December 10, 2018

Israeli Consul General Bids Farewell to L.A.

In pedestrian averse L.A., Sam Grundwerg, the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles, walked 10 miles on Rosh Hashanah and six miles on Yom Kippur to address congregations at the city’s spread-out synagogues.

The feat speaks to the stamina, as well as the Orthodox observance of Grundwerg during his abbreviated term of almost two-and-a-half years, rather than the customary three- or four-year terms. 

Grundwerg, who officially finished his term on Nov. 15, said he chose to leave early so his three teenage children could finish their schooling back in Israel. 

He already has a new position lined up. Last month, Grundwerg, 45, was appointed chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, Israel’s official fundraising arm around the world, except in the United States, where the Jewish federations have assumed the task. In 2017, Keren Hayesod’s annual budget was $162 million, of which $140 million went to various programs and projects, including aliyah and absorption, strengthening Israeli society and programs for Jewish youth in the Diaspora.

This new assignment for Grundwerg, personally approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, represents a capstone in a varied and upward career.

Born a third-generation American in Miami Beach, Fla., Grundwerg was raised in an Orthodox and fervently Zionist family. At 17, he studied at a yeshiva in Israel for a year, then volunteered in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), serving as a tank gunner.

He then returned to Miami where he spent the next 10 years studying finance and earning a law degree at the University of Miami. Following graduation, he worked in both fields before making aliyah in 2009. In 2010, he was appointed director general in Israel for the World Jewish Congress.

Recently, at his home in West Los Angeles, Grundwerg spoke with the Journal about his tenure here. 

As consul general, he has closely observed the changing relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, which he considered inevitable. “In a way, it was easier for Diaspora Jews to support a weak, fledgling Israel than [today’s] strong, powerhouse Israel,” he said.  

While he stressed that he respects the concerns of American rabbis about the power that Israel’s Orthodox wield over establishing laws governing marriage, divorce and the very definition of who is a Jew, and the Knesset’s recent approval of the nation-state law, “by definition, Israel is a Jewish and a democratic state, but the two aspects are not completely compatible,” he said.

An ardent sports fan, Grundwerg paraphrased legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi, saying, “Israel can never be the perfect Jewish democratic state, but we can be the most best and most excellent Jewish democratic state.”

Grundwerg also spoke of the importance of his personal relationships with Jewish community leaders and public officials in Los Angeles.  “I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished, with a strong staff team,” he said. He singled out his outreach and close relationships with the Latino community, aided by the fluent Spanish of his wife, Julia, a nurse born in Puerto Rico into a family of Syrian immigrants that lived for many years in Argentina.

Among the achievements during his tenure that he mentioned was his outreach to L.A.’s growing Asian community, noting that its members, like Hispanics and Jews, share basic values such as family devotion.

He described his relations with the local news media as “pretty good,” although he cited having hassles with the Los Angeles Times about its reporting and editorials on Israel.

On a more positive note, Grundwerg highlighted the 70th-anniversary celebration of Israel’s statehood that was held at Universal Studios under the banner, “Hollywood Salutes Israel.” The event was a celebration of Israel’s historical stages, featuring American and Israeli film and sports stars.

Grundwerg also introduced talk-show host Conan O’Brien, TV presenter Bill Nye and TV travel host Laura MacKenzie to Israel.

But perhaps his most impressive coup in intercultural relations was his hosting of some 60 leaders of the Los Angeles Muslim community, including basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for the Iftar break-fast meal during Ramadan. He held the event at his residence — which is officially designated as Israeli territory — spreading out a large prayer rug in the living room.

Looking forward, Grundwerg said he currently harbors no ambitions to go into politics. However, after a pause, he added, “But you never say never.”