department that oversees neighborhood councils, which is committed to making these bodies truly representative, did not want to favor existing homeowners groups over ad hoc entities. In the spring of 2002 the city ordered Gresham and Rosenberg to negotiate a merger.

“We ended up giving in to them on every single point they wanted because they would not budge,” said Gresham, saying the negotiations over minutia occasionally became uncivil, to the point of table-pounding and screaming.

Rosenberg says the meetings were a ruse, since Gresham’s group continued meeting behind his back.

Gresham said of course his group continued to meet, openly, to continue the work of getting certified — just as he expected Rosenberg’s group to keep meeting.

But whether Rosenberg had a group at all was a question Gresham never felt was adequately answered. Gresham said Rosenberg seemed to make decisions on his own, without consulting a board, and got angry with Gresham for always wanting to check back with the Midwilshire interim board.

Rosenberg says he had a group of about a dozen active volunteers and many more supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, who empowered him to make decisions.

While he initially started with some close Orthodox friends, Rosenberg later pulled in some non-Jewish businessmen and disgruntled residents who felt they were not being represented by this nouveau establishment.

Among those was Morris Shaoulian, the lessee of the Scottish Rite Auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard and Lucerne Avenue in Hancock Park-adjacent Windsor Square, who is currently in litigation with the city over the use of the building.

After several months of negotiations, the newly named Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council was formed, with Rosenberg and Gresham as co-presidents, and an unwieldy 56 board members — 28 from each side.

At a hearing in December 2003, the city certified the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. But before doing so, the city lopped off a section that jutted out of the Council’s linear borders south of Olympic Boulevard, saying the small area, which Rosenberg had added, was not organically part of a territory that was already too big.

That severed appendage had included a large portion of Rosenberg’s allies, including 14 of his 28 board members.

“In that area we had representation of people who were black, Hispanic, Koreans, some gays and lesbians — and they were so upset to be cut off from the neighborhood council,” Rosenberg said. “And after that they said you guys stabbed us and they didn’t want to meet anymore.”

While the council was certified, it still needed to set up procedures to elect its board members, an election initially slated for March 2004.

But disgusted with what he saw as a biased and farcical process, Rosenberg dragged his feet and didn’t bring his representative to any planning meetings. March came and went without elections.

Gresham and the city tried to schedule meetings with Rosenberg, but were continually put off.

Without Rosenberg and his people, the board had no quorum, and could not set up the election procedures, which meant voting could not commence.

Suddenly, in the early summer of 2004, a process that had been in the works for years, involving hundreds of people and thousands of hours of work, was at a dead halt.

Gresham was at his wits end. And he was beginning to wonder what was driving Michael Rosenberg.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh: “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

‘Red Flags All Over the Place’

Baby faced and jowly with a soothing Latin lilt to his speech, Rosenberg doesn’t hide the fact that he is motivated by a large chip on his shoulder, despite his obvious success — he runs a thriving international real estate business, he and his family own thoroughbreds and he is the president of World Derby, Inc., which promotes horse racing events. He and his wife Sheryl have raised their four sons in a luxurious home at the eastern edge of Hancock Park, where they have lived for 21 years.

But Rosenberg’s parents lost everything and everyone in the Holocaust, including three sons — Michael’s brothers. The family found refuge after the war in Peru, where Michael was born and where he lived until the late 1970s.

As for his involvement in Hancock Park politics, Rosenberg is adamant that it’s all a matter of principal. He scoffs at the speculation, put forth with no evidence by some who are critical of him, that his involvement in neighborhood politics has been motivated by potential financial gain for his real estate business, which he says is mostly out of state or out of the country.

Instead, Rosenberg said, he was initially motivated by ill-advised land-use policies that neighborhood establishments supported. But the matter became a personal cause after he encountered intolerance at neighborhood meetings, which he ascribed to his wearing a kippah and representing the Orthodox community.

During the rise of the Nazis, leading up to the Holocaust, “in Hungary, my parents had to endure rules of you can’t go there and you can’t shop here, and this was the beginning of the same things — red flags were going up all over the place,” he says of restrictions being placed on land-use in Hancock Park and the accompanying intolerance he perceived. “That is the ultimate goal, to restrict use of the land and to rein in a group — and that is what they were trying to do with us at the end of the day.”

Rosenberg is referring to the ongoing attempt by local preservationists to designate Hancock Park a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which, at its most stringent, would mean changes by homeowners to their residences would have to go through rigorous scrutiny by city boards.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association, a 57-year-old body, supports the historic zone, as does the office of Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area. In 2001 Rosenberg had attended a meeting of the association and told the members that a majority of Hancock Park residents did not support the historic designation. No one on either side of the issue, in fact, has done authoritative polling.

The challenge was not well received, and Rosenberg said he was treated rudely, as though he were an outsider with no business there.

Soon after, Rosenberg and Treitel, along with a handful of other Jewish and non-Jewish members, founded the rival Hancock Park Resident’s Association. They sent out a mailing asking people to join them in opposing the historic zone. Rosenberg claims he received 1,100 letters in his support, which he filed with the city’s planning department. A department representative confirmed that his office has received hundreds of letters both in support and against the historic designation.

Within the next month, the city’s planning department will hold the first of many public hearings about the HPOZ, leading up to a likely decision this summer by the City Council.

While the Orthodox community — including everyone from Modern Orthodox to Chasidic — is hardly unified in supporting or opposing a historic zone, Rosenberg was certain he recognized yet another effort to choke off the growing Orthodox presence — many Orthodox families have remodeled old area homes to accommodate large families, adding bedrooms and modern kosher kitchens.

Rosenberg became increasingly convinced that longer established neighbors — many of them non-Orthodox Jews — were uncomfortable with the visibly distinct and insular Orthodox community, people who dressed in black hats and coats in the heat of the summer, who ate at different restaurants and sent their kids to different schools. The Orthodox, he believed, were a grudgingly tolerated “them,” not regarded as part of the community fabric.

Rosenberg is not alone in reaching that conclusion.

“The other side will tell you it’s nothing personal, it’s only about zoning, and I wish I could believe that,” said Alan Stern, an Orthodox businessman and philanthropist, whose wife Lisa won a seat as an alternate in the neighborhood council elections. “But it’s just not true. When you dig deep enough and start talking, there is a lot more that I find worrying. Many of them don’t like those black hats and coats walking in Hancock Park. It’s not a kind of look they feel comfortable with.”

Jane Ellison Usher

Jane Ellison Usher, president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission: “I think there need to be other Jewish voices.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

An Urban Oasis, Divided

Hancock Park is one of Los Angeles’s most picture-perfect neighborhoods, where sloping lawns on winding streets are crowned with elegant Tudor, Spanish and Mediterranean mansions built mostly in the 1920s. It covers roughly a linear mile between Highland and Rossmore Avenues, from Melrose Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard.

Jews began to move into this urban oasis 40 years ago, when clauses in home deeds prohibiting sales to Jews or blacks were removed. As Jews shifted eastward from Fairfax, Orthodox institutions became centered on and around La Brea Avenue, a few blocks west of Hancock Park. The last decade has seen a surge in the number of schools, shuls and kosher establishments in the area.

There are about 20 shuls on La Brea, Beverly and surrounding streets, and about a dozen kosher establishments. At least four new schools have been established in the last 10 years, and enrollment at existing schools has surged. Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Torath Emeth, for example, had about 700 kids in preschool through eighth grade 10 years ago, and today has more than 1,100.

With that growth has come increased tensions with established neighbors, including some residents who have been there for decades, and many more recent arrivals — a good number of them non-Orthodox Jews — who treasure the area’s serenity and architectural beauty.

Some residents fear the character of the neighborhood, which is zoned for single-family homes only, is being threatened by haphazard remodeling projects and by institutions — notably a shul and a private religious school — moving into Hancock Park itself.

“Hancock Park is a beautiful suburb in the middle of a busy city, and if people keep chipping away at it, soon it won’t be a beautiful, serene neighborhood anymore. It will be changed forever,” said Jolene Snett, an activist who is involved in crafting a preservation plan, which would limit what homeowners could do with the parts of architecturally historic homes visible from the street.

Snett, a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood, was elected last June to the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.

It was the arcane subject of zoning that led to the Neighborhood Council confrontations and became the focus of lawsuits and angry rhetoric over the last 10 years. In 1999, Yeshivat Yavneh, a 400-student Orthodox day school, moved from Beverly Boulevard west of La Brea Avenue into the Tudor estate that had housed Whittier law school on Third Street and Las Palmas Avenue. Neighbors saw to it that Yavneh’s conditional-use permit was highly restrictive (see sidebar).

While the school and neighbors agree that Yavneh has worked hard to be a good neighbor — carefully controlling noise and carpool chaos — tension has continued to build over when and what Yavneh can do with its building. Yavneh is now planning to bring to the zoning board a proposal for an 8-foot security fence, which neighbors oppose, and a plan to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Shabbat, an issue that neighbors say Yavneh has not been honest about.

“We have made every effort to be as conciliatory as possible with the neighborhood and have done our best to make sure we are in compliance with whatever conditional-use permits were granted to us by the city,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh, which holds Shabbat prayers at the school for the Yavneh parent body. “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing, and for some reason there are certain extremists in the neighborhood who are opposed to having any greater presence for Orthodox Jews convening for religious activity or prayer, regardless of the impact on the neighborhood.”

At the same time, Korobkin is working with his own community to be more open, because he acknowledges that insularity may have contributed to the hostile environment and closed communication lines.

