Members of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Rautenberg New Leaders Project assemble in Sacramento on May 9. Photo by Aubrey Farkas

Jewish lobbying group takes message to Sacramento

An array of Jewish organizations has joined forces to tell lawmakers in Sacramento to stand up for immigrants, protect houses of faith and reduce child poverty.

The Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC) is the largest single-state coalition of Jewish organizations in the nation, comprising local Jewish federations, Jewish community relations committees and councils, and other Jewish community advocacy groups such as Hadassah, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Family Service.

Every year, its members converge at the Capitol to lobby state senators, assemblymembers and legislative staff on behalf of issues that its member organizations deem important to the Jewish community. This year’s message was carried on May 9.

“Lawmakers want to hear from their constituents, not just from a lobbyist,” said Julie Zeisler, executive director of JPAC.

“They want to know that there’s actual community organizing going on that will impact them and their electability. They also need to know that the community really cares about these issues.”

In past years, JPAC members lobbied for issues of particular interest to Jews, such as support for Israel, divestment from Iran and opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. They have also focused on universal issues such as renters’ rights, mental health services, gun control, human trafficking, employment retaliation and school bullying.

“We do a very detailed ranking system, because there are many issues that the Jewish community cares about,” Zeisler said. JPAC’s organizations then work to reach a consensus on the issues of greatest importance to their members.

Zeisler is a recent graduate of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Rautenberg New Leaders Program. The program, which includes professionals working in government, law and entertainment, took part in JPAC this year. (Full disclosure: I am a current participant in the program and was invited to attend the event but did not take an active role in the lobbying meetings.)

This year, JPAC advocated for AB 1520, a bill that commits the Legislature to a goal of reducing child poverty in California by 50 percent over 20 years. It would achieve this through a designated task force and additional resources for social safety net programs, such as child care, housing subsidies and cash assistance.

JPAC also asked members to support the 16-member California Legislative Jewish Caucus’ request for $2 million for security grants for nonprofit centers, following a wave of threats against centers dedicated to Jewish, Muslim, LGBT, immigrant and other groups. The money could be spent on reinforced doors and gates, alarm systems, security trainings and other expenses.

The third focus of this year’s advocacy day was a package of seven bills related to immigration. These bills would counteract recent measures by President Donald Trump’s administration to ramp up deportation of undocumented immigrants and restrict citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

The immigration bills would accomplish a number of things, including:

• Train public defenders on immigration rights.

• Prohibit landlords from threatening to report tenants to immigration authorities.

• Restrict Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from freely entering a public school.

• Prevent the creation of a Muslim registry (or one for any religious, ethnic or national group).

• Prohibit state and local law enforcement from engaging in immigration enforcement.

While JPAC holds an advocacy day once a year, it also employs a lobbyist, Cliff Berg, to meet with lawmakers year round. Berg has represented JPAC for nearly 20 years and is seeing an increase in civic engagement.

“The Trump administration has served as a lightning rod for galvanizing Californians of all faiths and ethnicities to get more engaged in the political process and stand up for California values,” Berg said. “We are not a partisan organization, but I think our member organizations reflect the concerns and policy priorities of the majority of Californians.”

This year, JPAC invited Jewish student leaders from UCLA and Cal State Northridge to attend its advocacy day. As college campuses have become ground zero for debates about Israel and the BDS movement, “this is really important for our students’ leadership development, and it’s a great personal growth and learning opportunity for our students,” said Amir Kashfi, the incoming president of UCLA’s student Israel advocacy organization.

Before meeting with lawmakers, JPAC attendees listened to a series of speakers at a hotel near the Capitol address concerns about health care and immigration.

They also heard from two keynote speakers. The first, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, encouraged residents of the state to take their issues to the Statehouse and their elected leaders. He said that when he’s asked what California can do to combat Trump’s policies, it comes down to “legislation, litigation and organization.”

