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Jewish Journal

Progressive values propel Daniel Sokatch’s rising star

by Marc Ballon

January 18, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Daniel Sokatch  addresses an anti-death penalty event in Los Angeles

Daniel Sokatch addresses an anti-death penalty event in Los Angeles

When Daniel Sokatch enrolled in rabbinical school in Israel in 1994, he had visions of becoming a religious leader dedicated to social justice, much in the vein of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But Sokatch, now 38, quickly realized that the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem was committed to training rabbis and not activists. So after eight months, he decided to quit.

Sokatch met with the school's dean at the time to break the news, telling him that he planned to get a law degree, study international relations and work in the Jewish community, pursuing social justice in some capacity. The dean looked at Sokatch, paused, and shocked him by promising to forgive the thousands of dollars in loans Sokatch had racked up for school tuition.

"I believe you'll do everything you say you're going to do," he said. And so he has. Sokatch is the founding executive director of Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a nondenominational group dedicated, in his words, to "connecting Jews to the critical social justice issues facing our city, such as criminal and economic justice and interfaith dialogue. "

Under Sokatch's seven-year tenure, PJA's membership has reached 4,000. In May 2005, the nonprofit opened a second office in San Francisco.

The Forward has twice named Sokatch to the "Forward 50," a listing of the most influential Jews in America.

"He has kept a steady focus on labor and immigrant issues, leading efforts for Muslim-Jewish dialogue and helping patch up labor disputes," the newspaper said.

PJA has played an important role in the enactment of anti-sweatshop legislation in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley, reflecting Sokatch's belief that "kosher should be about more than the way food's prepared; it should be about the way people are treated who work with us." PJA has also successfully lobbied on behalf of Los Angeles hotel workers to increase their wages. In 2002, PJA created a mediation program for nonviolent juvenile offenders that offers an alternative to incarceration. The program has a recidivism rate of less than 20 percent.

"I think Daniel is a rising star in the Jewish professional constellation of this city," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "He's smart, charismatic and effective."

PJA has also taken controversial steps to keep alive communication between local Muslims and Jews. Early next month, the PJA and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) are expected to unveil NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a program designed to foster greater interfaith dialogue and cooperation. (See related story on page 14.)

Sokatch, as he promised the HUC-JIR dean all those years ago, did become a lawyer. But it is his Jewish values that most define him. He steeps PJA's efforts in Jewish tradition and in tikkun olam (heal the world), giving political and social action a religious basis. His single-minded commitment often drives him to put in 70-hour work weeks and push until some measure of justice is done.

"If you are Jewish, whether secular or religious, whether ethnically or culturally, atheist or Orthodox, there is a central animating principle to being Jewish, which is repair the world," Sokatch said. "That is the prophetic mission and the rabbinic imperative."

Sokatch and his younger brother, Andrew, now an expert in educational reform and child welfare, grew up in Cheshire, Conn., in a "good, Jewish liberal home." His father, Sy, worked as the director of human resources at Yale University. His mother, Ann, studied counseling psychology at Southern Connecticut State College. From his parents, he said he learned "the importance of the warmth and love of family and the need to work hard."

But it was a trio of older relatives in New York City, he said, who shaped his views on civic engagement. His aunt, Lottie Gold, served as New York state's first female deputy secretary of state in the 1950s. Sydney Gold, his uncle, and Irving Stillerman, his maternal grandfather, were New York City judges.

"What I got from these people was a deep, deep sense of patriotism and a love of country," Sokatch said. "They taught me that service to the community at large was something we just did, both as Jews and as Americans."

Judaism was another major influence. Raised Reform, Sokatch attended Jewish summer camps and went to Hebrew school throughout high school.

"I loved all aspects of Judaism, the traditions, the holidays, the story of Israel," he said. "It always felt natural to me. It felt like breathing." At 11, his family moved from liberal New England to conservative Cincinnati, where Sokatch spent nearly a decade. It was there, Sokatch said, where he learned that "there is no us or them, blue states or red states; we're all Americans who share the same goals of a better world."

Sokatch spent his junior year of college in Ireland, studying the Irish conflict. He later earned a master's degree in international affairs at the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston, further deepening his empathy for and appreciation of different cultures.

"He's a 21st-century prophet," said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, who calls himself a "soul" friend of Sokatch. "By that, I mean Daniel knows that God is for all people and cares about the happiness and healing of everyone."

Sokatch's even-keeled temperament and unfailing graciousness have won him plaudits from many in the Jewish community who do not always share his political views. Gary Ratner, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Western Region, said he considers Sokatch an "excellent, excellent, fine young man" with a deep commitment to making the world better, this despite the fact, Ratner said, that "we certainly have many disagreements about what those problems are and how to fix them."

However, Ratner and other Jewish leaders are troubled by Sokatch's willingness to work with MPAC, which they consider a radical, anti-Israel organization.

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