Merged social justice groups become Bend the Arc


Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice is the new name for the organization that was born from the merger of Jewish Funds for Justice and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

The new name was announced Monday. The two Jewish social justice organizations had merged last year.

“Bend the Arc is a non-traditional name for a non-traditional organization,” said Alan van Capelle, the organization’s chief executive officer. “The phrase that has inspired many, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was first used by Theodore Parker, an abolitionist minister speaking out against the injustice of American slavery. Bend the Arc is a call to action, to fight the injustices and inequalities of our time.”

The group is scheduled to meet with Obama administration officials at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the American Jewish social justice agenda and to hold a seder highlighting the social justice tradition of the Jewish community with members of the administration.

PJA and JFSJ head Elissa Barrett moves to Bet Tzedek


Elissa Barrett is leaving Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice (PJA and JFSJ) to become vice president and general counsel of Bet Tzedek.

It was difficult decision to depart from PJA and JFSJ, she said, where she served as chief of regional operations. But, “I believe the law is a crucial tool for social change work, and I’m excited to bring that perspective to my work at Bet Tzedek,” Barrett said. Prior to the 2011 merger between PJA and JFSJ, Barrett served as PJA’s executive director.

Bet Tzedek provides free legal services to Jews and non-Jews in Los Angeles. PJA and JFSJ’s mission is working for social justice.

During her tenure at PJA and JFSJ, Barrett led campaigns addressing hunger, domestic workers’ wages and immigrant rights. It was “wild, exciting and wonderful,” she said.

This will be Barrett’s second position with Bet Tzedek, where she previously served as Bet Tzedek’s pro-bono director.

“We’re delighted to welcome Elissa back to the Bet Tzedek family,” Sandor Samuels, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, said. Barrett will be his “number-two person,” he said.

Barrett replaces Michelle Williams Court in the position of vice president and general counsel. Last year, Governor Brown appointed Court to become a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge.

Barrett starts at Bet Tzedek on March 12. PJA and JFSJ will likely do an external search for her replacement, she said.

Social justice groups set to merge


Two Jewish social justice organizations—The Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice—have decided to merge.

The groups will announce the merger officially May 26 at a fundraising gala, along with details about what the move will mean to each organization. The merger will take place later this year.

Leaders of both organizations say the move is a strategic outgrowth of their shared goals and highlights their belief that “achieving significant, sustained change requires close partnerships.”

“By joining together, JFSJ and PJA will build on the significant strengths and successes of our existing organizations,” Simon Greer, JFSJ’s president and CEO, told JTA. ”We will actively engage more Jews in expanding opportunity and securing basic rights as an expression of core Jewish values.”

Jewish Funds for Justice, formed in 2006 through a merger of The Shefa Fund and Jewish Fund for Justice, has contributed financially to strengthening low-income communities and promoting social change since the 1980s.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance, founded in 1999, focuses on social justice and Jewish-Muslim dialogue in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.

Jewish groups work to fight ‘food deserts’


From LATimes.com:

Jewish groups work to fight ‘food deserts’
Alliances organize a tour of areas where grocers are scarce, and members consider what they can do to help. ‘Food, liberation and sustenance are closely intertwined in Judaism,’ organizer says.

Read the full story at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-food-desert22-2010mar22,0,6551341.story?track=rss.

PJA head Sokatch leaving to helm S.F. federation


Daniel Sokatch, leader of one of Los Angeles’ most high-profile Jewish organizations, has been named CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties (JCF). He will start at the JCF on July 15.

Sokatch, 40, is the founding executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Los Angeles-based organization founded in 1999 with a commitment to educating, advocating and organizing on issues of peace, equality, diversity and justice. Sokatch has helped grow the organization from 250 members to more than 4,000 people today, with a million-dollar budget, a dozen staff members and offices in Los Angeles and, since 2005, San Francisco.

It was partly PJA’s work in the Bay Area that attracted the JCF to Sokatch.

“I wasn’t looking to leave PJA. I have loved my job every day,” he said.