The second, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a son of working-class Mexican immigrants, reminded the crowd that “there wasn’t a group that came to the U.S. that didn’t get vilified, that wasn’t ostracized, at first.”

Becerra has filed several lawsuits against the federal government on environmental issues, such as defending the Clean Power Plan and energy efficiency standards, while others targeted immigration actions, including the threat to withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities” and states that refuse to work with federal immigration agents.

“I’m talking to a crowd that understands the scourge of having labels applied to them,” Becerra told the audience.

Fully armed with data about health care and immigration, the JPAC crowd divided into small groups to meet with state lawmakers and their staffs.

But even if no decisions were reversed and no lawmaker was persuaded to change a vote, participants all seemed to agree that the effort to lobby lawmakers on behalf of the Jewish community is worth it.

“They are so excited to meet with us. They want to talk to us, they want to hear what we have to say,” said Stacey Dorenfeld of Hadassah Southern California. “The fact that we care makes them want to care.”

In Christian version of AIPAC, CUFI draws 5,600 to Washington for pro-Israel lobbying

Seven years on, many Jews still have lingering questions about the addition to the pro-Israel lobbying scene of Christians United for Israel, the project of evangelical leader Rev. John Hagee.

Hagee believes he has a biblical mandate to press on and is undeterred.

“As Isaiah said, ‘For Zion’s sake we will not hold our peace and for Jerusalem’s sake we will not rest,’” Hagee told more than 5,600 delegates at the opening plenary Monday of the CUFI Washington Summit 2012.

The summit stands as something of a Christian version of the annual Washington policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Like the AIPAC conference, the CUFI summit includes a day of lobbying and here, too, the Israeli prime minister is a guest speaker – albeit via satellite.

“We will not be intimated by any person, by any groups of people when Israel is on the line. We are the front line of defense for Israel in the United States of America,” Hagee said to thunderous applause and a few shofar blasts. “The covenant that God made with Abraham is eternal and it cannot be repealed by the president of the United States, by the president of the United Nations.”

Hagee created CUFI in early 2006 after calling 400 fellow pastors to meet him in San Antonio “to form a national organization that could give national unity on behalf of Israel.”

Today, CUFI claims more than 1.1 million members, 754,000 Facebook fans and 96 college campus chapters. It has held events around the country and in Canada, Kenya, Israel and Scotland, according to Hagee.

About one in five Americans – some 60 million people—consider themselves evangelicals, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. A 2005 Pew study found that 41 percent of evangelicals favor Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict versus 13 percent favoring Palestinians (20 percent said they didn’t know; 18 percent said neither, and 8 percent favored both).

Yet many Jews view CUFI’s rank and file, who are overwhelmingly but not exclusively evangelical, with suspicion. Only 21 percent of American Jews surveyed earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute said they view the “Christian right” – often a synonym for evangelicals – favorably. By contrast, 41 percent view Muslims favorably.

The Jewish views on evangelicals come in large part from long-standing concerns over proselytizing and end-time theologies that foresee that Jews who do not accept Jesus as their savior will be killed.

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, said Jews should embrace evangelical support even if they don’t embrace their theology.

“It’s important for the Jewish community to welcome support for the State of Israel but not necessarily have to agree on every aspect of that support,” Marans told JTA.

Two years ago, the AJC brought together Gary Bauer – a prominent CUFI executive board member—Marans and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly to talk about evangelical support for Israel.

For his part, Hagee has said repeatedly in interviews that proselytizing is unacceptable for CUFI members.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who addressed the CUFI delegates during a session on the importance of Christian Zionism, told JTA that he has personally spoken with Hagee about the matter and believes him.

Both Christians and Jews believe they are living out God’s mandate and that their understanding of the messiah is correct, said Riskin, an Orthodox rabbi in the West Bank community of Efrat and founder of the Israel-based Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation. “They have the right to believe that because I believe at the end of days all of the Christians will convert to Judaism,” he said.