“Our guilt is that we have not sufficiently been good neighbors in the sense of reaching out and letting them know that we are part of the community, and we are here to work together with the rest of the community,” he said. “If an Orthodox Jew is having a Kiddush [party] at his home because his wife gave birth, and he invites 100 people from all around and his neighbors are not invited to the Kiddush — that type of thing creates ill-will,” he said.

Korobkin, and many others, believe that Yavneh is suffering the fallout of an earlier land-use dispute involving Congregation Etz Chaim, the synagogue to which Rosenberg and many of his neighborhood allies belong.

Etz Chaim is a small congregation that for 30 years met in the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. In 1995 it purchased a 3,600-square-foot house on the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, enraging neighbors protective of the area’s single-family-home zoning status. The legal battle had already begun when in 2002 Etz Chaim razed the home and rebuilt an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary and a mikvah (see sidebar).

Neighbors contend the shul violated local zoning laws and trampled due process, and the shul contends neighbors are attempting to infringe upon its religious freedom. The dispute is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but regardless of the outcome, residents are likely to remain angry about the bulldozer approach the congregation took.

“Third and Highland was this giant smack in the face to all of Hancock Park that said, ‘We are going to do whatever we want and no on is going to stop us,'” said Gary Gilbert, a writer and producer, who lives in Windsor Square.

While Orthodox residents who don’t belong to Etz Chaim were not vocal about the matter, many of them also were troubled by both the manner and the outcome of the construction.

“None of us like that shul either. I didn’t think what they did was right, and I certainly wouldn’t want that happening next door to me,” said Marty Gurfinkel, a Yavneh parent who is now participating in reconciliation meetings.

But the idea of Orthodox Jews speaking out against other shul-goers was anathema, and so, Gurfinkel says, the Etz Chaim dispute fermented a false sense, both among the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, of us and them.

“It created a lot of negativity and came at a severe cost,” agreed Larry Eisenberg, a pediatrician who rues the fact that none of his Orthodox peers felt it appropriate to challenge Etz Chaim.

Eisenberg, a Hancock Park resident and past president of the West Coast board of the Orthodox Union, was elected to the neighborhood council on a platform of opposing traffic mitigation measures and the historic zone designation. He was not allied with Rosenberg, and had nothing to do with Rosenberg’s quest. But, he says, at the first few meetings of the neighborhood council over the past few months, he has felt that he is the object of suspicion and bias from other council members, just by virtue of being Orthodox.

Indeed, anti-Orthodoxy seemed at its height after last summer’s elections. Deeply troubled by the hostility and intolerance he saw, Gary Gilbert, an active member of Temple Israel, informally canvassed his neighbors in advance of launching reconciliation efforts.

“I went to my neighbors and I said, ‘Tell me about the Orthodox.’ And they said, ‘They think they are above the law, they will do whatever they want if it is good for them, and they don’t care about anyone else’s needs but their own,'” Gilbert recounted.

And while Rosenberg might offer that up as more proof that he was right — that the locals do hate the Orthodox — some argue that Rosenberg himself opened that door, back in 2004, when he and his cohorts brought the neighborhood council process, which activists had been working on for five years, to a screeching halt.

Stanley Treitel

Stanley Treitel, neighborhood activist: “We have to move on to some degree.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

The City Takes Over

With elections nowhere on the horizon, Gresham was relieved when, in July 2004, the city decided to take over setting up the elections. The city began the process by holding focus groups with area stakeholders to come up with election procedures.

Rosenberg came to some of those meetings with his supporters, and advocated for eliminating both the age limit and the need for proof of identity for voters, pushing for self-affirmation — actions eyed with suspicion by many.

The city, for its part, determined that people could vote in as many categories for which they qualified as stakeholders. That is, you got one vote if you owned property, another if you also rented property, still another if you worked in neighborhood — not to mention a vote for attending a local school or belonging to a local organization. Each category is represented by a board member. In the end, some people would vote as many as 19 times.

In March 2005, after the city decided that age limits and identification would be required, Rosenberg sued the city for violating the council’s bylaws, a case that was quickly dismissed.

Increasingly alarmed at the free-for-all the city seemed to be setting up, Gresham worried that anyone, including non-residents, could become a stakeholder by setting up a bogus organization, and that underhanded scheming would be rampant.

In February 2005, Gresham summoned some active neighbors who decided to form Neighbors United for Fair Elections, a group whose initial mission was to see to it that election procedures were fair and logical.

“The real villain in this enterprise is the [city’s] Department of Neighborhood Empowerment,” said Jane Ellison Usher, a Jewish attorney who answered Gresham’s call to action. “The way the department established procedures was to say to whatever group of people happened to show up at a meeting, ‘How do you feel on these three or four points?’ And whoever was sitting in the chairs would cast votes, and those were turned into formal recommendations for the board and the department.”

Usher, a former president of the Windsor Square Homeowners Association, was recently appointed president of Los Angeles planning commission. She had been involved early on in the neighborhood council process and stepped out in dismay when the city forced Gresham into negotiations with Rosenberg.

Usher is known among friends and detractors for being resolute and blunt — as someone who, by her own admission, doesn’t mince words. As elections neared, Usher began circulating aggressively worded e-mails to bring the masses to the polls.

“Don’t let the bad guys outnumber us again,” begins a Feb. 21, 2005 email, co-signed by Usher, Jolene Snett and Cindy Chvatal, who is now vice president of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. “Do you want a neighborhood controlled by the man who has leased the Scottish Rite or by the activists who have defied all zoning rules and built a temple at Third and Highland?”

Another e-mail, sent after the city delayed elections that had been set for May 2005, decries the city’s “twisted thought process.”

“Disabled by the notion that Michael Rosenberg might again sue, his forte, they [city organizations] have become the reliable enablers of the hijacking of this neighborhood by a handful of bogeymen,” wrote Usher and Chvatal.

The same e-mail ended with the imperative to “Grab your white hat and enough votes to win.”

Orthodox community members saw in that an allusion to their own black hats. But Usher, who grew up in a small town in Ohio, says the white hat reference is nothing more than a regional expression about good guys in white and bad guys in black.

And, she says, her references to “minions” was in no way meant to evoke minyans (a quorum of worshippers), and “bad guys” referred to the city organizations messing with the elections, not to the Orthodox community.

As Usher’s e-mails circulated, rumors spread within the Orthodox community of nefarious, well-organized plots to stifle Jewish interests. For its part, the Orthodox community fielded nine candidates, many brought in by Rosenberg.

Some e-mails originating in the Orthodox camp compared what was happening in Hancock Park to Nazi-era restrictions, and rumors spread about plots to bus in Muslims on Election Day to defeat the Orthodox.

While some rabbis decried the more egregious rhetoric, the idea took hold that getting out the Orthodox vote was a matter of saving the community.

“On the slate are individuals who have proven hostile to the interests of our community. If they win, any new shul or school, any expansion of existing shuls or schools, any remodeling of any home, will require their approval,” read a letter sent out by the Yavneh school. The letter urged all community members — even domestic help — to vote, and to enroll in newly formed organizations to qualify as stakeholders in more categories.

When Neighbors United got wind of the mobilization in the Orthodox community, fear began to spread that the Orthodox were trying to take over local politics so they could plant a shul and school on every corner in Hancock Park.

To both sides, elections had become a matter of saving the neighborhood.

An Election Debacle

The hype and propaganda worked, bringing out a record 1,200 voters on Wednesday, June 15, 2005, who cast a combined 29,000 ballots, higher than any other council elections since the city founded the Neighborhood Council system, which generally does allow for multiple ballots per person.

But rather than being a triumph of grass-roots activism, the turnout signaled the extent to which fear and suspicion had taken over.

By all accounts, the fire station on Wilshire Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue — the single polling place for the day — was a madhouse, with poll workers overwhelmed by the turnout, and voters and volunteers equally befuddled by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment’s impenetrable election procedures.

According to the city’s exorbitantly inclusive rules, voters were allowed to define themselves as stakeholders in up to 19 categories.

That meant that on Election Day, voters — many of whom did not live or work in the area — stood on line with fistfuls of ballots, a startling site in this one man, one vote culture. (One of the first actions of the newly elected council would be to revise election rules, allowing a maximum of two votes per person.)

And things got very, very ugly.

Neighbors United, the non-Orthodox group, created an Election Day staging area at the nearby Wilshire Ebell Theater, offering a free shuttle service to the polling place, where parking was difficult.

At the Ebell, Neighbors United registered voters and enrolled them in organizations to qualify for more ballots. Slates of candidates were endorsed. In some categories where the two or three highest vote-getters would win seats, Neighbors United provided an alphabetical breakdown for voters to follow to optimize the number of its winning candidates (i.e., if your last name begins with A-F, vote for this candidate; G-M for that candidate).

Orthodox community members say they saw Neighbors United people — including volunteer poll workers — at the polling place trying to intimidate Orthodox voters and handing out membership cards, some of them for organizations founded for just for the purpose of boosting vote totals.

The Orthodox community was not nearly as well organized, but its members were busy, too. Neighbors United members allege that they saw candidates campaigning outside the polling place, in violation of election rules, and people handing out “your name here” membership cards for organizations. Some of these had changed addresses to be within council boundaries; others hadn’t existed the week before.

One member of Neighbors United said that while she was looking for parking, two Orthodox men sitting in a car in front of the fire station indicated they weren’t leaving. Seconds later, she saw them relinquish the space to another Orthodox Jew.

Orthodox voters speak of harassment: If you looked Orthodox you were treated with greater scrutiny and greater contempt by poll volunteers, who came mostly from the ranks of Neighbors United (they were, after all, better organized).

