When Joshua Malina arrived at his first Jewish Federation event, a 2001 pro-Israel rally, he received an unpleasant surprise. The boyish, 36-year-old actor -- expected to become a regular on NBC's White House drama "The West Wing" -- had a respectable career going. "But I was appalled that bigger stars hadn't turned out to support Israel," he said, sounding as passionate as his new "West Wing" character, campaign manager Will Bailey.
"It just drives me nuts that there are so many high-profile Jews in Hollywood, yet we can't get anybody to say, 'Yes, I defend Israel,'" the actor said. "It's not that I expect people to sign off on everything the Israeli government does. I just don't think it should be considered a radical thing for celebrities to say that the Jewish State has a right to exist in peace. But I think the general feeling is, 'God forbid I should associate myself with such a political firecracker.'"
Malina, who grew up in a traditional, Zionist household, doesn't mind being a firecracker for Israel and other Jewish causes. He's served on a young leadership committee of the New Israel Fund, which is devoted to enhancing democracy in Israel.
The actor has also read to children at the Central Library to support Koreh L.A., The Federation's literacy initiative. And on Dec. 4 he'll serve as a celebrity chair of the fourth annual Vodka Latka event, benefiting Federation-supported services for at-risk children.
The event, at the Hollywood Palladium, will include a fashion show by Sharon Segal of Fred Segal, cocktails by Campari and a performance by the musical group Pink Martini. "I like being associated with a Jewish group that addresses the needs of the entire community, regardless of race or religion," Malina said of The Federation.
For Vodka Latka, Malina convinced friends such as Hank Azaria and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos to serve as celebrity chairs. "I'm not deluded enough to consider myself an actual celebrity," he said matter-of-factly. "What I consider myself is a conduit to bring bigger stars to an event."
Other celebs scheduled to attend include Christina Applegate, Mili Avital, Evan and Jaron Lowenstein and Jonathan Silverman.
Malina grew up in a kosher home in New Rochelle, N.Y., where charity was de rigueur. One of his earliest memories was dropping coins into his first-grade tzedakah box, savoring the "plunking" sound as his teacher, Mrs. Rosenblatt, encouraged him to recite the phrase "mitzvah gedola latet tzedakah" (it's a great mitzvah to give charity).
Meanwhile, his parents, Robert and Fran, founding members of Young Israel of Scarsdale, N.Y., read to the blind, donated bags of food to the poor and a significant amount of their income to charity.
"My father never walked past a [panhandler] without giving him something," Malina recalled. "I remember once suggesting that a particular man might not make the best use of the money. My father quoted the Talmud, stating that if a person is reduced to asking for money, you don't ask questions."
Robert Malina, who has worked as an attorney, investment banker and Broadway producer, told The Journal that his son was a quick study. "Joshua was always sensitive to other people's feelings," he said. "I remember situations when he was at camp and he befriended children who were not befriended often. He very quickly took to the notion that Judaism is an action-oriented religion."
During Joshua Malina's childhood, his father's best friend was Neil Simon's producer, Manny Azenberg. Young Josh grew up attending his plays and dreaming of replacing Matthew Broderick as Jewish protagonist Eugene Morris Jerome in "Brighton Beach Memoirs."
Closer to home, he starred in plays at his yeshiva, Westchester Day School, and watched his cousins perform with their Jewish pal Aaron Sorkin at Scarsdale High. His favorite Sorkin role: Jesus in "Godspell."
After Malina graduated from Yale with a theater degree in 1988, it was his mother who suggested that he look up Sorkin, by then a 28-year-old wunderkind taking the New York theater scene by storm.
"It was the best advice I could have received," said Malina, who soon became Sorkin's good friend and poker buddy. He was surprised, however, when the writer-producer asked him to audition for his Broadway play, "A Few Good Men" -- and equally surprised when he got the part. "Within a year of graduating college, I had achieved my dream of acting on Broadway," he said.
Sorkin later cast Malina as a Jewish producer in his ABC series, "Sports Night," writing him a juicy Passover seder scene and sequences in which his character argued with a non-Jewish girlfriend.
When Sorkin recently cast Malina as Will Bailey, an Orange County Democratic campaign manager in "The West Wing," he braced the actor for some bad news. "He said, 'Now your character is not going to be Jewish,' as if I might object," Malina recalled.
The plan is for Bailey to be considered for a presidential speechwriting job in the fictional White House.
"Josh is the player you always want to pick for your team," Sorkin said. "There's never a false note and he has world-class comedy skills. And everybody likes him in the huddle. When you have an opportunity to cast Josh, you do."
While the "West Wing" production schedule is hectic, Malina, a husband and father of two, makes time for Jewish life. He attends Temple Beth Am and keeps a kosher home, a mitzvah he likes because "it reminds me, three times a day, that I am Jewish."
When his father noodged him to give more to charity, he complied -- but not out of guilt. "I give because that's how I was raised," he said. "You don't achieve this level of lifestyle without sharing it. I'd feel guilty if I earned this kind of money without sharing it."
He also continues serving as a spokesperson when called upon for The Federation and other groups and hopes to participate in a Hollywood mission to Israel. "It's rare that I wish I were more famous, because that's never been a motivating factor for me," he said, recalling that pro-Israel rally a year and a half ago. "But to support Israel, I do wish I were a more recognizable face."