When the Federation first approached him, Sokatch said, he just thought “it was flattering,” but the more he spoke with leaders there he realized the two organizations — JCF and PJA — had similar shared similar goals and perpsectives. “The values of the San Francisco Jewish community are fairly progressive,” Sokatch said.

Sokatch acknowledged that there is a difference between running a “consensus-based” organization rather than an “advocacy and activist” organization. But, he said, “I am who I am and they know exactly who I am.”

JCF has not had a steady CEO in almost five years. The organization interviewed some 50 candidates for the position in hopes of finding a dynamic CEO to increase the federation’s vibrancy and relevancy to Bay Area Jewish life and connect with younger donors and community activists.

“Daniel combines energy and charisma with intelligence, Jewish wisdom and a compelling vision for the future of the Jewish community,” JCF President John Pritzker said.

Sokatch, who will relocate to the Bay Area this summer with his wife Dana and their two children, will helm an organization with a staff of 105 and four satellite offices in the Bay Area and Israel.

JCF serves a Jewish population that numbered at least 228,000 people in 2004, according to the 2004 Jewish Community Foundation Study. The study also claims that the Bay Area is the third largest Jewish metropolis behind New York and Los Angeles. The study also found that half the married couples in the Bay Area include a non-Jewish partner, and “as many children are being raised by one Jewish parent as are being raised by two.”

The JCF and the Jewish Community Endowment Fund allocated more than $200 million toward funding social services, educational and cultural programs in the Bay Area, the United States, Israel and around the world in 2007 fiscal year.

“For me, the Bay Area Jewish community, with its profound commitment to tzedek [justice], tikkun olam [repairing the world] and to a vibrant and thriving Jewish culture and community is the perfect place” to build a federation for the 21st century, Sokatch said.

Sokatch said he is sad to leave PJA – and Los Angeles – but he is certain the organization will continue to grow without him, even as he helps them find his replacement. “PJA is an incredibly strong and vibrant organization that is much bigger than one person,” he said.

To Sokatch, the fact that the JCF contacted a self-described progressive public figure involved with IKAR, a progressive new synagogue, and Reboot, an outreach and activist organization for younger Jews, also means that organizations once considered out of the mainstream are making an impact on the Jewish community. “Instead of seeing us as irrelevant, they see us as part of the answer,” Sokatch said. “It’s a great compliment to everyone working in these Jewish projects.”


Progressive Jewish Alliance
http://www.pjalliance.org/

Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties
http://www.sfjcf.org/

IKAR
http://www.ikar-la.org/

Reboot
http://www.rebooters.net/

Workmen’s Circle celebrates 100 years; Progressives fight for what’s Left


Workmen’s Circle Celebrates 100

It’s not every centenarian who can celebrate his birthday with full-throated songs and Yiddish jokes, but the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring did just that in marking its 100th anniversary year in California with high good humor, leavened with a bit of nostalgia.

Performers and speakers intermingled Yiddish with English at the centennial gala and awards celebration on Jan. 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

There were gags about davening parrots, a parody on health care debates to the tune of “California, Here I Come,” rousing songs by the Voices of Conscience and Mit Gezang choruses, a raft of standup routines and closing duets by Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz.

Among the honorees were KPFK-FM’s “Access Unlimited” program on people with disabilities, and Ruth Judkowitz and Eric A. Gordon, “chairmentsh” and director, respectively, of the Workmen’s Circle Southern California district.

It was left to veteran actor Ed Asner, a Workmen’s Circle member himself, to honor the group’s history as a pioneer fighter for union, housing, health care and education rights. He concluded with a stemwinder lauding the politics of the left, a term rarely heard in polite conversation these days.

“What a pitiful society we have become in losing so many ideals of the left,” Asner said. “But these ideals of a community in which no one is excluded from the human family will never die. If they seem dead at times, they will be born again.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Push to Make Social Justice a Priority Righteous Indignation
And speaking of the left, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), American Jewish World Service, Jewish Funds for Justice and other forward-looking organizations recently celebrated the new anthology, “Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice,” at the home of PJA President Daniel Sokatch.