And throughout the day, e-mails and phone calls continued to circulate, urging more people to come out and vote.

In the end, five Orthodox men, including Rosenberg, were elected to the Neighborhood Council, out of 31 seats. Gresham, ironically, only won as an alternate (when a board member can’t make the meeting, he takes her place). Gilbert and Treitel are alternates; Usher, Snett and Chvatal all won seats.

Nine people, including Rosenberg and Alan Stern, filed challenges against the election results, but the city dismissed all of them.

“There was considerable fraud on both sides, and a number of rabbis were not comfortable with that,” said Irving Lebovics, West Coast president of the Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel. “But the bigger issue to me was that in this election there was a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism. We had people who showed up to vote like any good citizen, and they were harassed and screamed at from vans on the street. It was unacceptable.”

Charges of anti-Semitism became a sore point after the election. After all, a significant number of the Neighbors United activists are Jewish.

“To evoke the Holocaust for political gain in a neighborhood zoning dispute, and for one group of people to allege anti-Semitism against another group that they don’t see eye-to-eye with politically, especially when many in the group are Jewish, is a problem,” Jolene Snett said. “These are serious claims, and to use them in a political manner, so readily and so quickly, and often to fellow Jews, I find very troubling.”

For her part, Usher says she feels compelled, as a Jew, to offer an alternative voice when she sees Jews behaving badly, as she believes some leaders at Etz Chaim and Yavneh did.

“I think there need to be other Jewish voices,” she said. “Frankly, it is repulsive to me that I am connected or associated in any way with the people perpetrating these deceptions, so I intend to speak out.”

“I am a Jew, I am a practicing Jew, and I feel that deception is shameful,” Usher said in an interview at a Beverly Boulevard pastry shop not long after the election. “Did I ever think I would see the day I would feel the need to stand up and say I am Jewish and I have a bone to pick with other Jews? Did I even anticipate that day? No.”

Peace Talks

Today, with the elections well in the past, Usher’s stridency has mellowed.

At the neighborhood council meetings — there have been four since the elections — Usher sits just one seat away from Stanley Treitel, a colleague of Rosenberg’s whose passion and vociferousness were off-putting to some during the thick of the strife.

At the January meeting, Treitel handed Usher his card and asked her to call. Usher and Treitel met for breakfast at La Brea Bagel a few weeks ago, where the two, who had formerly demonized each other, talked about issues in the neighborhood, and vowed to keep an open dialogue.

“I’m very optimistic. I don’t see or feel any hardliners drawing lines in the sand,” Usher said.

“We have to move on to some degree,” agreed Treitel, noting that Usher is now the head of the city’s planning commission, an organization that holds the key to approval of community projects.

While Usher’s and Treitel’s new connection is off to a good start, things are not going as well for a larger-scale reconciliation effort.

In November, a group of Orthodox, liberal Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors met to plan a blood drive and neighborhood safety fair for January. But three weeks after the initial planning meeting the event was off.

Yavneh had offered to host the event, but since Yavneh is in the middle of troublesome negotiations over its city operating permit, residents who live nearby wondered if Yavneh’s hospitality was motivated mainly by a desire to build support for dealings with the city.

And, ironically, holding a large event like the blood drive would have violated Yavneh’s permit.

It wasn’t the outcome Gary Gilbert and his wife Judy hoped for when they convened about 20 people in their Windsor Square living room last summer, following the election, to save the neighborhood from itself.

“One of the reasons I got involved is because I heard the phrase ‘the Orthodox’ 50 times, and then I heard the term ‘Jew’ in a way I never heard before in Hancock Park,” said Gilbert, a producer and writer of comedies, including the “Seinfeld” pilot.

The Gilberts joined forces with Rabbi Korobkin of Yavneh, who independently had set out to begin the healing process, contacting local clergy and L.A. Voice, an organization that works with faith-based organizations to build community.

At the first, smaller meeting about a month after the election, about 20 people from varying backgrounds sat in the Gilberts home and introduced themselves, putting names and faces to the impersonal “other side.”

“I’m not a professional mediator or conflict resolution person. I’m just a Jewish guy from the neighborhood who is really upset,” Gilbert recalled telling those at the first gathering in August. “I’m here to say let’s figure out what to do. I have no plan, no agenda — my agenda is why can’t we all get along. So let’s give it a try.”

A second meeting took place in November at the home of Marty and Candice Gurfinkel — a new home that blends impeccably into its surroundings and stands in regal rebuttal to the charge that the Orthodox have no aesthetic sense. It was there that the plan for the blood drive was devised, and after the meeting, a dozen neighbors stood around the dessert table schmoozing.

But despite the thaw, some were uncomfortable, feeling like they were skirting the real issues, moving ahead with joint activities to foster relationships when old wounds had yet to be healed, or even acknowledged.

“We perceive that the other neighbors look at us with such a sense of suspicion and distrust, that they feel anything we are trying to do is completely self-serving and disingenuous and we are not concerned with being good neighbors,” Korobkin said recently. “If you start with that premise, it is hard to win people’s support to work toward common goals. It’s hard to move things forward.”

But Korobkin persists in his efforts toward reconciliation, understanding that not only Yavneh’s future, but the entire neighborhood’s rests on everyone’s ability to work together.

As for Rosenberg, he has spent much of the last six months in Peru tending to family matters. He’s missed most of the Neighborhood Council meetings, but the one he did attend, he voted against all of the proposed measures, which passed anyway.

One of those measures reduced the number of future board members on the Neighborhood Council from 31 to 21 for the next elections in March 2007. Members who supported the motion said the board was too unwieldy with 31 members.

Treitel, who voted against the change, noted in an interview that Orthodox Jews had a good chance of filling the seats that were cut, in categories such as education, religion and nonprofits. He worries that the interests of the Orthodox community are now further jeopardized.

Rosenberg plans to do whatever it takes to accomplish what he says was his initial goal: to ensure that everyone in the neighborhood is represented, and that no one, especially not the Orthodox community, gets left out of the process.

“I feel bad that people have a perception of me as being a bad person,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not a bad person. I have given a lot of my time and money to make people aware of what I believe to be very important things.”

 

Senior Moments – Great-Grand Marshal


As I walked through the grounds at the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA), I noticed a man in a wheelchair reading a magazine. It was called “Life Extension.”

I had to laugh. Someone must have strategically placed this magazine, like a prop, for the interview I was about to conduct. Talk about life extension! My subject, Sylvia Harmatz, could be the poster child. She’s 107 years old.

And for the sixth year in a row, Harmatz will be grand marshal of the Dec. 4 Walk of Ages, a 5K walk/run to raise funds for the JHA’s vital services.

She called JHA “a haven for people who have nowhere’s else to stay, like me. I sometimes wonder how in the world can they like so many people? They are so good to everyone!”

Since so many people seem interested in living forever, Harmatz is, of course, repeatedly asked: “What’s your secret?”

She smiles sweetly, showing great patience: “I don’t know.”

She doesn’t eat meat, but she does like candy, “because I need something to replace the meat.”

I told her my 14-year-old son would like that strategy. She laughed.

We sat a moment, and then Harmatz said, “You know, my husband lived to 104.”

In fact, Sylvia and Louis Harmatz were married for 80 years.

“He was very much in love with me,” she told me, with a smile.

I said maybe it was love, not a special diet, that contributed to their longevity.

“I think so,” Harmatz agreed. “We were very close. He wanted to be with me all the time. He never walked with me that he didn’t hold my hand. He was afraid I was going to run away from him, because I always walked so fast!”

The couple, who met at a dance in Brooklyn, married in 1921. They continued to love dancing and had a chance to waltz together after they moved to the JHA in 1994.

“We were always together,” Harmatz recalled. “He used to get up at night and cover me [with a blanket], to make sure I wouldn’t catch a cold. He took care of me. And I don’t know why, because I was always very strong and independent. I guess he noticed that I needed to be taken care of. When he passed away, I reassured him that I wouldn’t be long, that I’d be coming to meet him soon. But it hasn’t been that way.”

Harmatz laughed, but looked a little sad.

Born in Hungary in 1898, her earliest memories are of her father, a rabbi.

“He took me everywhere with him,” she said. “And I remember him teaching the children who couldn’t speak Hungarian, so they could learn too. I loved to sit and listen to him.”

Harmatz had her fourth birthday on board the ship to America.

Life was hard in this new country, says Harmatz, but she has fond memories of her parents’ relationship.

“My mother was very beautiful and they were very much in love. I used to know when they were going to have relations because [my father] used to leave his yarmulke on the bed.” Harmatz said with a laugh. “He was telling my mother, ‘Don’t forget, I’ll be there tonight!'”

Her father died at 42, leaving his wife with nine children. Harmatz started working at 13 to help out, then went to night school to become a nurse.

After marriage, she became a homemaker, raising the couple’s two daughters. There are now five grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.

In 1935, Sylvia and Louis decided to come West, and settled in Hollywood. “I used to go downtown for seven cents on the Red Car!” Harmatz said.

Her political involvement as an avid Democrat goes at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt. “Politics was my piece de resistance!” said Harmatz, who would go door-to-door seeking donations. “I knocked at a door once and [asked for] a dollar. The woman says, ‘No I’m a Republican.’ So I said, ‘You don’t have to apologize to me, all you have to do is change your affiliation!'”

One thing that pleases Harmatz about being the grand marshal is riding in a convertible. In fact, last year when it rained on the parade, someone suggested they put up the top, but Harmatz wanted it left down.

“I’m not a fussy person, but I do like a red convertible,” she said, laughing. I asked her if red is her favorite color. “Yes, I like red. In fact, I’m going to be buried in a red dress with polka dots.”