“Christian Zionism is a tremendously important because now we’re in the midst of a religious war,” Riskin said. “There are 1 billion-plus Muslims and there are 2 billion-plus Christians. For us, Christian friendship is critical. ”

Among the Jewish presenters at the conference were Sen. Joe Lieberman (I.-Conn.); former George W. Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer; Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

For participants at the CUFI convention, Jews were secondary; the focus was on Israel.

During a break between sessions on Monday, a choir stood in the center of the large hallway and harmonized songs praising God for his protection of Israel. Nearby, shoppers perused items for sale in the CUFI store, including white onesies for babies with the words “Defend America; vote Israel,” stainless steel rings with the Hebrew Shma prayer and T-shirts with this quote from Isaiah: “When the enemy comes in like a flood, the spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him.”

Elsewhere in the building, some of the children ages 5 to 12 who had come with the evangelical delegates were busy at Camp CUFI, where activities included Israeli dancing, “pray for Israel” sessions and an Israeli movie and entertainment.

Hagee repeatedly has stressed in interviews that CUFI will not oppose decisions of the Israeli government in peace talks, including if it agrees to relinquish portions of the West Bank.
However, the sentiments of many CUFI followers seemed clear.

“The entire territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean” is God’s “gift to the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, who three decades ago helped Hagee organize his first Christian Salute to Israel event, to strong applause. “It is not stolen land. It is the eternal heritage of the Jewish people.”

Hagee told the crowd, “The Bible is a Zionist text beginning with the fact that God created the world and as the owner of the world he entered into a contract with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants forever and gave them the land. Israel does not occupy the land, they own the land!”

The three-day summit will conclude Wednesday with lobbying of participants’ congressional representatives. The delegates will focus on stopping Iran’s nuclear quest, U.S.-Israeli security cooperation, U.S. security aid for Israel and stopping Palestinian incitement.

Wanted: Homes for Jewish Foster Children

It was two years ago that Yocheved Rosenthal of Hancock Park heard that a family of young Orthodox children had been placed in a non-Jewish, Spanish-speaking foster home.

The children, who had been placed with the family because the situation in their own home was abusive, were overwhelmed by their foster family’s alien customs. The children did not speak the language, and they could not eat the non-kosher food.

“Everything was totally unfamiliar, and they were terrified,” said Rosenthal, a mother of five and a licensed foster parent, who launched into action upon hearing of the placement. “We did everything to get those children out.”

Rosenthal’s efforts included lobbying the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), local politicians and even then-Gov. Gray Davis until the children were placed with a Jewish family.

If that had been a one-time occurrence, it would have been an interesting, albeit disturbing, anecdote about a kink in the child-welfare system. But Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) has a litany of similar tales that underscore the same theme: There are not enough foster homes in the Jewish community to provide short- or long-term care for abused or neglected Jewish children. Children in need of placement are apt to get lost in the DCFS bureaucracy and placed with unsuitable families.

But the problem is not endemic to the Jewish community. Los Angeles County currently has 40,000 children in its foster-care system and is always looking for quality homes to serve them. At the national level, 542,000 children are in foster care, with 126,000 eligible for adoption.

While some foster children are fortunate — they are placed with families who love and nurture them — others are shuttled from foster home to foster home.

The Jewish community has recently taken efforts to both alleviate the communal shortage of foster homes and reform the state and national foster-care systems.

The Jewish Community Foundation recently gave a $40,000 grant to FosterHope, a new collaboration of JFS, Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Childshare and DCFS to educate the community about foster care and recruit more Jewish foster families.

At the state level, individuals such as Daphna Ziman and Dr. Pejman Salimpour are working to improve the system. Salimpour’s Nexcare Collaborative provides a free referral service so that foster children and others can have unfettered access to services that will provide them with a safe, nurturing and healthy environment. Ziman’s organization, Children Uniting Nations (CUN), of which she is the founder and chair, is working to place every foster child with a family or give them a mentor who will be a constant, stable presence in their life.