Part call to action, part campaign initiative, the book and its authors want to reclaim the concept tikkun olam (repair the world) to include social justice, as well as social action. The highbrow team of Jewish activists, intellectuals, religious and lay leaders who contributed to the book are gearing up for a vigorous foray into campaign politics, hoping to make social justice a religious priority in the ’08 election.

On the Righteous Indignation Project Web site, co-editor Rabbi Or N. Rose recognizes that “in an era in which the religious right has monopolized the national morality debate, it is critical that religious progressives — Jews and others — articulate alternative visions of faith and public life.”

A formidable group of 70 or so crowded Sokatch’s Westwood home, sipping wine and talking politics at a salon-style gathering, where “small talk” was about changing the world. The implied paradigm shift is this: Feeding the hungry is nice and all, but more pressing is asking ourselves why people are starving to begin with.

“Community service is not enough. We need gemilut chasadim [acts of lovingkindness] and structural change,” said Margie Klein, co-editor, along with Rose and Jo Ellen Green Kaiser.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, who co-authored an essay with Sokatch, warmly introduced three contributors: Dr. Adam Rubin, Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Sokatch, who bandied caveats pertaining to the Iraq War, stem cell research and civil rights. Sokatch implored a turn toward restorative — not retributive — justice, so that all human beings are treated with dignity.

Talk was urgent, political and philosophical. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was quoted. The voice of social justice was heard, and the event concluded with Jewish prayer.

Before the soldiers of peace set out into the night, Klein asked the crowd to commit to three things: Read the book, get involved and, if you can, help fund the growing movement.

Maybe there’s hope for our broken world yet.

SCENE AND HEARD…

Alex Fullman
Going for the Gold: Alex Fullman (photo), 17-year-old student at Harvard-Westlake School, won four gold medals and two silver as a member of the U.S. swim team at the Pan American Maccabi games, which took place last month in Buenos Aires. He is the son of Sandra Kossacoff and Dr. Howard Fullman who, along with his brother, Casey Fullman, attended the December 2007 games.

Banking On Jobs: Apparently the Los Angeles banking industry has one of the highest turnover rates of any job market in the country. Enter Les Biller, former COO of Wells Fargo Bank and the Biller Family Foundation, who, along with a consortium of brand-name banks, created JVS Bankworks, a free career training program to prepare people for entry into the banking industry.

On Jan. 16, they held their graduation ceremony at the Expo Center. Thus far, retention rates are high: Over 80 percent of graduates get hired and 79 percent are still around to move up the ladder six months later. For more information, visit http://www.jvsla.org.

Margy Feldman
It’s a New Day: The state Assembly declared Jan. 14 Big Brothers Big Sisters Day in recognition of the organization’s positive impact on the lives of 10,000 children through its 26 statewide agencies. Margy Feldman, president of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and the 2008-2009 president of the California BBBS State Association, was present to receive the award.

Arrested development: Young Jewish activists voluntarily go to jail in support of union rights


Sarah Leiber Church and Laura Podolsky had big plans for the evening of Sept. 28 — getting arrested.

They were part of a protest march that took place along Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport aimed at hotels that allegedly have been preventing employees from unionizing. During the late afternoon, approximately 2,000 people marched down the major thoroughfare, cutting off traffic. In what has been called the largest act of civil disobedience in Los Angeles, more than 300 of those people later deliberately sat down in the street, were arrested and jailed for up to 24 hours.

Both Church and Podolsky say their Jewish heritage is an important motivation for their activism for labor rights.

“From a young age I learned there’s a really strong message [in Judaism] about the importance of standing up for justice, and the importance of being directly involved,” Podolsky said.

Both she and Church are members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a group dedicated to social justice in Los Angeles. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of PJA, estimates that the group had anywhere between 50 and 100 people present at the protest, and that about 10 of those were arrested.

