When the largest-ever Los Angeles delegation to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference swept into Washington, D.C., last week, excitement over an upsurge in Jewish Los Angeles' pro-Israel activism spread contagiously throughout the vast convention center.
L-R: David Rogier, Carla Cagle, Jackie Matthew, Sandy Matthew, Rep. J. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.), Elizabeth Jacobi, Daniel Zakowski, Jan Zakowski, Phil Zakowski, David Rosenberg
It was a momentous occasion for Los Angeles' Jewish community, which has typically been generous with financial contributions to Israel but light on direct engagement. Many West Coast liberals are frequently accused of having a cavalier attitude about Israel and of not considering pro-Israel politics to be imperative. So when 1,000 area Jews traveled cross-country to participate in the three-day conference this year (twice the number from last year), the effort signaled a marked shift.
That shift was made especially clear at the opening plenary breakfast on June 2, when the pro-Israel lobby announced that three out of four synagogue delegations with more than 100 people in attendance were from Los Angeles: Sinai Temple (240), Stephen S. Wise Temple (160) and Valley Beth Shalom (105).
Overall attendance was strong given that it is both an election year and Israel's 60th year of independence. More than 7,000 Israel advocates came to hear the most powerful people in Congress -- including Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- voice their political support for Israel.
The Southern Pacific region represented the country's largest delegation to the conference this year with 1,500 attendees from Southern California, Southern Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona.
"Clearly there is something special happening throughout the various Jewish communities across the L.A. area," said Josh Block, director of strategic communications for AIPAC. "The enormous and record-shattering turnout is a genuine tribute to the strength and passions of the pro-Israel community in L.A. and those that led the effort, including the area's lay leadership, rabbis and their congregants, and pro-Israel activists, all in partnership with dedicated staff."
The Los Angeles numbers suggest a shift from the usual East Coast dominance. New York, home to a Jewish population twice the size of that of Los Angeles, brought slightly more than 900 delegates; Miami and Philadelphia, both highly populous in Jewish demography, brought even fewer numbers -- approximately 350 delegates -- combined.
"When I first went out to L.A. in 1978, my brother told me the granola joke -- that Los Angeles is like a granola: Fruits, nuts or flakes -- and that's not true anymore," said Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, who brought the single largest synagogue delegation in the country.
The trip was organized by congregant Jan Zakowski, whose father, Larry Weinberg, is a former AIPAC president and chairman emeritus of AIPAC's strategic planning committee.
Los Angeles has matured and grown its own indigenous political culture that is no longer comprised of first generation East Coast expats, Wolpe said. "Maybe the Los Angeles community, unlike say, the New York community, feels they have something to prove."
Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, perceives a Jewish cultural renaissance happening in Los Angeles, even while demographics of the larger American Jewish community suggest a diminishing vibrancy.
"We're a superior Jewish community. We're a community that cares -- you can be a Jew in New York without even trying; if you're a Jew in Los Angeles, it's because you want to be," Feinstein said.
Los Angeles' newfound voice at the conference stems from several factors, including the AIPAC staff here as well as the overflowing pool of pro-Israel support found in Los Angeles. But the bulk of the upswing in support has come from synagogues, where lay leaders have taken an active role in engaging with legislators, and rabbis increasingly use their pulpits to educate congregants on how to support the Jewish state short of living there.
Rabbi Eli Herscher, senior rabbi of Stephen S. Wise Temple, believes that as Israel celebrates 60 years of existence, American Jews are searching for meaningful ways to engage with the country.
"How do we find a meaningful relationship with an Israel that is now strong, that is vibrant?" Herscher asked. "How can we be partners -- not just during times of crisis, not just when there's war -- but how can we have an ongoing relationship with Israel that isn't only good for Israel, but gives deepened meaning to our Jewish lives here?"
When Stephen S. Wise was founded in 1964 and named for one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement, there was a Zionist culture ingrained in the vision of the synagogue, Herscher explained.
Four years ago, it was high school senior Drew Steinberg, now 21, who first brought AIPAC to the attention of the synagogue's president -- who also happened to be her mother. After interning at the Los Angeles AIPAC office, Drew inspired her mother, Eve Kurtin-Steinberg to galvanize support for AIPAC.
"I had been a Washington Club member not knowing anything, just sending them my money," said Kurtin-Steinberg, referring to the minimum $1,500 annual contribution level that qualifies members for special programming during the conference.
The 54-year-old managing director of Pacific Venture Group met with AIPAC staffers over breakfast before persuading Herscher to throw in his support. Next, she hosted a parlor meeting at her home in Beverly Hills for the synagogue's board of directors.
"I basically gently -- maybe not-so-gently -- said that I expected every member of the board to join AIPAC at least at a Washington Club level," Kurtin-Steinberg said. "I told AIPAC, 'If there's somebody not doing what they should be doing, let me know and I will sit down with them and have a one-on-one.'"
Now, at her fourth policy conference, Kurtin-Steinberg can say that Stephen S. Wise brought the second-largest synagogue delegation in the country, and she can also boast about the substantial political network she has created in her community, which she said hosts from six to eight senators and representatives each year.
"We're here. We're a force. We want to be visible when it comes to our commitments to Israel," said Herscher, who has seen his synagogue delegation double each year since 2006. "I think people are drawn to the policy conference because there's an excitement generated. Where do you find 7,500 Jews in one room not fighting with each other? It's a lovefest."