Harmatz has been interviewed by CNN, local newspapers and radio stations. I asked if she likes being a celebrity.

“It’s not important to me,” she said. “I like it because it’s helping the Home. I want the Home to have everything they need. They asked me, ‘What do you want for all your trouble?’ I said, ‘I want a little plaque that says: You too can be involved.'”

For registration and sponsorship for Walk of Ages VI, call (818) 774-3100 or visit www.walkofages.kintera.org.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me at Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

Shake-Up!


Rep. Howard Berman can work the J-circuit with the best of them. He knows who’s who among synagogue presidents, what to wear at bar mitzvahs, what to say to which rabbis and which chicken-dinner fundraisers are can’t miss. A smart Jewish politician in a heavily Jewish district quickly figures these things out, and Berman, 64, has represented his San Fernando Valley district since 1980.

By now, Berman knows almost instinctively where he needs to be.

So what’s he doing helping organize a Veteran’s Day parade in Pacoima, a working-class, Latino enclave?

The answer is that Berman’s 28th District has become a lot more Latino than it used to be, and Berman knows he needs to serve those constituents, too. That combination of political savvy and attention to public service has kept Berman in office these 25 years.

But staying in office could get a lot more challenging for Berman — as well as for several other elected officials who happen to be Jewish.

Proposition 77, the redistricting measure on next week’s special elections ballot, is likely to shift considerably more Latino voters into Berman’s district — and perhaps give rise to a viable Latino challenger. The same pattern could play out for several other Jewish politicians, including Reps. Adam Schiff in the Glendale/Pasadena area and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley. Rep. Jane Harman, in the South Bay is less likely to be threatened, although her district is historically competitive to begin with. Rep. Henry Waxman, with his Westside and heavily Jewish base, probably has nothing to fear.

California’s congressional delegation also includes three other Jewish members, Tom Lantos, from Northern California, and Bob Filner and Susan A. Davis in the San Diego area. Filner presently faces a challenge from California Assemblymember and former City Councilman Juan Vargas.

So is a threat to Jewish incumbents reason enough for a Jewish voter to think twice about supporting Proposition 77 — especially when there are critics who take issue with the measure on other grounds? On the other hand, American Jews have traditionally lent support to causes that uplift marginalized communities. Wouldn’t it be fair to make it more likely that a Latino would represent a community comprised mostly of Latinos?

This Jewish side effect is one of many considerations posed by Proposition 77, one of a wearying welter of measures on the Nov. 8 ballot. The initiative would take the power to redraw legislative districts away from the California legislature and place it in the hands of three retired judges. It also would accelerate redistricting — changing things almost immediately rather than waiting for the next round of census data. Proposition 77 would apply both to state legislators and members of Congress, like Berman.

The ostensible goal of redistricting after a census is to keep the population of residents about the same in each district. Politically, a twin aim has been to keep incumbents in office, a strategy that is abetted by both Democrats and Republicans.

Up to this point, redistricting has worked in Berman’s favor, sharply reducing the percentage of Latino voters in his district, although Latinos currently make up a majority of his district’s residents. His current district cuts across the eastern heart of the San Fernando Valley, running east of the 405 Freeway and south of the 210 Freeway. When he was first elected, Berman’s district had just a 22 percent Latino electorate. An alternative map, put forth by the Rose Institute at Claremont-McKenna Colleges as more “fair,” would result in Berman representing an area in which 66 percent of the voting-age population is Latino.

Berman opposes Proposition 77, but also insists that he works hard to be, on merit, the first choice of his district’s Latino voters. He is a long-time supporter of rights for agrarian workers, many of whom are Mexican nationals — an issue that has resonance even for U.S.-born Latinos — and he’s served for 23 years on Congress’s immigration subcommittee. Berman said he spends more effort on the bread-and-butter issues of the northern, more Latino end of his district than he does in the south.

Then there’s the symbolism of the 2004 Veteran’s Day parade.

“The first Veteran’s Day parade in the San Fernando Valley is centered in Pacoima — not Sherman Oaks, not Granada Hills,” Berman said.

So it was that veterans from both world wars, Korea and Vietnam marched down the streets of a largely Mexican-American community in the north San Fernando Valley. And they’re going to do it again this year, winding up in the park named after Mexican American rock star Ritchie Valens, of “La Bamba” fame. Latinos, Mexican Americans in particular, have always signed up for the U.S. military in outsize numbers, Berman noted, despite facing discrimination and exclusion at home. The same goes, he added, for the war in Iraq — a disproportionate number of Latinos from his district, native-born and immigrant alike, headed off to serve.

Supporters of Proposition 77 assert that there is ample reason for all voters, Jewish and otherwise, to shake-up the status quo.

The conservatively inclined Rose Institute doesn’t take a position on Proposition 77, but it released a study in September calling for an overhaul of the present system.

“Here in California , the need for reform is clear and almost universally acknowledged,” the report’s executive summary says. “The 2001 gerrymander is likely to live on as a lesson in the abuses that can occur when incumbents are in control….”

The study makes its case with maps of zigzagging districts, including one, California Congressional District 23, that it dubs the “Ribbon of Shame.” District 23 has become a narrow band that twists south along the coast from San Luis Obispo County down to Ventura, connected at places with a razor thin slice of territory. It is represented by Democrat Lois Capps.

Redistricting cuts many ways. The 2001 plan suddenly made the seat of Brad Sherman shakier, shifting thousands of Latino voters to him from Berman, leading to some public sniping between Berman and Sherman.

At one point, the mapping marooned Sherman’s home at the end of a sliver surrounded by Berman’s new district. To top it off, the architect of the re-draw was veteran political consultant Michael Berman — to be sure, he’s well qualified, but he’s also the brother of incumbent Howard Berman. In the end, Sherman was able to keep his residence within a larger swath of his district.

The Democratic head of California’s Senate Redistricting Committee told Sherman, in effect, to shut up and accept it. A majority of the Latino legislative members, 16 of 19, voted in support of the redistricting plan — a show of fealty to the California Democratic caucus and Democratic control of the legislature. And both Sherman and Berman have survived in office.

But the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) sued. MALDEF argued that the redistricting could have concentrated Latino voters in a new district instead of splitting them between Sherman and Berman. A panel of three federal judges ruled against MALDEF, saying the overall results of all the redrawn districts did not discriminate against Latinos.

But the issue never subsided. Author and commentator Joel Kotkin, who supports Proposition 77, said that the current lines have polarized the California legislature, contributing to governmental gridlock with politically safe ultra-liberals opposed by politically safe ultra-conservatives.

“What we have done is dysfunctional,” he said. “We have too many liberal Democrats and too many conservative Republicans.”

In that argument, Kotkin is echoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has endorsed Proposition 77 as a central element of his “reform” package of initiatives.

A more moderate and effective state Legislature should matter to all voters, including Jews, Kotkin said. Besides, he added, “I don’t think somebody being Jewish is the issue as much as whether that person represents the interests of the district.”

Nor is he worried that that California’s congressional delegation would be less pro-Israel if the Jewish Democrats were to fall.

“The old Waxman and Berman kind of politicians — liberal on other issues and good on Israel — will find it increasingly difficult as internal pressure within the Democratic Party becomes increasingly anti-Israel,” Kotkin said.

There’s a dose of politics embedded in Kotkin’s analysis, including a presumption that, over time, Republicans will be better for Israel, better for Jews and maybe better for Californians.

In fact, to many critics of Proposition 77, the initiative is all about politics and not so much about fairness.

Schwarzenegger wants a more acquiescent legislature, and this is his way of getting it, said Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College who directs the school’s Urban & Environmental Policy Program.

“Arnold may call it a technical maneuver, but it’s about eliminating Democratic safe seats,” said the left-leaning Dreier, who opposes Proposition 77: “Republicans are very good at playing hardball and masquerading blatant power grabs as good government.”

Another lefty analyst, Harold Meyerson, takes issue with Kotkin’s implication that Jewish Democratic incumbents can be sacrificed because the best pro-Israel politicians of the future will be Republicans. While most members of the California Democratic caucus are not aligned with “hardline Israeli politicos,” Meyerson said, there’s a consensus of support for Israel within the caucus.

For some districts, the issue isn’t Democrat-to-Republican, but it could well be Jewish-to-Latino.

“A few of these districts might have Democrats of other ethnicities if they weren’t carved the way they were,” said Meyerson, editor at large for American Prospect and political editor of the L.A. Weekly.

There are, of course, other hard-boiled political considerations. The Jewish members of Congress have accumulated seniority, which helps them play key roles in matters pertaining both to Israel and broader foreign policy.

“This is a case of five members [from Southern California] who are interested in international relations in general and U.S.-Israel relations in particular,” Berman said. He, along with Reps. Schiff and Sherman, serve on the International Relations Committee; Rep. Harman sits on the Intelligence Committee.

Berman points to his 22 years as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee: “I know Israeli leadership, Palestinian leadership, maybe some Saudi leadership. There’s a lot of time and experience there.”

Still, it’s hard to find anyone who will outright defend a system that is gruesomely gerrymandered to protect incumbents. But for leftie progressives there’s more at stake than the downside of the status quo. For them, the California congressional delegation sits as a bulwark against the George Bush Conservative Republican majority — whose own members hail from equally gerrymandered states. In better times (for Democrats), the California delegation could become the lynchpin of an emerging Democratic — and more liberally Democratic — majority. That’s not something that progressive Democrats, such as Meyerson and Dreier, want to let Schwarzenegger tamper with.