One part of the PJA’s larger goal is to reexamine the meaning of “kosher” among the Jewish population of Los Angeles.

“We’re working to expand the definition of kosher for the Jewish community, to go beyond how food is prepared to how workers are treated in institutions,” said Jaime Rapaport, program director for PJA. For example, she said, “The LAX Hilton is not a kosher hotel. Their kitchen may be kosher, and they may serve kosher food, but the way they treat their workers is not kosher.”

Church, the PJA’s Bay Area program director, said the timing of the protest, during the holiest part of the year, added meaning to her participation.

“The time in the Jewish calendar was very important to me in making the decision to take the steps to risk arrest … it’s a time when you take stock of how you’ve treated people over the last year,” she said. “I can think of no better way to start off 5767 than by supporting hotel workers and hard-working immigrant families in their fight for dignity in the work place.”

The sentiment was echoed by many, including Rabbi Jason Van Leeuwen of B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester,who presided over a blessing of the challah in front of the Westin Hotel — one of three blessings that took place: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. The challahs used were round, he said, “as a symbol for the cycle of the year, but also as a symbol of a message to the hotel management — what goes around comes around.”

Church said the religious service had been a highlight of the march.

“They said, ‘We give you bread for the journey,’ and passed out challahs to everyone. I remember hearing from some of the women later that the bread was just exactly what they needed, because they were feeling a little faint; they were feeling a little scared, frankly, and they said that having something to eat whether or not they were Jewish was really important to them.”

When the marching stopped, the sitting began. Those being arrested sat down on Century Boulevard — the main thoroughfare to LAX — where the police warned them that, unless they moved, they faced arrest. All wore matching shirts that read, “I am a human” in English and Spanish, echoing signs held at the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. The 300 arrested offered no resistance as officers put them in plastic handcuffs.

En route to jail they sang songs.

“I wanted to lead songs in Hebrew and teach people, but it didn’t seem like the right environment,” Church said. “But we sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and we sang ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ in English and Spanish.”

Even as they were arresting the protesters, many police seemed supportive of the action.

“I was speaking to one of them who was taking my fingerprints,” Church said, “and he said, ‘You know, I think I support what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘You’re unionized, right?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, and if we weren’t I’d want you all to be out on the streets.'”

This was a first arrest for both Church and Podolsky.

“Jail is cold, dingy and boring,” Podolsky said. “But I would do it a lot more, if it were necessary in order to stand up for these issues.”

Other arrestees shared cells with prostitutes or drug dealers.

Both Church and Podolsky spent the night in jail in South Central, released at 3:30 and 6:30 a.m., respectively.

Van Leeuwen agreed that the action was in accordance with Jewish teachings.
“The Torah repeatedly tells us that we should love the stranger; that they should be subject to laws and rights we’re subject to,” he said.

Though tired from a long march and a night spent in jail, everyone seemed in good spirits by Friday, proud of what they had accomplished.

“It was an incredible experience, and it was also an uncomfortable experience
… it’s something that I look back on with pride,” Church said.
Said Podolsky, simply, “It’s a good way to be Jewish.”

A Liberal Jewish Voice


Under the banner of “A Jewish Voice in the Progressive Community – A Progressive Voice in the Jewish Community,” the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) has set up offices and hired its first executive director.He is 32-year-old Daniel Sokatch, who hopes to rouse what he sees as the largely disenfranchised liberal and leftist voices in the Jewish community and attract noninvolved Jews of his own generation.

The leadership of the PJA formerly headed the regional chapter of the American Jewish Congress. They seceded in the spring of last year, claiming that the organization had forsaken its traditional liberal agenda. National headquarters in New York contested the claim, charging that the Los Angeles chapter had been shut down because it wouldn’t pay its bills.

Despite his youth, Sokatch has been involved in progressive Jewish activism for 15 years, starting at Brandeis University. After graduation, he spent four years working with homeless and mentally ill adults, and then earned a law degree, focusing on conflict resolution and civil and human rights.