The conference focuses primarily on two things: education and lobbying.
"The ability to go on the hill and sit with a member of Congress and either thank them for what they do with support for American-Israel relations or, more importantly, meet someone who's uninformed and help educate them on the issues -- that's a very powerful thing, and to be able to do that as an ordinary citizen is very special," said Irv Weintraub, chief operating officer of the William Morris Agency.
While attending the Wexner Heritage Leadership program, Weintraub, now 54, was looking to get involved with a Jewish organization that had a national or international platform. As a leader in Hollywood, Weintraub also wanted to set an example -- not just with his checkbook, but also with his feet -- for colleagues in his industry.
"It's not about writing a check, because that's easy," Weintraub said. "It's very important that I be here, because it tells the community in which I live that it is important to be here. When you have leaders who step up and make those statements, people follow."
Weintraub added that there is a growing activism in the entertainment industry related to Jewish causes and Israel, but that Israel as a whole is sometimes too broad a category to justify supporting. Hollywood wants something specific to get behind.
Some say that is precisely the strength of AIPAC.
"AIPAC is a means of focusing American Jewry," said Sinai's Wolpe, who since January has been promoting attendance at the conference. "Politicians have a lot of stuff thrown at them, and they need something concrete and specific, and they can point to AIPAC to see how American Jews support Israel -- without that focus, it would be hard to pin down American Jewish support."
On the final day of the conference, 5,000 people went to the U.S. Capitol to lobby their congressional representatives regarding U.S. aid to Israel, halting Iranian nuclear proliferation and advocating Israel's right to defend itself against its enemies.
Concern over which presidential candidate will be best for Israel dominated discussions, with closest attention paid to Obama, whose allegiance to Israel has been a source of debate in recent months and whose limited track record on Israel renders him the most mysterious candidate.
But at AIPAC, bipartisanship is a central tenet of advocacy and is apparent throughout the conference.
"AIPAC brings together people who are highly partisan, bipartisan and partisan on the other side of the aisle, who all have one thing in common -- their love for Israel," said Howard Welinsky, 58, senior vice president for Warner Bros. Pictures Distributing.
The self-declared "die-hard Democrat" has been to Israel 11 times, and at every policy conference since 1992.
"I approach my pro-Israel activity in a very workman-like, business fashion," Welinsky said, avoiding sentimentalism to focus on his lobby appointments. "I feel like tomorrow, I have a job to do."
In 1989, while on a Federation-sponsored trip to Israel and Poland, where he visited Auschwitz and Germany, Welinsky had an epiphany.
"I just came to the conclusion that my life was too easy and too good, and I needed to invest more time in helping Israel."
His political activism began in California's Democratic Party in the mid-'70s, before he helped found Democrats for Israel Los Angeles, where he served as chair for several years. Most recently, he was appointed to the Democratic National Platform Committee, where he will support Obama's presidential bid.
AIPAC is the only place where Welinsky will cheer for Republicans.
"I'm as partisan as you can get, but how many times did I stand up for John McCain yesterday; and how many times in the past have I stood up for Newt Gingrich?"
For other West Coast liberals, there is reluctance to express bipartisan political support for legislators who have conflicting value systems, which poses a fundamental challenge to the Israel lobby.
Even though L.A. activism is on the rise, as representative of one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, Los Angeles still has a long way to go.
For starters, there is frustration that, in the absence of an L.A.-based political director (a position vacated when Marilyn Rosenthal was promoted to deputy national political director late last year), there will be difficulty moving forward, since the position is a strategic resource for both legislators and AIPAC members.
"I think we still have a lot more work to do," Kurtin-Steinberg said, after attending a leadership luncheon one afternoon. "This is an incredible beginning, but I hope it's not just a once-a-year event. Everybody in Los Angeles has to understand they have to build relationships with legislators and continue this process on a regular basis."
Others say that Angelenos are spoiled.
Between Reps. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Jane Harman (D-Venice) and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) among others, the region enjoys unequalled pro-Israel political support from its congressional representatives. But with 50 or 60 potential new legislators entering Congress in the next election, the challenge will be to reach out to new legislators -- especially those from districts with small or nonexistent Jewish communities who might lack knowledge about Israel.
Some people in the L.A. community cite grievances with the way AIPAC portrays itself.
"There is a degree of self-congratulation and self-righteousness and moral obtuseness that goes on at this conference -- an insensitivity to mistakes Israel makes," VBS's Feinstein said. "There's this perception that first we'll get Israel safe, then we'll make Israel good. That's not the way Jews do things."
"There's an image of AIPAC among some Jews that it toes the line of the Israeli government and never expresses any criticism," Herscher said, which he believes is one reason some Jews are reluctant to engage with the pro-Israel political process.
Yet he said the reality reflects AIPAC's mission to support whatever government is in power in Israel, because it represents the Israeli electorate and the democratic will of Israelis.
"There are some who won't resonate to AIPAC because their relationship with Israel is dependent on whether they agree or disagree with the policies of a particular administration," Herscher said.
But AIPAC's goal is for supporters to transcend partisanship and support a democratic process that allows Israelis to be responsible for their own fate.
"I think you foster support for Israel, even when you disagree with their policies, by starting with a loving relationship that no policy can undermine," Hersher said. "And then, within that loving relationship," he added, "you can voice your criticism."