Meet the non-Jew who wants Hebrew and kosher food in LAUSD schools

March 2, 2017
Gregory Martayan (right) meets Deputy Knesset Speaker Yoel Hasson of the Zionist Union at the Knesset during a trip to Israel in December. Photo courtesy of Gregory Martayan for Los Angeles Unified School Board

The most Jew-ish candidate for a local office in Los Angeles right now, it turns out, is not a Jew at all.

Gregory Martayan is Armenian. But the contender for the Los Angeles Unified School District board District 4 seat has a robust slate of campaign promises geared toward the Jewish community.

If elected, Martayan, 33, a public relations consultant, has promised to install Hebrew education in L.A. Unified schools, deliver kosher food to campuses that request it and institute a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-Semitism — all within six months. He professes stalwart support for Israel, having traveled there in December with a pair of campaign aides.

“Sometimes a goy like Greg can be more helpful to Jewish causes than a Jew,” said Andrew Friedman, Martayan’s campaign co-chair and a well-connected attorney in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Martayan’s candidacy pits him against two candidates who are Jewish: incumbent board President Steve Zimmer and Nicholas Melvoin. Both have better funding and name recognition. A fourth contender, Allison Holdorff Polhill, is not Jewish, but she also has raised more money than Martayan.

Yet Martayan is bullish about his chances. A mustachioed man who’s partial to pinstripe suits, he sells himself as a back-to-basics candidate, with three major issues: accountability, transparency and school safety. He makes frequent references to “the people,” specifically to people he says are underrepresented in LAUSD, not least among them Orthodox Jews.

“The Orthodox Jewish community has not been getting support under Steve Zimmer,” he said. “This is just a fact. And they’re not going to get services or support under any of the other candidates.”

Why tailor a campaign message to Orthodox families when many will choose to send their children to religious schools anyway?

“Our platform is to provide services to all communities of the city of Los Angeles,” he said. “And it’s up to them whether they want to utilize those services or not.”

Martayan said he supports school choice, another popular view among Orthodox Jews. “Parent choice is not a right that any government official has the ability to strip away,” he said.

But he’d like to see it get easier for Jewish families to enroll their kids in L.A. Unified. He asserts Jewish enrollment would go up if not for certain barriers, such as a lack of kosher food and a discriminatory atmosphere that he promises to reverse.

Martayan contends that bias against Jews — kids who wear yarmulkes, for instance — is rampant on L.A. Unified campuses. He says these incidents go unreported because of a lack of official channels for dealing with it.

“We have whistleblowers who have given us information,” he said. “However, in terms of documented, archived reports, there is no system in which those are being documented and archived.”

Martayan didn’t provide examples of anti-Semitic incidents in the school district. He said information is hard to come by under “an administration that likes to keep the truth out of the light,” and vowed to seek it out as a board member.

But he said his own campaign has become the target of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks in person and on social media. Recently, someone on the web accused him of being a “traitor and a hypocrite” because of his support for Israel, he said.

Martayan’s affiliation with the Jewish community goes back generations, to his grandfather’s time in New York City, newly arrived from Armenia, sleeping on the floors of butcher shops in immigrant neighborhoods where he worked.

Martayan’s father ran a printing press in downtown L.A., where many of his clients and associates were Jews. And Martayan himself grew up among Orthodox Jews in Hancock Park.

“I grew up eating latkes and applesauce,” he said. “I grew up spinning dreidels.”

Friedman said he met Martayan about five years ago at Congregation Bais Naftali on La Brea Avenue, where Martayan invited him and his wife to a banquet dinner. Friedman responded he would be able to eat only if the food were kosher. Martayan persisted.

“He made the entire dinner kosher rather than just serving me from paper plates, as many times they do,” Friedman said.

Originally, he said, Martayan had planned to campaign on installing kosher kitchens at LAUSD schools, but Friedman persuaded him to scale that plan back. Now, Martayan’s campaign promise is to make pre-packaged kosher food available to students wherever there is enough demand.

“There are more Jewish students in public schools than in parochial schools, and so at least making kosher food available for them would be great,” Friedman said.

His opponents have staked their run on education backgrounds: Melvoin is a former teacher and education activist, Zimmer spent 17 years as a high school teacher and counselor before his 2009 election to the school board, and Holdorff Polhill served as board president for Palisades Charter High School. By contrast, Martayan has had a diverse career outside the classroom.

He started a public relations and local issues firm shortly after graduating from Pepperdine University and later served as an ambassador for the National Crime Prevention Council and a member of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families. But to fuel his hoped-for victory, he cited his support in communities he says are traditionally underrepresented at the school board level — Orthodox, Asian American and Black.

Martayan may be betting on long odds in a sprawling district of mostly white neighborhoods, from Marina del Rey and Venice to Woodland Hills and back east to North Hollywood. Missing from that swath are large concentrations of Orthodox voters — in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Pico-Robertson and most of Hancock Park are parts of another L.A. Unified district.

Well aware of these demographics, Martayan nonetheless insisted, “We’re going to win.”

“We have a strong coalition, because we’re the only ones who represent the community,” he said. “No amount of outside money is going to be able to buy the race.”

For their part, Martayan’s opponents challenge the notion that he is the only candidate who cares about Jewish constituents.

“As a member of the board, I would support all communities, including, of course, our Jewish community,” Melvoin wrote in an email, citing his many ties to local Jewish organizations, including a Hebrew school education and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ New Leaders Project.

In a phone interview, Holdorff Polhill said she would be open to instituting Hebrew language education and kosher food at LAUSD schools. She said she wasn’t aware of rampant anti-Semitism on L.A. Unified campuses, but that the schools already take a zero-tolerance policy toward hate speech. Additionally, she suggested convening a stakeholder group to better address the needs of Orthodox Jews.

Zimmer, the incumbent, wrote in an email that he works “regularly with the Orthodox community on issues that touch our school system.”

“I have stood against all forms of anti-Semitism and hate every day of my career as a teacher and have been proud to stand even stronger as a district leader,” he wrote. “To suggest anything less is inconsistent with my record and wholly ignorant of fact.”

Yet only Martayan repeatedly presses his pro-Jewish platform at campaign events. In Israel, he ignored warnings from his campaign staff and walked through a minefield near a school at the Syrian border. He did it, he said, “to show the world about how dangerous this region of the world is and what kind of fear these children live in.”

“I will always be pro-Israel,” he said. “I will always stand and fight for the Jewish community, and I will always protect the rights of the Orthodox community in the city of Los Angeles, come hell or high water.”

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