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A Stand in Sacramento

More than 200 Jewish activists from around the state lobbied for continued support of Israel.

by Tom Tugend

May 23, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Letters are good, said an old Sacramento hand, phone calls are good, faxes are good, but for real impact, nothing beats face-to-face meetings with legislators.

Putting the advice into practice, more than 200 Jewish activists from across California gathered in the state capital earlier this month for an update on current issues and an intensive afternoon lobbying assembly members and senators.

They had been convened for the annual mission to Sacramento by the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC), which describes itself as the oldest and largest statewide coalition of Jewish community organizations in the United States.

Before getting down to business, mission members, joined by 13 legislators, honored two of the most recognizable names in Jewish Los Angeles.

David Lehrer, former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, received the Earl Raab Award for 27 years of civil and human rights advocacy.

His proud mother, Trude Lehrer, reflected the general consensus when she declared firmly, "He deserves it!"

Paul Koretz, representing the 42nd Assembly District, whose constituency in West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles and the southeast Valley claims to be the most Jewish in the state, bestowed his district's Woman of the Year award on one of the community's true grande dames, Carmen Warschaw.

After a crash course in lobbying etiquette by JPAC's chair Barbara Yaroslavsky, association Director Coby King and legislative advocate Cliff Berg ("stay on the message," "don't argue with the legislator"), mission members divided into 15 teams, each assigned to meet with two legislators.

This year, JPAC sought legislative support for four issues and programs:

  • The Linkage Program, which enables adults, who, because of age or disability, would have difficulty living independently, to remain in their homes. Jewish Family Service agencies in both Southern and Northern California are among the 36 contractors who administer the program.

  • The Naturalization Services Program, which assists legal immigrants in obtaining U.S. citizenship.

  • The Hate Crimes Victims Justice Act, which would strengthen the hands of prosecutors and establish multiagency hate crime working groups in counties facing the highest levels of violence.

  • Solidarity with Israel, as expressed through an Assembly resolution urging President Bush and Congress "to remain steadfast in their support of Israel" and condemning "all acts of terrorism, including the recent wave of suicide bombings and the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians." The resolution was adopted unanimously the next day.

One team met with Democratic Sen. Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica, generally considered one the smartest and most liberal solons in town, who gave the visitors a quick lesson in practical politics.

With the all-important budget hearings in the home stretch, and the state facing a $22 billion deficit, even the worthiest proposal faced tough scrutiny in the appropriate budget subcommittees, advised Kuehl. In almost all cases, the subcommittee's recommendation is then rubber-stamped by the full Legislature.

"Try to support bills that don't cost anything, or very little," Kuehl suggested. "Everything is in competition with everything else, and if you add something here, you have to cut something there."

Armanda Susskind, an environmental lawyer, met with Democratic Assembly members Marco Firebaugh (Los Angeles), chair of the Latino Caucus, and Jenny Oropeza (Long Beach).

"I think the meeting was important in building bridges between the Jewish and Latino communities," Susskind observed. "We have many friends in the Legislature, but they may not be too familiar with communal Jewish issues."

While the citizen lobbyists made their best cases for the linkages, naturalization and anti-hate crime bills, it was obvious that for most of the men and women who had come to Sacramento, the emotional trigger was the solidarity with Israel resolution.

When Rabbi David Woznica, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' recently appointed executive vice president for Jewish affairs, gave a punchy pep talk at a breakfast meeting, the line greeted with the most enthusiastic applause was, "I am so proud of Israel."

Attorney Howard Hoffenberg said, "I'm here mainly because of what's been happening in Israel.... Our generation has an obligation to make Israel thrive. We can't drop the ball now."

Teacher Ruth Reich, an activist with the Standwithus.com grass-roots organization, said she was participating to back the Israel solidarity resolution and to promote pro-Israel initiatives on college campuses.

Northridge attorney Alphonse Sanchez and his wife, Judie Levin-Sanchez, affirmed that "we're motivated by events in Israel." The general proceedings were enlivened by the participation of 31 middle and high school students, all members of the youTHink program, initiated by Esther Netter of the Zimmer Children's Museum.

Twenty were from Shalhevet High School and another 11, representing an ethnic rainbow, were from public schools. They lobbied legislators on issues ranging from inequities in the school system to racial profiling.

Asked why they had come, one eighth-grader responded, "If we want social justice, we need to know how the system works."

A constant presence, night and day, was Assembly Speaker Emeritus Robert Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), who left no person, regardless of age or gender, unhugged.

"Your presence here makes all the difference," he said. "You have put the face of the Jewish community before the Legislature."

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