The year 2005 may prove a watershed year for Jews politicians in Southern California. In addition to the members of Congress, Bob Hertzberg nearly made the mayoral runoff; the L.A. City government has three Jewish council members (though it recently had seven) and a Jewish city controller (Laura Chick); Jewish members hold three of seven seats on the Board of Education. It hasn’t been so many years since Jews weren’t allowed on some local golf courses. But influence — or even a seat at the table — can be as fleeting as rapidly evolving demographics. Just ask African Americans, who worked so hard to win voting rights, but who have already lost majority status in many parts of town.

But does it matter for Jews, who are so thoroughly intergrated into L.A. life and commerce?

It does for Howard Welinsky, a longtime Democratic Party activist who’s also prominent in the Jewish community and civic affairs.

“What is now at stake,” he said, “is that in Los Angeles, we have five Jewish members of Congress. And they’re all at risk.”

It matters to Welinsky that, “in the history of this country — and I’ve researched it — we’ve never had five Jewish members of Congress in one county. I can’t imagine anything that has greater impact in Jews in Los Angeles than this.”

For Welinsky, it’s not exactly about being pro-Israel, even though he certainly is. He’s taken with historicity of having five Jewish members from one area. Perhaps it’s comparable to the current reconfiguration at work in the Jewish heart of Fairfax Avenue. Why does it matter that a kosher grocery store, a shop selling Judaica and a place offering music from all over the Jewish Diaspora might fold to make room for pricey, non-Jewish boutiques that can afford the higher rents?

Only because, to some people, it does.

As for Berman’s fate, “I don’t think Howard Berman would lose, but those who have not been in those seats very long might find themselves facing well-funded campaigns by Latinos and other groups,” said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, who opposes Proposition 77, even though she thinks the present system needs improvement.

Goldberg herself represents a majority Latino voter district.

“They vote, And they picked me,” she said. “Why did they pick me? Because I look out for the interests of the communities I serve. And that’s what they cared about more than my ethnicity.

“There are people in the population who vote their race, their gender their ethnicity, their sexual orientation,” she said. “I don’t think they’re the majority. People really do care about what you’re going to do when you get there.”

Shifting political nuances make these judgments ever more complex. Rep. Filner, a Jewish member being challenged by a Latino candidate, spent time in jail as a Freedom Rider, clearly reflecting concern for the interests of people of color. His opponent, Assemblyman Juan Vargas, is “pro-life,” inconsistent on civil liberties issues, but liberal on immigration. The district’s population already is 55 percent Latino, 18 percent Anglo, 15 percent Filipino and 12 percent African American.

Jewish Assemblywoman Hannah Beth Jackson, from a district that includes Santa Barbara and Oxnard, was termed out and replaced by Pedro Nava, who ran on an environmentalist platform, a position well in tune with most Jews.

Coalition politics involving Jews has frequently worked well for L.A.’s Latinos, and vice versa. Former Rep. Edward Roybal, the groundbreaking Latino who died last month, was first elected to Los Angeles City Council by a Latino-Jewish-labor coalition. And then there’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who grew up in formerly Jewish East Los Angeles and rose to office with broad Jewish support.

“Jews and others can represent communities of color,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs. “That has never really been the argument against apparent dilution of Latino or other minority voting strength in a particular political or voting system. It is all about fairness, in being able to elect a representative of the community’s choice on a level playing field.”

Proposition 77, almost inevitably, could make Congress less Jewish. But that’s just a starting point for addressing the question of whether Proposition 77 is good for California.

Teacher Class on Mideast Stirs Doubt


An upcoming course on the Middle East for public school teachers has gotten the attention of Jewish organizations for its allegedly unfair tilt toward a pro-Palestinian viewpoint.

Titled “Teaching About the Middle East,” the professional development course, which earns participants points toward salary increases, will be given Oct. 14, 15 and 17 at the Wilshire District headquarters of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) will send an observer to monitor the sessions. Spokeswomen for both the ADL and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said their organizations are looking into the matter, but withholding judgment.

The heightened scrutiny arises from the complaints of Paul Kujawsky, a teacher at Germain Street Elementary School in Chatsworth and past president of Democrats for Israel. A routine listing of the workshop caught his eye, and on Sept. 1, Kujawsky sent a formal, three-page letter, headed “Propaganda, Not Education” to Superintendent Roy Romer of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and UTLA President A.J. Duffy.

The letter listed two primary observations and allegations:

The course is funded by the Middle East Teacher Resource Project, an arm of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The Quaker organization has a long, honorable history of pacifism and aiding refugees (including this reporter’s parents), but is considered by many in the Jewish community as leaning consistently toward a pro-Palestinian perspective.

“Overall, the AFSC’s position is that the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is the result of European imperialism, not Arab or Muslim refusal to admit that the Jews have any historic or legal right to sovereignty,” wrote Kujawsky, who is undeniably and unapologetically pro-Israel.

The initiators and administrators of the workshop have denied any bias, and have rejected Kujawsky’s request that the course be reorganized or dropped. However, the course leader said that she was sufficiently concerned to seek a pro-Israel speaker for a session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The course has been officially vetted and accredited by LAUSD, with input by the teachers union. In 16 class hours, it strives to deal with the Middle East’s people, art, food, music, literature and cultural stereotypes, as well as Arab Americans, Muslim women and the veil, wars and conflicts, oil strategy, nonviolence, human rights and peace movements.

For better or worse, what the teachers learn will influence what they pass on to their students. At least 40 teachers have enrolled.

In the opinion of Kujawsky, “The Quakers’ goal is to end the Israeli occupation, not to end the Arab war against Israel,” he said in an interview.

Shan Cretin, the Friends Committee regional director in Pasadena, objected to attempts to “politicize” either the teachers’ course or the Quakers’ position on the Middle East, which, she said, is to work toward a nonviolent resolution.

“This workshop grows out of our larger concerns for peace in the Middle East,” she said. “In the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, we believe that students need to know more about Arab and Muslim culture, history and politics to become informed citizens. This is not a workshop focusing mainly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Cretin, who worked with Israelis and Palestinians on health care programs in the mid-90s, acknowledged that “many of our speakers have ties to Arab organizations, but given the topics that are to be the focus of the workshop, this does not seem so surprising.”

The course was deemed appropriate by Ronni Ephraim, LAUSD’s chief instructional officer for elementary schools. She readily provided documents on the course, and explained how it was approved by a three-person committee that included a Jewish member.

The course was proposed and put together by Linda Tubach, an LAUSD staffer in instructional support service who is active in UTLA.

Tubach’s involvement is one concern cited in Kujawsky’s letter. He submitted that Tubach serves on the advisory board of Cafe Intifada, whose Web site states that it raises funds for “cultural programs in Palestine, highlighting the current plight of the Palestinian people.”

Tubach said she was part of the now-inactive advisory board two years ago, when she was involved in a Cafe Intifada pen pal writing project involving American teachers and Palestinian students, but that she no longer had any connections with the organization.

She said that she proposed the course as “a basic survey of Middle Eastern culture, religion and government … and it is our intention to have dialogues and discussions representing all points of view.”

Nevertheless, she became concerned enough about any real or perceived imbalance to ask Deanna Armbruster, who is leading the session on “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” to team up with an advocate of the Israeli viewpoint.

Armbruster is the executive director of American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahab Al-Salam, a community in central Israel, whose 350 Arab and Jewish adults and children live together, study in the same school and share civic responsibilities.

“I’m very passionate about understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of human experiences,” said Armbruster, and her book, “Tears in the Holy Land,” is based on this passion.

Armbruster, a volunteer with the Friends Committee’s Middle East Peace Education Program, said that the Quaker organization “strives for a better understanding of both the Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints, but it tends to delve more deeply into Palestinian issues and the problems they face” — especially in light of a widespread presumption that the Israeli side gets more favorable exposure, thanks to strong Jewish advocacy.

For his part, Kujawsky perceives a bias in the affiliation of some of the instructors, some of whom have ties to Palestinian organizations.

Among the workshop’s instructors is attorney Ban al-Wardi, who is president of the Los Angeles-Orange County Chapter of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. He will lead the session on “The U.S. and the Middle East: Before and After 9/11.”

The session on “Middle Eastern Cooking, Music and Literature” will be taught by Sami Asmar, who is a NASA physicist and an expert on Middle East music and literature.

None of the assurances of balance and fairness have satisfied Kujawsky.

“This is not a question of Jew vs. Arab, it’s about truthfulness in teaching,” he said.

 

Vote Confirms Westside, Valley Split


 

The mayoral primary on March 8 reconfirmed the existence of a political gap within the Los Angeles Jewish community between Jews who live on the Westside and those who live in the Valley.

According to the Los Angeles Times exit poll, Bob Hertzberg carried Valley Jews (6 percent of all voters) with 56 percent of the vote, to 18 percent for Antonio Villaraigosa and 12 percent for Mayor James Hahn. Among Westside Jews (5 percent of all voters), Hertzberg barely edged Villaraigosa, 37 to 36 percent, with Hahn at getting 20 percent.

Overall, Hertzberg took nearly half the Jewish vote (47 percent) to Villaraigosa’s 27 percent and Hahn’s 17 percent. Despite his Jewish support, Hertzberg finished third and failed to make the runoff.

He thereby continued the pattern set in 1993 and 2001 by Jewish candidates who did very well among Jews in the mayoral primary but fell behind the two leading contenders. In 2001, it was Steve Soboroff and Joel Wachs; in 1993, it was Richard Katz and Wachs.

