Q & A with Daniel Sokatch — building a better community

Daniel Sokatch leaves Los Angeles this week to become CEO of the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco after spending the last nine years transforming the start-up Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) into one of the most recognizable progressive Jewish advocacy organizations in the country.

As the public face and founding executive director of PJA, Sokatch, 40, has been lauded by the left and loathed by the right. He was twice named to the “Forward 50” list for his campaigns on such issues as promoting kosher clothing (sweatshop-free) and a living wage for hotel workers.

Jewish Journal: PJA has prided itself on getting Jews who don’t identify to affiliate with being Jewish. What makes this a Jewish organization?
Daniel Sokatch: We are a bunch of people who choose to do this Jewishly for whatever our reasons — whether they are ethnic or ethical or religious or spiritual or historical or familial — we all understand our personal obligation to get involved in the work of building a better community for everybody.
It’s not coincidental that those three pictures I keep on my wall — Gandhi and King and the Dalai Lama — are all progressive religious leaders who led or lead great social movements that have at their core universalistic messages from their particular religious places.

JJ: Over the years, you have operated outside the synagogue and religious community.
DS: We are interested in going where the Jews are, and the first place you find Jews is in synagogues. I’m sure that at least half of our membership and probably more belong to a synagogue. But what is interesting is, around half don’t. Where we have been really successful is finding those unaffiliated Jews, those Jews no one can engage, and engaging them. I’d like to say we have some brilliant marketing plan to reach them. What I think happened was that we just did good social justice work, and as our reputation grew, those people found us.

JJ: Sort of a Jewish “Field of Dreams.”
DS: It was. We often say that, “If you build it, they will come.”

JJ: How integral was the Los Angeles landscape to the success of PJA?
DS: I can’t imagine how PJA would have started and succeeded in the way it has in any other city. L.A. was integral to the formation of PJA for a number of reasons. First of all, the distance from the Jewish center in New York, and to a lesser extent in Washington, compared to California cannot be overstated. There is this sense in L.A. that you can re-invent yourself.

JJ: What do you hope your legacy has been here?
DS: More important than just the organizational piece, I hope that our work over the last almost-decade has awakened parts of our Jewish community to that other pillar of who we are as a people and reminded us that we can’t define ourselves only through the threats we face. If that is all we are as a people, we will never see a reversal of that drumbeat of disaffiliation and diminished interest in Jewish life. What I hope is that people will recognize what we do — embracing the obligation to build a better community for everybody — it’s not only right for the Jews; it is good for the Jews. This will be a legacy that helps secure the Jewish future.

JJ: It’s no big secret that the federation model across the country isn’t really working; umbrella organizations in general are struggling. What do you think your selection says about at least the future of the San Francisco federation?
DS: Federation can no longer be everything to everybody. The old model doesn’t work. We are going to do amazing work, looking at service and obligation and getting Jews to roll up their sleeves and work for the betterment of the broader community.

JJ: Do you see this as the mainstreaming of social justice work in the Jewish community?
DS: I absolutely do. I absolutely do. What made this an offer I couldn’t refuse was people saying these values are our values. I understand I am not going up there to run an advocacy organization. The JCF doesn’t exist to stand with workers the way PJA does. But if it does exist to be a central Jewish organization, we need to be able to reflect core Jewish values in a way that everything I have done over the last decade of my life has worked for.

JJ: What frightens you about going establishment?
DS: Other than having to wear a tie?What worries me is that in a large and complicated organization that is in the process of re-invention and re-imaging, there is always a great challenge to make sure you are not only looking down at the hood and tinkering with the engine, but you also have to look up at the road.
The reason my family decided to go to San Francisco, and the reason some of my closest colleagues in the Jewish social-justice movement urged me to go to San Francisco, and the reason why they hired me in San Francisco, was to chart a new course and chart a new path.

JewishJournal.com VideoJew Jay Firestone covered the PJA’s sweatshop-free fashion show last November