Three events last week celebrated the inauguration of John Pérez as the California Assembly’s new speaker while also emphasizing his connection to Judaism. Although he is not Jewish, Pérez, the first openly LGBT person to be elected to one of the state’s most powerful leadership positions, enjoys ties to the Jewish world.
“The Jewish community’s got an important part of the history in the city of L.A., in particular my district,” Pérez said following his Los Angeles swearing-in ceremony at an open-air plaza outside of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
Pérez’s 46th Assembly District includes Boyle Heights, home to a large part of Los Angeles’ Jewish community during the first half of the 20th century and still home to the Breed Street Shul, an aging but “important institution,” Pérez said.
“I’m so happy to spend time with people there who are working to bring [the synagogue] back and make it a meaningful center,” Pérez said as crowds swarmed around him requesting his autograph on their event handbills.
A longtime project to renovate and turn the badly deteriorated Breed Street Shul, the former home of Congregation Talmud Torah, into a neighborhood community center has been spearheaded by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.
At his official inauguration in Sacramento on March 1, Pérez took his oath on a Tanakh following an invocation by Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in West Hollywood. In his speech at that ceremony, Pérez spoke of his commitment to budget reform, progressive environmental policy and higher education.
Pérez’s remarks in Little Tokyo came after L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the California Assembly speaker’s cousin, said in a speech about Pérez’s election: “I feel like a proud father who has watched a young man grow.”
A week earlier, on March 7, Pérez, who was formally elected by a party-line 48-26 vote on Jan. 7 and replaces Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), appeared at a Jewish community leadership reception at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. Co-sponsored by the Jewish Public Affairs Committee (JPAC), the event honored Pérez’s appointment and offered him an opportunity for a formal introduction with community leaders.
Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California, offered a blessing for Pérez and wished him luck on his journey as the new speaker.
At The Federation’s Goldsmith Center, Andrew Cushnir, associate executive vice president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, presented Pérez with a framed photo of Pérez in front of the Western Wall, taken during JPAC’s 2008 Legislators’ Study Trip to Israel — the speaker’s first visit to the Jewish state. The trip’s goal was to foster a better sociopolitical and cultural understanding of the country through visiting historical sites and meeting with counterparts in the Israeli government.
Back in Little Tokyo, as the music of a marching band reinforced the celebratory mood of the day, Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) spoke of Pérez’s relationship with the Jewish community. Feuer was one of many Jewish leaders who came to support Pérez at the ceremony. H. David Nahai, senior adviser to the Clinton Climate Initiative, and Irving S. Lebovics, chairman of Agudath Israel of California, also attended.
“John is close to the Jewish community through his values and acts,” Feuer said. “I think he will have a thriving relationship with the Jewish community. It’s good for California.”