In the post-Tom Bradley era, Jewish candidates for mayor are tending to run on the Richard Riordan base of Republicans, Valley voters and conservatives. I just presented a paper to fellow political scientists with my colleague, California State University, Fullerton geographer Mark Drayse, that shows a very strong overlap between the Hertzberg and Soboroff coalitions. This coalition provides a significant base of support among whites, but may fall short of citywide success in a city in which the Republican share of the vote has dropped 50 percent in the last decade.

The gap between Westside and Valley Jewish voters goes back at least to the busing controversy of the late 1970s. Overall, Los Angeles Jews, wherever they lived, were enthusiastic supporters of Bradley and his liberal biracial coalition. Bradley largely stayed out of the busing battles.

But school busing divided Westside Jews, many of whom favored busing but were not much affected by it, from Valley Jews, who provided key support for the anti-busing movement. Since then, citywide candidates with a somewhat less liberal leaning have done well with Valley Jewish voters. Meanwhile, liberal candidates continued to win in the high-turnout Westside, a pattern continued by the emerging Villaraigosa coalition.

We should not overestimate the Valley-Westside gap. Both voted heavily for the Jewish candidate in the primary. Both provided many votes for Villaraigosa and for Hahn in both 2001 and 2005. The gap is far smaller than that between white Democrats, which includes most L.A. Jews, and white Republicans.

But clearly, the emphasis in the Valley is on moderate politics, compared to a more liberal version on the Westside. Valley Jews are cross-pressured; they are as overwhelmingly Democratic as Westside Jews, but have reservations about the more urban liberal agenda.

While the split among Jewish voters might play a role in the lack of success of Jewish mayoral candidates, a bigger issue is the extremely low minority support they have received. Hertzberg received only 5 percent of African American votes and 6 percent of Latinos, though a surprising 12 percent among Asian Americans.

The electorate in the 2005 primary was slightly more liberal, more Latino, more Asian and more African American than four years before, and less white and less Jewish. Without minority support, no one, Jewish or non-Jewish, can be elected mayor of Los Angeles.

The center-right model, moreover, is not the only way for a Jewish candidate to run citywide. Both Laura Chick, the former Valley council member who won as city controller in 2001 and 2005, and Mike Feuer, who was nearly elected city attorney in 2001, ran more progressive-center campaigns than either Hertzberg or Soboroff. (Of course, neither faced a strong African American and Latino candidate at the same time, as did Hertzberg in 2005.)

Both won huge majorities of Jewish voters (with no Westside-Valley gap) but also did very well in minority communities. Had Feuer won half instead of 41 percent of the African American vote, he might have been elected.

Some will blame the division among Jewish voters as the reason it is hard to elect a Jewish mayor. I think this is wrongheaded.

First, it is extremely hard for anyone to win a citywide election, let alone the mayoralty, in this diverse city. Second, the Jewish role in Los Angeles politics does not depend on having a Jewish mayor. It depends on being valued by all competing forces in the city.

As the city electorate becomes less white and more diverse, Jewish voters, with their relatively high turnout and generally progressive (if not always liberal) stance, will be much sought after, even if they present two overlapping faces, one moderate and one liberal, to potential allies.

If a Jewish mayor does arise, he or she will have to win far more than Jewish voters, indeed, more than white voters, and that in itself will make such a candidate more than a representative of the Jewish community. That Jewish candidate might be a liberal appealing to the Westside or a moderate appealing to the Valley.

But from the very start of the campaign, such a candidate will have to work nonstop to reach out to minority voters. Minority votes might not be available until the runoff, if there are strong minority candidates in the primary, but the ground must be laid.

The reconnection of the Jewish political community, whether starting in the Valley or the Westside, into the heart and soul of Los Angeles’ minority communities will be a fine and appropriate reminder of the long years of mutual trust and effort during the Bradley years.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, was the Election Day political consultant for the Los Angeles Times’ exit poll.

 

Mayor’s Race Role


With Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa’s entry into the 2005 Los Angeles mayor’s race, the competition for Jewish votes will accelerate.

Jews are attentive, high-propensity voters. Nearly one in five Los Angeles voters are Jewish (with only 6 percent of the population). If past history is a guide, however, the Jewish vote will play a more important role in the expected runoff between the two top candidates than in the multicandidate primary.

During the Tom Bradley years (1973 to 1993), Jews voted consistently for him against conservative candidates. Since Bradley left office, however, Jewish voters have dispersed in city elections. Loyal Democrats in state and national politics, Jews are less predictable in city campaigns.

As the Republican electorate has shrunk, Los Angeles voters increasingly will be choosing among different types of Democrats, anyway. The three leading contenders: Mayor James K. Hahn, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and Villaraigosa have won lots of Jewish votes in the past.

How will they do next year? And what about Councilman Bernard C. Parks and Valley state Sen. Richard Alarcon? In a sense, all the candidates are heirs to the progressive, Democratic, interracial vision of Bradley.

We do know that in the post-Bradley era, Jewish voters have given considerable support to Jewish candidates in the mayoral primary. In 1993, Jews gave a combined 52 percent of their primary votes to Joel Wachs and Richard Katz. In 2001, Jews gave 49 percent of their primary votes to Wachs and Steve Soboroff.

These examples bode well for Hertzberg, as the only Jewish candidate in the primary. On the other hand, none of the previous Jewish candidates made it to the runoff.

We also know that Jewish voters are more than willing to vote for non-Jewish candidates. In 2001, Villaraigosa led all primary candidates with 26 percent of the Jewish vote, powering him to a first-place primary showing. Villaraigosa was particularly strong in 2001 among Westside, liberal Jews, although he did very well among Valley Jews, as well.

And Hahn has been no slouch with Jewish voters. In 1997, he was opposed for re-election as city attorney by Ted Stein and won 60 percent of the Jewish vote. He has done well with Jewish voters in all his citywide races.

Parks has been cultivating the Jewish community since his election, with frequent references to the Bradley coalition. He will be competing with Villaraigosa for Jewish voters who favor cross-racial politics and with Hahn on public safety. Alarcon will compete with Hertzberg for Valley votes.

If Jewish voters scatter in the primary, with the most liberal Jews backing Villaraigosa, and moderate and conservative Jews supporting Hahn; a majority, regardless of ideology, backing Hertzberg, and others for Parks and Alarcon, then the greatest impact of the Jewish vote will be in the runoff election between the top two primary finishers.

For Bradley, holding and increasing his Jewish support from the primary to the runoff was the difference between making it to the mayor’s chair and bitter defeat. In 1969, his Jewish support in the primary did not translate into the runoff, where Sam Yorty’s scare campaign drove many Jewish voters away from Bradley. In 1973, Bradley held and greatly expanded his Jewish primary base into the runoff, and the rest is history.

In 1993, Richard Riordan, running on public safety, went from a paltry 21 percent of the Jewish primary vote to nearly half in the runoff, helping him to defeat Michael Woo. In 2001, Hahn outdistanced Villaraigosa in the runoff, with a tough anti-crime message and harsh advertising.

Hahn’s Jewish backing more than tripled from the primary, from 16 percent to 54 percent, while Villaraigosa rose from 26 percent to only 46 percent. These final Jewish totals exactly mirrored the overall city result of the runoff election.

In both cases, the winning candidate led with law and order and made the opponent appear to be an untested too-liberal choice. Even though Jews are, among white voters, surprisingly liberal, local elections tend to bring out their concerns about crime and other issues that make them more of a center-left constituency.

The most likely candidates for the two runoff spots are Hahn, Villaraigosa and Hertzberg, although nothing can be said with certainty. Those who don’t make the runoff will also have an impact in whom, if anybody, they endorse in the runoff.

Hahn’s greatest re-election asset is likely to be public safety, and his popular police chief, William Bratton. He can make the case that he has turned the troubled LAPD around and held the city together against secession (which Jewish voters strongly opposed).

This will appeal to Jewish voters, as will his generally moderate style and his long experience in Los Angeles government. The scandals at city hall, on the other hand, will hurt him among reform-minded Jewish voters.

Villaraigosa has long cultivated the Jewish community, has a very strong base among progressive Jews and ran a strong race in 2001. His biggest challenge will be to erode Hahn’s edge on the public safety issue. However, his dynamic personality and the fact that as a councilman he has more experience at city hall than he did in 2001 make him a viable crossover candidate for Jewish voters.

Hertzberg is well-known and well liked among Jewish voters, especially in the Valley, where Hahn has been hurt by his campaign against secession. He has the least city hall experience of the three leading candidates, but has great experience in state government and in public policy. He can appeal to Jewish voters with his tremendous energy, his ideas and his reformist ideology, and if he makes the runoff, being Jewish won’t hurt.

It’s going to be a real horse race.


Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton. His new book, “The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles,” was just released by Princeton University Press.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Today’s unorthodox Rosh Hashanah suggestion: Do themorning services, then tune into KCET. PBS’s newsmagazine “Religion and EthicsNewsweekly” features a “Belief and Practice” segment on Jewish High Holidaysthis afternoon. Hear Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Shalomdiscuss “the spiritual transformation that occurs during this time of reflectionand repentance.” TV in the spirit of the holiday — embrace the irony. 1:30 p.m.KCET. www.kcet.com .

Sunday

Sept. 11 on Sept. 28? We don’t get it either, but we are intrigued. Today, LACMA hosts the world premiere of “Sara’s Diary, 9/11: A Dramatic Composition in Five Parts.” Touched by the stories of mothers-to-be who lost partners or husbands on Sept. 11, Leroy Aarons, was moved to write the piece that imagines one woman’s emotional journey. Soprano Shana Blake Hill lends vocals to the music written by Aarons and Glenn Paxton.6 p.m. Free. Bing Theatre, LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 473-8525.

