Yom Kippur afternoon at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 5773, offered a mix of politics, power and menchlichkeit. The Reform synagogue invited the governor of California for an afternoon chat before the congregation on the holiest day of the year. It was a way to pass the long hours of the latter part of a thoughtful day, offering a merging of information and progressive politics, as well as a chance for Gov. Jerry Brown to put in multiple plugs for his Prop. 30 ballot initiative that hopes to raise taxes to fund schools and balance the state’s foundering budget.
Beginning his remarks with a history lesson on the adventurous spirit of California’s founding and of the story of the Gold Rush, Brown’s erudition ended with a quotation from the poet Robert Frost. Along the way he talked of his four years of study to become a Jesuit priest, and of the difference between valuing repentance – the theme of the day – and politics, an arena in which, he said “There is no particular reward for acknowledging sin of any kind, because it will be replayed endlessly.”
Brown said California’s early spirit is “still with us,” citing the oil, movie, alternative energy and technology industries that have since come to define the state. Calling it a place of “creativity and invention,” he remarked that California is also a place that “creates some fear and some antipathy around the country.”
His words of optimism were marked by a decided advocacy for Prop. 30, which includes a 1/4-cent increase in the sales tax, and an income tax increase for high earners. Prop 30, he said, “solves a huge problem,” raising money for schools, which, he said, will face huge cuts if it does not pass in November.
Brown nudged the Beverly Hills crowd to help get the measure passed, evidence of why he’d come. It “will take a little money – hopefully from some of the people in this room. Not too much, but,” he said to great applause, “it feels better to give.”
The governor was introduced by Rabbi Laura Geller, and then by movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg – a longtime congregant. Katzenberg told the standing-room-only sanctuary the Jewish value of tikkun olam on this day was being applied to “tikkun California –how we make California a better place.”
The governor’s approximately half hour speech was followed by a conversation conducted by Geller and Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, posing questions collected from congregants prior to the event.
Asked by Aaron to distinguish Prop. 30 from Prop. 38, a second tax hike measure facing voters on the same ballot in November, Brown made clear that “the problem is, the state’s general fund has a hole, and Prop. 30 plugs it, and Prop. 38 does not.” The former gives money to the general fund to be directed to schools, including public schools and universities, but also allows for funding public health programs, as well as safety, welfare and prisons. Prop. 38 would fund public schools directly, including preschools through high school, but would leave higher-education institutions, among other programs, potentially facing large cuts.
Under California law, even if both measures are approved, only one could take effect, because they are in conflict.
Geller also asked about the “Divest from Iran Act” sponsored by Assembly members Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) and Bob Blumenfield (D-San Fernando Valley) that Brown signed into law this week.
“I wanted California to send a message of disapproval to Iran. It’s the least I could do,” the governor told the crowd in another applause line. He spoke on the same day that Iranian President Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations, saying (through a translator): “The current abysmal situation of the world and the bitter incidents of history are due mainly to the wrong management of the world and the self-proclaimed centers of power who have entrusted themselves to the devil.”
In closing, Geller posed one last question, which she said was meant as a surprise. She asked the governor, a former seminarian, to compare his current job to that of a congregational rabbi.
“It is more difficult to pastor a congregation than to shepherd a state,” the two-time governor responded spontaneously with a smile. “You have to see them in person.”
Then, he added, “it’s also more rewarding.” His final words were to quote Robert Frost. “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting’” and, the governor said, paraphrasing the late poet, it “ends in surprise.”