January 16, 2019

New consul general hopes to advance the diplomatic ball for Israel

Sam Grundwerg has arrived in Los Angeles, and it is a fairly safe bet that he is the first Israeli consul general who has been elected to the football hall of fame.

Not the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, but the American Football in Israel (AFI) Flag Football Hall of Fame, which has its offices in Jerusalem.

Given his athletic background, it comes as no surprise that the compactly built envoy sees sports as a universally shared interest that has more than once spearheaded diplomatic initiatives.

A native of Miami Beach, Fla., Grundwerg has been an ardent fan of the Miami Dolphins since childhood, and in his new post welcomes the return of the Rams to Los Angeles.

At 43, Grundwerg is the latest in a string of American-born Israelis appointed to diplomatic posts, a relatively recent practice. They include his predecessor in Los Angeles, David Siegel, as well as Michael Oren, the former Israel ambassador to Washington, and Oren’s successor, Ron Dermer.

Such appointments, Grundwerg believes, benefit Israel by dispatching envoys who, literally and figuratively, speak their host’s language and are familiar with American culture and politics.

Grundwerg proves his point with his own personality, in his easy use of American humor and enthusiasm for American sports, though he is prevented by his diplomatic status from discussing current U.S. politics.

Grundwerg grew up in Miami Beach with Dermer — considered one of the closest advisors to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and the two played on their high school’s football and basketball teams, and are fellow AFI Hall of Famers.

In landing his assignment to Los Angeles, Grundwerg has one of the most coveted posts for Israeli diplomats, as it involves running one of the largest Israeli missions in the world with a jurisdiction that encompasses five Southwestern states, Hawaii and Southern California.

Grundwerg will face many of the same problems as his predecessors, but like every consul general before him, can be expected to put his own stamp on the job. In a recent interview, Grundwerg said his top priorities include maintaining contact with public officials in his “territory,” which includes 57 members of Congress, 14 senators, seven governors and numerous mayors and other local officials.

He also will immerse himself in the Jewish communities of L. A. and other major cities, and cultivate relations with key ethnic communities, such as Latinos and African-Americans.

Grundwerg speaks some Spanish as a result of growing up in the Miami area, but he can also rely on his wife, Julia, a nurse, who was born in Puerto Rico into a family of Syrian-Jewish immigrants who had lived for many years in Buenos Aires.

High up on his to-do list is outreach to the millennial generation, both on and off campus.

Grundwerg hopes to strengthen ties with Black Angelenos through such projects as the ongoing plans for a trauma center in South Los Angeles, drawing heavily on the expertise of some of Israel’s foremost psychologists. He also plans to maintain and expand relations with the Hollywood entertainment industry, a must for every Los Angeles-based Israeli diplomat, and he will push for movie and TV productions “in and about Israel,” he said.

In this last effort, in particular, he will have the full backing of Netanyahu, a media-savvy prime minister, who “knows full well the impact of Hollywood on global public opinion,” Grundwerg said. 

The consul general earned a feel for film production himself as co-producer of the 2012 documentary “Life Is Strange,” about Jewish life in Eastern Europe before World War II.

Grundwerg said he plans to advocate to both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans to oppose anti-Israel initiatives, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, though he feels “we should keep this problem in proportion and not overemphasize it.”

Grundwerg’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Hungary, Poland and Germany. His father, a lawyer, and mother maintained a home environment that was “Modern Orthodox, open-minded and very Zionist,” and, as a boy, Grundwerg always took it for granted that he would eventually live in Israel.

His first schooling was at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami (it used to be called the Hebrew Academy of Miami until someone pointed out that school’s acronym spelled out HAM, so the word “Greater” was inserted).

At 17, he went to Israel, studied at a yeshiva for one year and then volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), serving as a tank gunner toward the end of the First Intifada. Two years in the army made him a fluent speaker of Hebrew, although, he said, some of it turned out to be slang.

After his army discharge, he enrolled at Bar-Ilan University, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business finance and then working for two years as a senior financial analyst.

He returned to Florida in 1998, and during the following years, studied at the University of Miami, first majoring in finance and then earning a law degree. He is now qualified to practice law in Israel, Florida and Washington, D.C.

Subsequently, he held positions with private law and finance companies in the United States and then Israel, after returning and settling in the Jewish state in 2009.

The following year, he became director general in Israel for the World Jewish Congress. This position, in which he dealt constantly with heads of Jewish communities in the Diaspora and with high government officials in Israel, served as valuable preparation for his present assignment, Grundwerg said.

While serving in the Israeli army, Grundwerg was designated a “lone soldier,” meaning he had no close family in the country to join for visits and holidays. However, he was “adopted” by a number of different families in Efrat, a settlement south of Jerusalem, who vied to make him feel at home.

“When I visited Efrat, I took all my dirty laundry and divided it into several small piles, so a number of different families could participate in the mitzvah of washing my clothes,” Grundwerg recalled.

Like all discharged Israeli soldiers, Grundwerg pulls annual reserve duty, in his case as a casualty officer who must notify parents of the death of their son or daughter in combat or through a terrorist attack.

Both his current assignment, and his previous status as a lone soldier, have given him a special sensitivity to the experience of serving while away from home, and he promises to try to ease the burdens of young Americans serving in the IDF, and of their parents at home.

Sam and Julia Grundwerg are joined in Los Angeles by their son, Elisha, 18, and daughters Sarita, 16, and Felicia, 14.

When it came time for Grundwerg to pick a family home in Israel, he remembered his ties to Efrat as a lone soldier, and his family now lives there when in the Jewish state. Efrat is a settlement in the Judean Mountains of the West Bank and thus is not recognized as part of the State of Israel by most of the international community.

Grundwerg said he’s sensitive to the fact that even among Jews in the Diaspora, there are voices opposing the existence or expansion of settlement on lands that most foreign governments see as part of a future Palestinian state.

To clarify his own position, the consul general made the following points: The population of Efrat is quite diversified and includes Modern Orthodox Zionists, ultra-Orthodox and secular inhabitants. He said he believes the issue of the settlements must be solved directly by the Israeli and Palestinian sides, but in the meantime, should not be used as an excuse to avoid any conversations and negotiations between the two sides.

Grundwerg said it is unfair and misleading to judge Efrat and other settlements by the acts of the so-called “hilltop youth,” small groups of dogmatic nationalists who try to occupy West Bank hilltops and attack Arab farmers against the will of Israel’s government.

From a personal perspective, the kippah-wearing Grundwerg said, “I represent the people and government of the entire State of Israel, not any particular faction or party. As people here get to know me and we talk to each other, I hope we can clarify any misunderstandings.”

As a political appointee, rather than a career diplomat, Grundwerg is expected to serve at the consulate here for three years, with a likely one-year extension.