Monday

Enjoy this end-of-September eve with some Jewish tunes.The first five CDs in the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music have just beenreleased. Highlights from Kurt Weill’s “The Eternal Road” offers somethingtheatrical; the Old Country meets the New World in “Great Songs of the AmericanYiddish Stage”; old schoolers and clarinet enthusiasts make out with”Klezmer-Inspired Concertos and Concerts”; more religious themes come packagedas “Sabbath Eve Service and Cantata” by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco; and theindecisive find their niche in the archive’s “Sampler Disc.” Milken CDs: www.naxos.com .

Tuesday

When a girl is 5-foot-10 3/8 at the age of 13, humor seems a necessary coping mechanism. Jennifer Rosen might not have grown an inch since then, but she spent a good portion of her adolescence fearing she would. Between worrying she’d wind up a “Guinness Book of World Records” entry and dealing with a loving but neurotic Jewish mother who didn’t exactly help quell those fears, it’s no surprise she’s got enough material for a whole show. Her funny one-woman piece, “Tall Girl,” plays tonight at the National Comedy Theatre — a workshop performance in preparation for a premiere at the Groundling Theatre next spring.8 p.m. (Tuesdays, through Oct. 26). $12. 733 N. Seward St., Hollywood. (323) 960-5621.

Wednesday

Two important documentaries from Moriah Films recentlyhit stores. “The Long Way Home” recounts the postwar struggles of Holocaustsurvivors and the creation of Israel. It won the Academy Award for BestDocumentary Feature in 1997. “In Search of Peace, Part One: 1948-1967″chronicles the first two decades of Israel’s existence from a globalperspective. Both DVDs feature archival images and production stills. $24.98. www.amazon.com

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Thursday

Today we promote “Hooters,” and thank American ORT and Camp Max Straus Foundation for giving us this unique opportunity. But cool those hot wings. This isn’t an endorsement of the sports bar known for girls in orange short-shorts. This is “Hooters,” a romantic comedy play by Ted Tally. Taking place over the course of a weekend in Cape Cod, the two-act follows the antics of a couple of teenage guys who try to pick up two young women. Tonight’s performance is a gala benefit for the aforementioned Jewish organizations.Oct. 2 and 3, 6:30 p.m. (reception), 8 p.m. (performance). Oct. 4, 8 p.m. (performance, reception follows). $10-$20. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., second floor, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 481-9929.

Friday

KCRW’s Warren Olney chats with former Secretary of State Madeline Albright this evening. Subjects of discussion will include her years in the Clinton White House, the road that led her there and, likely, her new book, “Madame Secretary: A Memoir.” Will the subject of her parents’ Jewish ancestry come up? Only one way to find out.7:30 p.m. $20. Scottish Rite Building, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 335-0917.

Reality Recall


The summer television season’s newest reality show, "The California Gubernatorial Race," kicked off last week with almost enough twists and turns to make regular viewers of reality TV pay attention to politics.

"It’s beginning to look like ‘Last Comic Standing,’" a Jewish community leader said. And that was before she knew that the astute and hilarious comedian D.L. Hughley had officially entered the race, upping the punch-line quota even more.

I could list the candidates here, but I only have 850 words, and in any case, the race has been all over the national media, proving the axiom that if you ignore a problem long enough — California state politics — it will eventually take over your life.

Jewish voters, as Raphael Sonnenshein writes in the first of his regular monthly columns for us (see page 9), will play an important part in this race, far out of proportion to their numbers in the state. Just shy of 3 percent of California’s population, we represent an estimated 5 percent of the state’s registered voters. In a race that analysts predict will hinge on a minority of votes, a minority’s voting bloc will be crucial.

Our political contributions will wield influence as well. Nationally, American Jews account for more than half of the large individual contributors to the Democratic Party, and between 20 to 30 percent of the contributors to the Republican Party in recent years. That is why supporters of Republican governors past and Democratic governor present could all argue that their man was responsive to Jewish concerns, however narrowly or broadly those are defined.

In fact, the mainstream moderate candidates have a bipartisan Jewish appeal. That goes for columnist Arianna Huffington, running as an independent.

"Jews may not have an opinion on her, but some of her biggest supporters happen to be Jews," said a close acquaintance of Huffington. It was telling that when Huffington’s called on supporters to attend her press conference at A Place Called Home in South Los Angeles, her e-mail included only two sets of driving directions: from the South Bay and from the Westside.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has long-standing connections to the activist Jewish community through the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His moderate politics and pro-entertainment industry stance will certainly appeal to moderate, pro-industry Jews. His challenge for educated voters: talk substance.

On the Democratic side, the buzz among L.A. Jewry’s largely Democratic voters is that many, if not a majority, would have swung happily toward (Republican) Richard Riordan. Sen. Dianne Feinstein would have come in a winner, too — she’d get more votes for president among L.A. Jews than any of the current crop of candidates.

But with Feinstein and Riordan out of the race, loyal Democratic Jews face the same hold-your-nose choice that all Democrats do. When The Jewish Journal published a cover story several weeks ago whose headline was, "Why Jews Won’t Dump Davis," we received hundreds of angry letters, e-mails and phone calls from Jews, many of them Democrats, who were eager to do just that. Someone from the Davis camp asked me why we didn’t publish any pro-Davis letters, and I told him the truth: We didn’t get any.

The thrust of the article (whose headline, mea culpa, was a tad misleading) was that as unhappy as Jews are with Davis’ performance as a governor, they found the recall and the people behind it even more off-putting. Reporter Marc Ballon found that even so, many Jews would vote for the recall if Riordan’s or Feinstein’s names appeared on the ballot.

An important lesson is that Jews are more centrist and moderate than just plain old liberal. A nonpartisan Ipsos/Cook Political Report Poll completed last March indicates American Jews remain strongly Democratic, with 64 percent of those surveyed describing themselves as Democrats and 26 percent describing themselves as Republicans. (While 46 percent of all Americans would definitely vote for Bush, for instance, only 25 percent of American Jews would do so.)

But large Jewish turnouts for Ronald Reagan and Riordan are evidence that, at voting time, Jews are more Prag-mocrat than Democrat. While the Republican Party is attracting increasing numbers of true believers among Jews, the Jews who remain Democrat don’t want to sacrifice their sense of independence and pragmatism to a party label. That’s why a Riordan scores well among Jews and why a Davis, a standard issue Dem, rates so poorly.

What about the loyal Democrats? "My strategy for Oct. 7?" said a ferociously liberal Jew about the date of the recall. "Hold on to the statehouse, hold on to the statehouse, hold on to the statehouse."

As sickened as they are by the recall, they don’t want to see Republicans, any Republican, use it to wrest control of the governor’s office. So this man also said he’d abandon Davis if a stronger candidate — Feinstein or Leon Panetta, for instance — came around.

At this point, in other words, winning is all that matters. And that’s a sentiment too many of his prior supporters believe Davis understands all too well.

The Man of Lonesome Sorrow


He awoke from the nightmare with a scream, as he had every night for almost 40 years. His heart
raced, his body drenched in sweat, his mind filled with vivid images of fiery destruction. He saw rivulets of blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem, the Holy Temple ground into ashes, the lifeless bodies of the priests scattered about the Temple Mount.

The dreams began after Jeremiah’s 17th birthday. At first, they were benign, inspiring.

Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; before you were born, I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet over the nations.

I replied, Ah, Lord God! I don’t know how to speak, I am still a boy.

And the Lord said to me: Do not say, "I am still a boy," but go where I send you, and speak whatever I command you.

See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms: To uproot and to pull down; to destroy and to overthrow; to build and to plant. (Jeremiah 1:5-10)

The nightmares came soon thereafter. As a child, he’d been taught that the land of Israel sensed and responded to the behavior of its inhabitants. "You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people." (Numbers 35:34) Suddenly, he could viscerally feel the revulsion of the land for its immoral populace. He was nauseated.

I brought you to this country of fertile land to enjoy its fruit and its bounty, but you came and defiled My land. You made My possession abhorrent. (Jeremiah 2:7).

Assaulted by the horrid visions each night, he came to loathe the petty evils and everyday cruelties accepted in polite society. The daily diet of deceit, betrayal and corruption — the common fare of all urban society — disgusted him. Everything which passed for normal, every commonplace practice of business, politics, religion, especially religion, appeared to him as a precursor to the coming catastrophe. He had no outlet for his rage but to proclaim the vision from the steps of the Holy Temple.

Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely and sacrifice to Baal and follow other gods who you have not experienced and then come and stand before Me in this house which bears My name and say, "We are safe?" Safe to do all these abhorrent things? (Jeremiah 7:9-12)

The more bizarre his behavior, the more he became an anathema to family, community and state. Shamed and castigated, he was incarcerated, if not as a dangerous criminal, then as a lunatic and a social nuisance. His lonely sadness soon descended into despair.

Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of conflict and strife with all the land! I have not lent, and I have not borrowed; yet, everyone curses me! (Jeremiah 15:10) Why did I ever issue from the womb; to see misery and woe; to spend all my days in shame! (Jeremiah 20:18)

He had failed. Jerusalem was destined for destruction and nothing could save her. The carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off. And I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and gladness, the song of the bridegroom and the bride. For the whole land shall fall to ruin. (Jeremiah 7:34)

Jeremiah awoke from the nightmare with a fearsome scream. But he knew that this day’s end would be different. The onslaught had begun. The Babylonian armies arrived and besieged the city. As he had seen thousands of times in his dreams, the walls crumbled, the city filled with terrified screams, the Holy Temple burned.