Ziman, a licensed foster parent, is also using her extensive political contacts to encourage legislative reform on a national level to improve matters for foster children and their caregivers. In a related matter, President Bush on Dec. 2 signed the Adoption Promotion Act of 2003, which provides incentives to people seeking to adopt children older than 9 years old.

Many people say that the problem of foster care is not only the children’s problems — abuse, neglect, lack of stability or love — but society’s as well.

“Foster care is a community issue,” said Stuart Riskin from the Office of Public Affairs at DCFS. “Everybody should be aware of the situation, and everyone should be willing to participate. Without community support for all children, society will suffer along with the children.”

Statistics show that without proper parenting, these children are likely to end up uneducated, unemployed, homeless, or worse.

“We have 11,000 children 18 years old and over, and they sleep on the streets of L.A. every single night, and 70 percent of those are ex-foster kids,” Ziman said. “They either turn to the drug economy or they commit crimes, and they end up in prison.”

“Because they have been institutionalized for so long, it is more comfortable for them to be institutionalized again,” she added. “We have literally been breeding criminals in the [current] foster-care system.”

It is difficult to determine how many Jewish children in Los Angeles County need foster care and how many licensed Jewish homes exist to serve them. Up until a few months ago, the DCFS did not ask children about their religion. Unless parents or the child volunteered the information and insisted that it be used in their placement, the children were put wherever there was space.

After intense JFS lobbying, DCFS case workers are now encouraged to ask about religion when placing a child in foster care, but they are not required to do so. As a result, there are no solid numbers available on how many Jewish children go through the system.

FosterHope estimates that as many as 20,000 Jewish women and children in Los Angeles suffer some form of physical abuse, and even more suffer from sexual or emotional abuse, all of which are common precursors to placing children in foster care.

As for the licensed Jewish foster homes, Vista Del Mar and JFS together have less than 10 registered. However, it is possible that there are other Jewish foster families registered with other non-Jewish child welfare agencies. The lack of Jewish foster homes means that even if a child is identified as Jewish, it is unlikely that there will be a licensed Jewish home available to provide care.

In the past four months, Laurie Tragen-Boykoff, a JFS child advocacy coordinator and FosterHope coordinator, received two calls requesting Jewish placement for children, but there were no Jewish homes available.

“God knows we need Jewish homes,” Riskin said. “When it comes to Jewish homes, or Orthodox homes, we basically have nothing. If the community doesn’t put their hand out to meet us, we can’t meet the needs of the children.”

Jewish children placed in non-Jewish homes can experience any number of traumas due to the unfamiliar environment. In one case, a well-meaning Christian fundamentalist family took their Jewish charges to a Jews for Jesus religious service. In another case, a teenager told her non-Jewish foster family that she wanted to keep kosher, but they told her that it would not be possible.

In the past nine months, the DCFS started working less to place children in foster care and instead keep them in their original homes and provide supportive services to the families.

“Research has shown that the more families we keep intact and provide stronger and more dynamic upfront services, the greater the likelihood that the family would be preserved,” said Riskin. “But we will always need foster care, because we will always need to remove children from problematic situations.”

The need for foster care in the community will never disappear.

“If there is just one child and we don’t have a home for that child, to me that is [a] community crisis,” said Sally Webber, a JFS child advocacy coordinator.

Webber is one of the founders of the FosterHope program, an initiative to publicize the need for foster families in the Jewish community and provide information about how to become a licensed foster parent. FosterHope will work through the synagogues.

The organization will provide rabbis with materials for sermons on foster care and set up a number of information and recruiting sessions at synagogues. Its goal is to recruit 10 new Jewish foster families.

The process of becoming a licensed foster parent is a lengthy and complicated one. California law requires applicants to complete 30 hours of training and have a fingerprint and child-abuse clearance for anyone 18 years or older living in the house and for all prospective babysitters.

