October 18, 2007
New Chairman of the Jewish Federation: I’m ‘gonna make it relevant’
(Page 3 - Previous Page)"When I have a serious issue to think through, when I have some kind of intellectual or moral dilemma that involves the greater community, he is one of the very few people that I will turn to that I know will be forthright and instructive," Leder said. "He is one of my go-to guys and always will be."
Just before 11 a.m. on Aug. 10, 1999, a tranquil day in the San Fernando Valley turned to tragedy, when Buford O. Furrow stormed into the North Valley Jewish Community Center and unloaded some 70 rounds from an Uzi. He had picked the JCC because Furrow, a white supremacist from the Northwest, hated Jews, and security at the community center was a lot lighter than his three initial targets -- the Museum of Tolerance, the Skirball Cultural Center and the American Jewish University (AJU), formerly known as the University of Judaism. Furrow wounded a receptionist, a teenage counselor and three children and later that day killed a Filipino American postal carrier.
All five Jewish victims recovered, but the community's psyche was severely wounded. The Federation responded by providing counseling for victims and securing the JCC facility. Nevertheless, that a rally organized by The Federation and other Jewish organizations at Cal State Northridge days after the shooting was attended by only 1,000 people still stings almost a decade later for Michael Berenbaum.
"I would have thought that given the attack on the JCC, and how many people have kids, and how many people routinely drop kids off at the JCC, I would have thought that we would have had 50,000 people show up. I was horrified by how low a turnout it was," said Berenbaum, who'd moved to Los Angeles a year before, after creating the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"That was 10 years ago, but they did not succeed in mobilizing the community for an event in which there had been shots fired at our kids. I was saying to myself, 'How is that possible?'" he continued. "It said something about Los Angeles, and it said something about the lack of community. I've never gotten over that."
"Jewish life in Los Angeles is flourishing," added Berenbaum, a writer and adjunct professor at AJU, "but it is flourishing with decentralized initiatives that don't feel a need to consult The Federation. That says The Federation is not central or pivotal. Clearly we have a community with wealth and a community with commitment but not a community that seems to be talking with each other and dreaming great visions of the community together."
To be sure, The Federation is not dead. But with the successes of organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, with its larger-than-life leader, Rabbi Marvin Hier, and with the rise of voices like those of the Jewish World Watch, Progressive Jewish Alliance and StandWithUs, which receive some Federation support and have filled the public-advocacy gap left by the decline of the JCRC, many observers fear The Federation's leadership role is fading.
"Way back in '67, when there was the war, it was the rallying point for that and every crisis since then, even last year in the war in Lebanon," said Richard Sandler, a big-idea guy who sits on the boards of AJU and the Milken Institute and who will be joining Gold in January as The Federation's vice chair. "It's always been the focal point of the Jewish community, yet every year I think we all see the fact that more and more organizations that do fantastic work in the community do their own fundraising. The Federation doesn't seem to this generation -- now, I'm old -- to have the same anchor position in the community."
At 59, Sandler is not actually that old. But a native of Los Angeles with a history of service at The Federation that dates to his father, Raymond, Sandler remembers days when more people gave to The Federation out of enthusiasm, not obligation.
Together, he and Gold hope to return that enthusiasm by elevating The Federation's role for Los Angeles Jewry.
What exactly could happen at The Federation's headquarters? Well, to start, Gold wants to make 6505 Wilshire Boulevard the premiere Los Angeles address for Israel relationships.
In this vein, Gold can build upon a solid foundation. The Federation's 10-year-old Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, with an annual budget of $1.5 million, has created relationships between 18 local Jewish schools and 18 in Israel; it's provided a channel for Israeli writers, producers and actors to communicate with their counterparts in Hollywood, and supported the exchange of students between Tel Aviv University and UCLA.
"I want to expand not just the partnership, but the functionality of our relationship with Israel to being superb," Gold said. "I want every organization in Los Angeles to see us as their travel agent, as their tour guide, as their introduction to social, culture, religious, political counterparts in Israel. We can do it. We have half a leg up on that."
His second focus is leadership training, regardless of whether the grooming results in more Federation volunteers, Gold said. "If they go on and become leaders of AJC or HUC or the new American Jewish University or 100 other organizations, that is fine with me. They are making a contribution at that level, and we ought to take great pride in that, and we ought to help them along."
Gold's third area of interest, community relations, will likely be the most challenging. Jewish activists have been sharply critical of the downsizing of the once-vibrant Jewish Community Relations Committee, which prior to the mid-1990s spoke out on behalf of L.A. Jews on controversial issues, ranging from Proposition 187 to the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. But it's been mostly reduced to one program, KOREH L.A., a successful literacy program that provides volunteer tutors at public schools.