May 26, 2019

Federation’s Plans for the Worse Put in Action

The following is an excerpt of a conversation between Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief David Suissa and Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The two talked for Suissa’s podcast at jewishjournal.com. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.


DAVID SUISSA: I can’t recall two weeks like this, from Pittsburgh, the elections, the Thousand Oaks [shooting], to the fires, to Gaza. 

JAY SANDERSON: Yeah. It actually looked like the two weeks were going to be worse. I was getting ready to buy a plane ticket to go to Israel on the weekend for a solidarity mission if the rockets kept going. So, I’m thanking God that the two weeks aren’t worse than they could have been.

DS:  Let’s start with Pittsburgh. Tell us what it was like as soon as you heard the news, and what did you do?

JS: First of all, I’ve been thinking about [a scenario like] this for seven years, which is why our federation was one of the first Jewish communities in North America to get into the security business and oversee all the community security in Jewish institutions throughout almost all of Southern California. I’m not surprised that it happened. But it was shocking.

DS: When you hear of an emergency like this, what is the first thing you do? Do you gather an emergency group?

JS: Each situation is different, and this was on Shabbos. Normally I would immediately have gathered community leaders together. So, I thought, “OK, what are the things we could be doing right away?” It’s to activate our community security initiative. That means there are bulletins and briefs that go out to every Jewish institution automatically. We also wanted to see if we could convene on the following Shabbat a national solidarity Shabbat.

DS: And it worked. It was unbelievable. 

JS: I know. It was unbelievable. And we’re convinced that more Jews were in shul on that Shabbat than ever. I was at Stephen Wise [Temple], and the place was packed with over 1,000 people. VBS [Valley Beth Shalom] — packed. Almost every local synagogue committed to it, and the same thing nationally. That was an opportunity for us to go back to shul, put our arms around each other and comfort each other, and say to the bad guys, “Hey, you’re not keeping us out of shul.”

“I’ve tried very hard to guide the federation to do the work we do, which is very evident today with the fires, and not get into that abyss of left/right politics — who wins, who loses.”

— Jay Sanderson

DS: We’re all on edge these days.

JS: We’re on edge. But in the Jewish community that edge, I think, is magnified. Some of it is based on people’s politics. Some of it is people think we’re in pre-Nazi Germany. Which, anybody who actually understands history knows that many of the things that happened in pre-Nazi Germany are not happening in America today.

DS: After that solidarity Shabbat — well, we were horrified by Thousand Oaks.

JS: There were Jews in that club. One of my staff’s brother was in the club. I said this at a gathering for Camp Shalom alumni campers the other night: “We are vulnerable. We feel vulnerable no matter where we are. What we have to do is everything we can to keep these places safe, but we have to go about living our lives.”

DS: And in the middle of these two mass shootings, these two disasters, we have what some people call the most consequential mid-term elections in our lifetime, which reminds us of our divisions. 

JS: So, I just say the political climate we’re in is toxic, divisive. I’ve tried very hard to guide the federation to do the work we do, and not get into that abyss of left/right politics — who wins, who loses. I’m very sympathetic to people on both sides who feel like their voices are being extinguished by the other side.

DS: Did you know [the fires were] going to be this bad? It started on a Thursday night, and by Friday morning it was Armageddon.

JS: I am blessed and cursed by access to minute-by-minute information. So I understood what was happening with the fires. 

DS: Tell us what you’re doing for the community, the kind of meetings you are having at the federation. 

JS: The first thing we do is we convene, so we have to reach out. You have synagogue rabbis, because in the affected areas are people who belong to the synagogues, who are evacuated, who lost their homes, who are suffering from trauma. So the rabbis are essential. Then you have the four major institutions that have been impacted. That is Ilan Ramon School in Agoura [Hills], which is basically burned down. There’s a few buildings left. You have Camp JCA, Shalom Institute — gone. And you have the two Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps — Hilltop, gone; and Hess Kramer pretty much gone. So, all those folks are on the phone.

DS: [These camps] were the heart and soul of our community.

JS: I believe the heart and soul of the community are the people. I said this also at the camp event. When people go to camp, their lifelong friends are the people they meet there. They don’t necessarily remember where the bunks are. This is physical damage, not human damage.

DS: There are so many memories.

JS: A hundred percent. I said this on a call this morning: There are layers on layers on layers [of memories], but at the end of the day, these camps will come back stronger, better. They’ll continue next summer. They’ll be beacons rising from these ashes. The school will be better, and we’ll try to do everything we can to make people stronger. There are many positives. You don’t want there to be a tragedy for positives, but I am overwhelmed by the commitment, the passion, the extraordinary leadership of the rabbis. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, I mean, everyone understands that — emanating from Rabbi Leder all the way down to the staff who run the camps. They’re fantastic professionals. 

DS: Did you have some emotional conversations during those 48 hours with people who were directly involved with the camps?

JS:  Look, the people who run these camps and work for these camps, they felt a tremendous personal loss. Bill Kaplan basically was a camper at Camp Shalom, right? Now his camp director was a camper. So, this is a major loss; and even though I stood up in front of everybody and said this is not about buildings, it’s about people, it’s easy for me to say. It’s a loss, and …  we’re a traumatized community. If you put [these disasters] together, there’s a lot of reason for us to feel unsafe, vulnerable and traumatized; and we have to address that and talk about it and be open about it.