November 15, 2019

Beyond philanthropy: A Q&A with Julie Platt

Julie Platt is one of Los Angeles’ most devoted Jewish communal leaders and philanthropists. For the past two years, she has served as general campaign chair for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. She is also a past board chair of Camp Ramah, led the advisory board of directors for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and serves on the board of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. For the past 36 years, Platt has been married to film and theater producer Marc Platt, whom she met as a freshman at their alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. They have five children, ages 16 to 32, and an active family foundation. On a recent morning, Platt sat down in her Westwood living room to talk about her plans for Federation when she takes over as board chair in January. “It’s not the sexiest place to be a volunteer,” she said, “so you’re doing it out of purity of purpose. And the kind of people that are attracted to that work are my kind of people.” 

Jewish Journal: You grew up in Wichita, Kan., in a very small Jewish community. What was that like?

Julie Platt: On a great day, we were 1,000 people. In my high school graduating class of 671 students, I was the only Jew. But I actually think that when you are from a small town, the necessity to stand up and be counted is even stronger. … I felt from the beginning that if we Jews didn’t look out for the Jewish community, there wasn’t anybody else to step up. It wasn’t out of a sense of peril; it was a feeling of “l’dor v’dor,” that I was a link in the chain.

JJ: What does being Jewish mean to you?

JP: I think Judaism makes sense. I think we got it right, of what people need. We need a roadmap. And, honestly, the best example I can think of are the laws of mourning. They’re so helpful. Holidays and Shabbat and rituals are, for me, an opportunity to gather as family. And that’s the most precious time for me. 

JJ: You have chosen to go beyond traditional philanthropy to play an enormous volunteer role in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Why was that important to you?

JP: [My parents] imparted to me that you have to be supportive of the community in which you live, which they both were, in a very big way. My father was the chairman of the board of education and actually integrated the school system in Wichita, which was a very big deal. So I understood the obligation to be involved civically in your community, but transcending it all was this complete responsibility to the Jewish people. I have this memory of when we all went on vacation in 1967; I was 10, and the ’67 war hit while we were on vacation. None of us ever left the room. The six of us stayed and watched television for the entire duration of the Six-Day War. I remember being terrified. 

JJ: What was your most formative Jewish experience?

JP: Camp Ramah. It changed my life. I remember no place feeling more at home as a Jew than surrounded by that environment. For me, it was like Disneyland, because I didn’t have any Jewish kids around me in Wichita, so to go and make Jewish friends all summer long was just indescribable. I counted the minutes [during the school year] till it was time to go back.

JJ: As a kid, what did you dream of being when you grew up?

JP: Honestly? I only wanted to be a mother. The dream for my life was to be a mother. Second to being a mother was finding the right husband — so I could be a mother. 

JJ: But as the daughter of very active parents — your father was an oil and gas producer and your mother was civically involved — was it rebellious not to pursue a career?

JP: I wanted to be a mother, not a stay-at-home mother. I just wanted to be a parent. That was the No. 1. Simultaneous to that, I thought about joining my father’s business, but Wichita didn’t seem where I would want to spend my life, particularly after I met Marc, who was clearly going to be in the entertainment world. But I did go into corporate banking; I had a deep love of business and of math, and wanted to use that. I went into corporate banking right out of college at University of Pennsylvania. 

JJ: Of the many Jewish institutions you’re involved with, why do you choose to devote most of your time to Federation?

JP: I do believe in it as the central convener of the Los Angeles Jewish community. What has always impressed me is that it is an organization willing to look at itself, to make sure it is on the right path. And it’s not afraid to stumble or refocus or redirect until we get it right. It’s not what people think it is.

JJ: You think Federation is misunderstood?

JP: I think people think it’s a behemoth, that it’s a black hole where you don’t know where your money is going, where we’re blindly writing checks to agencies and that we have no handle on a vision or strategy. And that’s just incorrect. We’re not a black hole. We’re not an umbrella. We’re a convener that works really carefully with partners to take care of this community in every way that we can. And if that means creating something new, we’ll do that. If it means supporting something existing, we’ll do that. And if it simply means getting out of the way because someone else is doing it better, we’ll do that. 

JJ: What has been your biggest challenge there?

JP: Not being able to successfully bring along all the people that I wish I could. And I’d say, most specifically, many people in the entertainment community. That’s sort of my chief goal as chair.

JJ: I’m so glad you brought that up! You’re married to the big-deal producer of Broadway’s “Wicked,” the “Legally Blonde” film franchise and, most recently, Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” So you’ve had an insider’s view of Hollywood for many years. What’s your take on why Hollywood Jews are not more active in Jewish communal life or more publicly supportive of Israel?

JP: I want to be careful, because I want to be successful with this group. I do think that the entertainment community gets a bad rap. There are more [entertainment] people who care about the Jewish people than the community thinks, but there is an enormous amount of people in entertainment whom we haven’t brought along yet. And that is my mission. Marc and I have had several small gatherings in our home, and when given the opportunity to explain our work, and speak to people one-on-one, [we have found] there is a Jewish responsibility [in Hollywood], and there is a Jewish soul. It’s rarely tapped into in the world in which they live, and I have to find the way to tap into it. One by one, I’m willing to take on the challenge.