Additionally, the home cannot have more than two children sharing a bedroom or more than six children living there. Foster families are also required to lock up all medications, detergents, cleaning solutions and kitchen knives.

But even once a home is licensed and foster children placed in it, the situation is rarely smooth.

“Some people take in foster children, and they think, ‘This is a piece of cake,’ but the children come with problems, and they don’t come with instruction books,” said Rosenthal, who over the years has had six foster children live with her family.

“I had the initial impression that if you take in a child who was disadvantaged and you love them and include them in your family, they would be grateful and excited, but that is not true at all,” she explained. “If the parents are living, no matter how much the children have been neglected and abused, they still long to be with their own parents.”

“Children get taken into the first foster home, and they are so traumatized that they don’t behave perfectly,” said Ziman, who eventually adopted her foster daughter. “But the foster parents want the child to not be a bother, so they send them out and the child becomes a double reject.”

“They move from school to school, they never know what is going on, and they always feel like a failure, and they have huge self-esteem problems,” she continued. “Because of their lack of self-esteem, they tend to not believe that they are capable of anything.”

Ziman is lobbying Congress for support on the Foster Care Mentoring Act of 2003, which will be voted on in January. The bill proposes to forgive student loans to anybody who acts as a mentor to foster children.

“Research shows that caring adults can make a difference in children’s lives,” states the text of the bill. “Forty-five percent of mentored teens are less likely to use drugs. Fifty-nine percent of mentored teens have better academic performance. Seventy-three percent of mentored teens achieve higher goals, generally.”

In order to find the mentors, the bill proposes to establish the “Day of the Child” — a CUN-sponsored mentor recruitment day — in every state.

Ziman’s other efforts on behalf of foster children include championing proposed legislation to pay caregivers bonuses commensurate with the progress of the child. For example, the caregiver would receive larger payments for such things as taking their child to therapy, buying them new shoes or ensuring regular dental visits.

On the state level, Ziman worked on a law passed in September to make the state responsible for the safety of the child. The impetus for it was a case known as “Terrell R” in which a foster parent sodomized a 10-year-old boy in his care. Linda Wallace Pate of the law firm Pate and Pate filed suit against the state for neglect and lost, because the Court of Appeal ruled that the county was immune from liability.

While the system is imperfect and needs constant refining, when it works, it can save lives.

Lee Wallach, 40, a managing partner at Rocket Reporting Network and chairman of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, was a foster child. Thirty-seven years ago, Vista Del Mar found a Jewish family, the Silberscheins, for Wallach to live with after his natural parents became too sick to care for him.

“I was put into foster care when I was 3,” he said. “I knew that these were new people, and it was a little more uncomfortable for me, because all of a sudden, I was dumped into a house with people I didn’t know. But I was quite lucky, because I was immediately put into the family that became my parents, and they really gave me amazing care.”

The county placed Wallach’s sister with a non-Jewish family, and as a result, she not only had an unstable upbringing, going from foster home to foster home, but, according to Wallach, she also lost her Jewish identity.

“My sister bounced around a lot,” he said. “She was in a lot of different homes. It was surreal when we met [as adults]. She didn’t know from Jews. She didn’t even know what a Jew was.”

Wallach is so grateful for the life that his foster care gave him that he will serve as a spokesman for FosterHope.

“Vista Del Mar gave this little boy a mom and dad,” he said. “I’m the perfect example of how the foster-care system and the Jewish community system can reach in and make a significant difference.”

The first FosterHope presentation will take place on Feb. 9, from 7-9 p.m., at Congregation Or Ami, 26115 Mureau Road, Calabasas.

For more information on FosterHope or to set up a FosterHope presentation at a synagogue, call Laurie Tragen-Boykoff at (818) 789-7938.

For more information on Children Uniting Nations, log
onto .

Tough Choices for Hate Law Boosters

For Jewish leaders, lobbying sometimes involves tough choices between winning and doing the right thing. That dynamic is very much in play this week as many Jewish groups, with a boost from President Bill Clinton, fight desperately to save a new hate crimes law that has become cannon fodder in the nation’s culture wars.