He continued litigating civil rights cases at a Boston law firm before joining PJA, “to pursue my life’s passion of working for social justice in a progressive Jewish context.”

Last October, he married Dana Reinhardt, a producer for PBS’s “Frontline” program. She is the daughter of well-known liberal Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and great-granddaughter of the famous German-Jewish impresario Max Reinhardt.

During an interview joined by PJA president Douglas E. Mirell, a constitutional and media entertainment lawyer, the two men acknowledged that the old-time liberalism has been largely marginalized, both in the Jewish community and general American society.

In a far-reaching political shift, “What used to be the extreme right is now seen as moderate conservative, and the liberal position is perceived as radical,” Sokatch observes.

In contrast to the established Jewish organizations, which, he says, are largely composed of people “who have made it or are retired,” PJA expects to attract many young people and college students, “who are not affiliated and have no place in the Jewish world.”

There is a need for an organized progressive Jewish voice, maintains Mirell, because established organizations have become largely mute.

“It used to be that The Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee served in that role, but it has now become an adjunct to The Federation’s fundraising activities,” says Mirell, who resigned from the JCRC urban affairs committee three years ago.

“Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so the field is wide open on the left,” Mirell adds.

PJA expects to fill the perceived void by seeking to reform economic inequalities, the criminal and juvenile justice systems, police abuses, and “Draconian” immigration laws. It will work toward full gay and lesbian integration, end of the death penalty, stringent gun control and outreach to other ethnic groups.

In the Middle East, PJA plans to ally itself with the Peace Now movement in advocating an independent Palestinian state, while maintaining a secure Israel.

Among PJA’s chief priorities and activities, now and in its previous AJCongress incarnation, has been the fight against sweatshops, particularly in the garment industry with its numerous Jewish employers, dialogue with American Arabs and Muslims, and a cleanup of police corruption and abuse.

Although PJA has an impressive roster of community activists and rabbis on its board of directors, at this point it has not done any membership recruitment.

Initially, PJA will focus on the Los Angeles scene, but it expects to expand nationally and become a spokesperson for national issues.

It is not surprising that PJA started on the “left coast,” says Mirell. “We have the country’s most liberal Jewish community and you can compile a much larger list of progressive Jews in Los Angeles than in New York.”

Sokatch goes so far as to claim that “PJA is the first national, multi-issue Jewish organization to come out of California.”

For now, PJA’s watchword, taken from former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, is to “Think Globally and Act Locally.”

Another quotable saying, proclaimed by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, founder of the AJCongress, is “Our quarrel is not with Jews who are different, but Jews who are indifferent.”

“We have taken Rabbi Wise from the AJCongress,” says Mirell. “It no longer deserves him.”The attorney acknowledges that liberalism is not the country’s flavor of the year, certainly not in the presidential race. “The two major candidates collectively occupy the farthest right position of any presidential election in my lifetime,” says Mirell.

However, he observes philosophically, political attitudes come and go in cycles. “I believe that the time will come when ‘liberalism’ is not a dirty word,” he adds. “We’re in the vanguard of those trying to make the time come sooner, and in the meanwhile can serve as a bulwark against further regression until the Messianic era arrives.”

Sokatch doesn’t believe in the vaunted political indifference of Generation X, even in Los Angeles, the reputed “epicenter of apathy.”

“After the demonstrations in Seattle, Los Angeles saw thousands of people at the Shadow Convention and on the streets,” he notes.

Even in choosing the location of its offices, PJA wants to make a symbolic statement. Rather than move into the high-rise, renovated Jewish Community Building, its offices are at the more modest Westside Jewish Community Center, on Olympic near Fairfax, and in a “grittier but more acceptable” neighborhood, says Sokatch.

PJA’s phone number is (323)761-8350, e-mail address is dsokatch@pjalliance.org, and the website atwww.pjalliance.org

(The American Jewish Congress is making a comeback in Los Angeles, with a new regional president, executive director and offices. In an upcoming issue, we will report on this development.)

+