January 18, 2007
Progressive values propel Daniel Sokatch’s rising star
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Despite publicly supporting a two-state solution and denouncing terrorism, MPAC leaders have, on occasion, called Israel an aggressive colonizer and an apartheid state, which according to some Jews, are anti-Semitic code words meant to delegitimize the Jewish homeland. MPAC has also supported the Israel divestment movement.
PJA and Sokatch are "outside the boundaries of the mainstream Jewish community," said Avi Davis, executive director of the Israel Christian Nexus, a Jewish organization that supports closer ties with the pro-Israel Christian community. "They're far out there."
But Sokatch believes MPAC is committed to working with PJA in good faith to dispel mutual suspicions and build a better Los Angeles. Over the years, he has come to know several MPAC executives, including Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati and MPAC board member Nayyer Ali, whom, he said, share his belief that Jews and Muslims should join forces to ensure the separation of church and state, protect civil rights and work together to address homelessness, poverty and other social ills plaguing the city. As Sokatch sees it, the stakes are too high to dismiss a potential Muslim partner for failing to support Israel as fervently as Jews do.
"Dan is an outstanding Jewish leader," said Ali "who's willing to judge others honestly and with great integrity."
Sokatch gained his first hands-on exposure to social activism through his religious pursuits. In high school, he helped raise awareness about the plight of Jews in Ethiopia, when he served as vice president of a Reform Jewish youth group.
He attended Brandeis, where he graduated in 1990 with degrees in history and Near Eastern and Judaic studies. Perhaps subconsciously heeding his relatives' call to social activism, after graduation, he took a job in Boston from 1990 to 1994, helping the homeless and mentally ill find housing and get disability insurance. Through that work, he said, he learned how to advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised and to cut through bureaucratic red tape -- skills that he would later draw upon at PJA.
"The job only paid $15,000 but taught me more about the haves and the have-nots than any other experience in my life," Sokatch said. "From them on, I knew I wanted to be an advocate and an activist."
After his short stint at rabbinical school in Israel, which he attended because of his deep love of Judaism and a desire to live there, Sokatch enrolled in a joint-degree program at the Fletcher School, studying international affairs at Tufts and law at Boston College Law School. While there, he took a civil rights law class taught by Deval Patrick, who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton administration from 1994 to 1997 and who recently became Massachusetts' first African-American governor. Patrick showed him how law could be used as a tool for social good.
"He made it clear that the great work of our time was to fulfill the mandate that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights set out for us," Sokatch said. "It was a beautiful picture, and I thought 'I want to fight for that.'"
In 1999, Sokatch married Dana Reinhardt, whose father is Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and whose stepmother is Ramona Ripston, ACLU of Southern California executive director.
"I married into California liberal aristocracy," Sokatch quipped.
He and Reinhardt, an author of young adult books, have two small children. In 1999, Sokatch joined the law firm of Day, Berry & Howard in Boston to work in the civil rights division with his mentor, Patrick. However, Patrick left the firm just before Sokatch's arrival, and Sokatch ended up working as a litigator, a position he found less than satisfying.
Around the same time, a group of disaffected members from the Southern California chapter of the American Jewish Congress broke away from the organization, which they felt had moved too far to the right. The dissenters formed the Progressive Jewish Alliance, with lots of big ideas about social justice but no leader. They wanted an executive who could translate their vision of economic justice and prison reform, among other issues, into action that would resonate with politicians, opinion makers and the public.
They found what they were looking for in Sokatch, who longed for meaningful work and was ready "to roll up my sleeves." Although he had no experience heading a nonprofit, Sokatch beat out five other highly qualified candidates for the newly created position, said Doug Mirell, a PJA co-founder who served on the search committee.
Sokatch's background, education and dynamism impressed all who interviewed him, Mirell added. But his willingness to take a huge pay cut to join a fledgling organization with few resources highlighted the new director's deep commitment to pursuing social justice, he said.
PJA appears to have made the right choice. Due partly to Sokatch's fundraising prowess, PJA is poised for future expansion around the country. Although there are other Jewish social justice groups nationally, only the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs is as large as PJA. The organization has created such buzz that, unlike most other Jewish groups, PJA has successfully tapped into the elusive young Jewish demographic, with nearly 50 percent of its members under 40.
"We're blessed to have him," Mirell said. "He's the real deal."
Most important, perhaps, PJA's success at becoming an important player in the local organized Jewish community in such a short period of time reflects its leader's tenaciousness.
"I'm proud of what PJA has done so far. But we know there are tens of thousands of Jews in California and beyond for whom our brand of Jewish activism can be an incredibly compelling way to connect to Jewish life and to the cities in which we live," Sokatch said. "We're going to go get them."
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