But the prophet Jeremiah, for the first time in 40 years, slept soundly. The horrible nightmares were gone; replaced by a new vision — of new beginning, of rebirth, of renewal. Divine love replaced divine revulsion. The prophet of national doom turned into a champion of spiritual resilience. With the same passion he had once hurled words of despair, he now pleaded with his people to hold fast to hope.

I will build you firmly again, oh maiden Israel! Again you shall take up your timbrels and go forth to the rhythm of the dancers.

For the day is coming when the watchmen shall proclaim on the heights of Ephraim: Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God!

Thus says the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping; your eyes from shedding tears. There is hope for your future — declares the Lord." Your children shall return to their country. (Jeremiah 31:4-6, 16-17)

In-Your-Face Crusader


For years, a photograph of Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) was pinned to a wall in a basement office of the Capitol Police.

Much like a "wanted" poster, the photograph was a warning to Capitol security officers: Thick braids and all, learn this woman’s face. More important, know that she is, indeed, a member of Congress. McKinney is one of the few members who brazenly refuses to wear her member’s pin, and instead lets it dangle on a chain where security can barely spot it.

Known for her combative nature, McKinney has never been mistaken for a shy woman, though members who know her well say her outward controversial persona hides an inner loneliness. Her pro-Palestinian stance has prompted some Jews in her district to favor a redistricting plan that moved many of them into the district of another black Georgian, Rep. John Lewis (D).

Even though McKinney angered Lewis by choosing Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for House whip over him, he had no formal reaction to what many of the Jewish voters wanted, as their neighboring districts prompted him to err on the side of political caution. "There’s no doubt that she has alienated the Jewish community," said state Rep. Doug Teper (D-Ga.), a Jewish lawmaker who threatened to withhold his vote for the redistricting map last year unless relief was found for Jews in his district. "She has a way of using race as a political tactic. If you don’t agree with her, she sometimes calls you a racist."

But Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) says McKinney may be feeling "black pressure" to maintain a pro-Palestinian stance.

"I see more and more blacks identifying with Arabs and Muslims than I do with Jews," Hilliard said. "They see Arabs being treated differently from other people. They identify with them on their history of discrimination."

When asked if Jews haven’t been treated similarly, Hilliard explained, "But you don’t see it now, particularly when you see Arabs profiled like we are."

Anything but politically cautious, McKinney recently scalded herself in hot water that could ultimately land her in trouble with the Justice Department for allegedly violating state and federal election law.

In December, she and her father, state Rep. Billy McKinney (D), came before the Georgia State Elections Board. The board — in a vote of 4-0 — found probable cause that the McKinneys violated state elections law by going to a precinct on election night 2000 and attempting to interfere with the duties of poll officers. They also found that the McKinneys campaigned within the 150-foot limit of a polling venue. An administrative law judge is expected to address the matter early this year at a hearing in which the McKinneys will be required to testify under oath. McKinney and her dad could face fines of up to $5,000 per violation for six to 10 violations. The case could wind up at the Justice Department, which would review the case as a violation of federal election law.

"Oh, I think Cynthia McKinney is a disgrace," said Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a 25-year-old Atlanta-based conservative public interest law firm that calls itself "nonpartisan," but works closely with former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. "The word in the legal community is it’s a slam dunk against the McKinneys."

But McKinney’s lawyer, J.M. Raffauf, insists his client will be "completely vindicated" by the time it’s over.

"No, she didn’t break any laws in the cases," said Raffauf from his office in Decatur, Ga., on Monday. "It’s purely political."

Raffauf blames three white Republican officials who were at the precinct that night with "interfering with the black people’s right to vote" and for the allegations raised against his client. They include DeKalb County Republican Party Chairman Jill Chambers, who filed the charges against the McKinneys to the State Board of Elections, poll volunteer Adrienne Susong and DeKalb County Election Board member Nancy Quan Sellers.

Raffauf’s account of the evening: Approximately 500 people were standing in line to vote at Stoneview Elementary School. The time was 7 p.m. when voters began being turned away. Voters called McKinney’s headquarters. She came over to find out why they didn’t have enough machines to handle the voters.

"The Republicans got there and tried to claim all these people were illegally in line, and when that didn’t stick, they went after Cynthia McKinney," Raffauf said. "She did take a bullhorn over there to urge people to stay and have their vote counted, and she did not exhort anyone to vote for her."

McKinney failed to return several phone calls asking for comment.

Few are surprised she isn’t honoring media requests.

"She’s someone who thumbs her nose at the establishment," said Chuck Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "My understanding is that the press can’t get ahold of her."

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who served with McKinney in the state Legislature, said she is calculated.

"Listen, she is not dumb," Kingston said. "She is a savvy politician … is a little more Clintonesque, and knows who will vote for her and who won’t, and will offend those who won’t to ingratiate herself with those that will."

Kingston explained, "I think she kind of wakes up in the morning and says, ‘You have to be tough.’"

Nonetheless, the Southeastern Law Foundation’s Kent called McKinney’s tactics the "in-your-face" brand of politics she and her father have utilized for years. He wasn’t surprised to learn that McKinney is a guest columnist for "The Final Call," a Web site published by Louis Farrakhan which serves as the official communications organ of the Nation of Islam. He said McKinney has long been aligned with the Black Muslim organization.

"She has played footsy with those radicals for years," Kent remarked.

Dr. Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, said the charges against McKinney aren’t likely to damage her.

"She’s very important in terms of producing statewide Democratic votes," said Black. "She’s one of the main reasons [Roy] Barnes (D) is governor of the state. He certainly has an interest in not criticizing her."

One lawmaker who requested anonymity spoke of McKinney’s loneliness, describing her as someone alienated from both Republicans and Democrats in state politics. "I feel really sorry for her," the lawmaker said. "She lives from spitting contest to spitting contest. Under that bravado is a lost little girl."

With bulging eyes, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) explained, "She’s just sort of her own person."

In 1996, when McKinney’s Republican opponent was John Mitnick, who is Jewish, McKinney’s father accused him of being a "racist Jew." McKinney asked her father to apologize, and he withdrew from her campaign. She won the race with 58 percent of the vote.

Thompson noted that McKinney’s controversial brand of politics plays well in a safe district that has voted her back to Congress for five consecutive terms, and is more than 50 percent African American. "She sees it as something positive," he said. "I’m not clear on how it would play out in other places."

In the latest example of her aggressive politics, she criticized ex-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for turning down a $10 million donation from a Saudi prince for terrorist victims. She pleaded with the prince to instead give her constituents the money that Giuliani refused.

Hilliard explained that McKinney’s boldness is exactly why her constituents adore her. "I wish he had given it to her," he said of the prince. "The only thing wrong with it was that he didn’t give it to her."

Hilliard called McKinney "easy" to deal with.

He added, "You’re going to find she’s an easy person to talk to."

Reprinted with permission from Featurewell.com.

Better Than a Job


"Face time" finally got to Carol Cohen.

The 24-year-old business systems analyst is tired of corporate politics that value appearances over quality work. "Some guys come in at 7 a.m. and think that makes them star employees," she says, "They’ll stay until 7 p.m., but still do not manage to complete two hours of work."

Disillusioned with the working world, Cohen is going back to school for a master’s degree, and plans to eventually earn her Ph.D. She would have gone back sooner, but at application time last year she was working for a San Francisco start-up Internet firm, which recently went bust. "It was a better education than school," she says. "I can’t say that about a big corporate job. So I’m going back."

Cohen is just one of many students returning to grad school. Applications to graduate degree programs have increased at UCLA by 1,000-2,000 per year for the past four years, according to Dr. Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, dean of UCLA’s Graduate Division, who sees similar increases at schools across the nation. Both "academic" programs like English and history, and "professional" programs like law and business have increased in popularity, even during the economic boom-times of the past decade.

That’s because the job market is far from the only factor in the decision to pursue an advanced degree. "I always knew I was going to go back eventually, and I’ve been kind of bored at work," says Kendra Knudtzon, 23, a computer-science worker at El Segundo-based Aerospace Corp. Knudtzon never planned to join the workforce so soon. She had planned to pursue studies in educational technology right after college. But when she did not get into her first choice MIT, "I figured I’d work for a while. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Working in aerospace has never been one of my dreams, but I’m learning things here that will hopefully help me."

Though experience in the workforce may help some prepare for higher-level studies, it makes little difference to overall success in academic programs, according to Mitchell-Kernan. She adds that except for certain professional programs, students with work experience fare about the same as those who come straight out of undergraduate studies. The most significant correlate to successfully completing a higher degree, according to Mitchell-Kernan, "is adequate financial support."

A lack of financial support — in the form of a paycheck — may also push some into graduate school. Greg Laran, 27, had considered going to law school during his three years of working as a lawyer’s assistant in a Century City firm. "But I got used to the paycheck, I guess, and settled into my life." Laran settled in until this January, when he learned that his firm would soon be moving to smaller offices, leaving many staffers — including him — behind.

"I’m lucky, really, because the firm gave me almost three months’ notice. Some of the dot-commers I know … they just showed up one day to no jobs," says Laran, who used his time wisely and got accepted to his first-choice law school. "I’m not sure if I really want to practice law, but I don’t think the degree can hurt," Laran says. Besides, he thinks of the three years of school as "hiding from the economy for a while."

Whatever their situation, young adults returning to school share a desire to return to work, eventually, with more options for more rewarding careers. "Ultimately, I want to be able to dictate the terms of my future employment," says business student Cohen, "I want to get paid for the work I do, not the time I put in. Also, I really enjoy learning, and I think a higher degree will afford me a lot of opportunities."