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JewishJournal.com

January 18, 2007

Progressive values propel Daniel Sokatch’s rising star

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/progressive_values_propel_daniel_sokatchs_rising_star_20070119

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. 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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