Jewish lobbying group takes message to Sacramento

May 17, 2017
Members of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Rautenberg New Leaders Project assemble in Sacramento on May 9. Photo by Aubrey Farkas

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.”

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