The bill has been blocked by Republicans because of provisions that are not central to the Jewish groups that support it. But Jewish leaders haven’t even considered changing the bill to advance the parts that would most directly benefit the Jewish community. To do so, they believe, might produce short-term gains but at a terrible long-term cost. And to do so, many believe, wouldn’t be right.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act has several components.

The first is one Jewish groups have long advocated. It would expand on earlier legislation and make it easier for federal authorities to investigate and prosecute local cases when bias is suspected as the cause of violence.

The rationale isn’t to create special categories of protected citizens, but to make up for obvious inequities in the way laws are enforced in different areas of the country.

The second component expands existing hate crimes laws by adding crimes based on the victim’s gender, sexual preference and disability to the categories covered by earlier laws — race, ethnicity and religion.

It is this part of the legislation that has caused such an agonizing dilemma for many Jewish leaders.

From the outset, they supported this expansion because a hate crimes measure that does not seek to protect all those most likely to be victims is a sham.

But the inclusion of gays and lesbians, predictably, incensed Christian right forces and their friends in Congress. Suddenly, the measure was redefined by politicians, preachers and an impressionable media as a gay rights law, written to provide “special” protections for gays and lesbians.

Those who opposed the measure for other reasons, including their opposition to anything that expands federal powers at the expense of the states, found this a convenient hook on which to hang their political hats.

Gay rights groups, understandably, focused on the gender preference aspects of the bill; their militant press releases and public statements became ammunition for opponents.

Almost lost was the idea that this law is meant to protect all minorities who have been subjected to hate violence and victimized again by halfhearted local prosecution.

Lost, too, was the fact that it was crafted in large part by the Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights all forms of racism and bigotry, but whose first commitment has always been to battle anti-Semitism.

Advocates point out that sexual preference is only the third most common basis for hate crimes, behind crimes based on race and religion. Calling it a “gay rights” measure, they say, is a straw man set up by those who oppose all hate crimes laws — or those who seek favor with conservative voters by slamming gays and lesbians.

Because of that opposition, the measure was recently stripped from the Commerce, State and Justice appropriations bill. This week, Jewish activists were working frantically to get it reinserted. President Bill Clinton said his recent veto of the spending bill was due, in part, to the removal of hate crimes language; Jewish activists are hoping it could be revived as part of a budget agreement.

Still, this week’s lobbying represented a longshot rescue effort.

So what are Jewish leaders to do? Most continue to view the new hate crimes bill an essential element in their effort to protect Jews and other minorities, but they also see the handwriting on the wall: the inclusion of gays and lesbians makes the measure highly vulnerable, especially in this Congress.

Despite that reality, Jewish groups seem disinclined to seek changes that would scale back or eliminate the inclusion of gays and lesbians under the bill.

“It might be politically pragmatic, but it would be impossible to justify in the face of what we have always said is the compelling reason for this law — the existence of hate crimes, and disparities in the way they are treated,” said one Jewish activist who has been involved in the fight. “Changing the sexual preference language would be a clear signal that Congress believes some kinds of hate crimes are more okay than others.”

Changing the legislation would blow apart a broad hate crimes coalition that has been responsible for the slow but steady accretion of new laws that Jewish groups say are clearly benefiting the Jewish community, as well as other minority groups.

And giving in to the political pressure would boost politicians, who come perilously close to endorsing outright bigotry and even violence when they play to conservative voters, by branding every initiative that would benefit gays and lesbians as beyond the political pale.

The Jewish community is not monolithic in supporting gay rights; Orthodox organizations, for example, refused to take a position on the current legislation because of the inclusion of gays and lesbians.

But those groups have avoided the overt gay bashing that continues to be heard on Capitol Hill — bigotry tidied up and legitimized by the full force of Congress, dangerous to homosexuals today and possible other minority groups tomorrow.