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A Liberal Jewish Voice

Progressive Jewish Alliance sets up shop in Los Angeles.

by Tom Tugend

September 28, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Left:PJA executive director Daniel Sokatch. Right:PJA president Douglas E. Mirell.

Left:PJA executive director Daniel Sokatch. Right:PJA president Douglas E. Mirell.

Under the banner of "A Jewish Voice in the Progressive Community - A Progressive Voice in the Jewish Community," the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) has set up offices and hired its first executive director.He is 32-year-old Daniel Sokatch, who hopes to rouse what he sees as the largely disenfranchised liberal and leftist voices in the Jewish community and attract noninvolved Jews of his own generation.

The leadership of the PJA formerly headed the regional chapter of the American Jewish Congress. They seceded in the spring of last year, claiming that the organization had forsaken its traditional liberal agenda. National headquarters in New York contested the claim, charging that the Los Angeles chapter had been shut down because it wouldn't pay its bills.

Despite his youth, Sokatch has been involved in progressive Jewish activism for 15 years, starting at Brandeis University. After graduation, he spent four years working with homeless and mentally ill adults, and then earned a law degree, focusing on conflict resolution and civil and human rights.

He continued litigating civil rights cases at a Boston law firm before joining PJA, "to pursue my life's passion of working for social justice in a progressive Jewish context."

Last October, he married Dana Reinhardt, a producer for PBS's "Frontline" program. She is the daughter of well-known liberal Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and great-granddaughter of the famous German-Jewish impresario Max Reinhardt.

During an interview joined by PJA president Douglas E. Mirell, a constitutional and media entertainment lawyer, the two men acknowledged that the old-time liberalism has been largely marginalized, both in the Jewish community and general American society.

In a far-reaching political shift, "What used to be the extreme right is now seen as moderate conservative, and the liberal position is perceived as radical," Sokatch observes.

In contrast to the established Jewish organizations, which, he says, are largely composed of people "who have made it or are retired," PJA expects to attract many young people and college students, "who are not affiliated and have no place in the Jewish world."

There is a need for an organized progressive Jewish voice, maintains Mirell, because established organizations have become largely mute.

"It used to be that The Jewish Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee served in that role, but it has now become an adjunct to The Federation's fundraising activities," says Mirell, who resigned from the JCRC urban affairs committee three years ago.

"Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so the field is wide open on the left," Mirell adds.

PJA expects to fill the perceived void by seeking to reform economic inequalities, the criminal and juvenile justice systems, police abuses, and "Draconian" immigration laws. It will work toward full gay and lesbian integration, end of the death penalty, stringent gun control and outreach to other ethnic groups.

In the Middle East, PJA plans to ally itself with the Peace Now movement in advocating an independent Palestinian state, while maintaining a secure Israel.

Among PJA's chief priorities and activities, now and in its previous AJCongress incarnation, has been the fight against sweatshops, particularly in the garment industry with its numerous Jewish employers, dialogue with American Arabs and Muslims, and a cleanup of police corruption and abuse.

Although PJA has an impressive roster of community activists and rabbis on its board of directors, at this point it has not done any membership recruitment.

Initially, PJA will focus on the Los Angeles scene, but it expects to expand nationally and become a spokesperson for national issues.

It is not surprising that PJA started on the "left coast," says Mirell. "We have the country's most liberal Jewish community and you can compile a much larger list of progressive Jews in Los Angeles than in New York."

Sokatch goes so far as to claim that "PJA is the first national, multi-issue Jewish organization to come out of California."

For now, PJA's watchword, taken from former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, is to "Think Globally and Act Locally."

Another quotable saying, proclaimed by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, founder of the AJCongress, is "Our quarrel is not with Jews who are different, but Jews who are indifferent."

"We have taken Rabbi Wise from the AJCongress," says Mirell. "It no longer deserves him."The attorney acknowledges that liberalism is not the country's flavor of the year, certainly not in the presidential race. "The two major candidates collectively occupy the farthest right position of any presidential election in my lifetime," says Mirell.

However, he observes philosophically, political attitudes come and go in cycles. "I believe that the time will come when 'liberalism' is not a dirty word," he adds. "We're in the vanguard of those trying to make the time come sooner, and in the meanwhile can serve as a bulwark against further regression until the Messianic era arrives."

Sokatch doesn't believe in the vaunted political indifference of Generation X, even in Los Angeles, the reputed "epicenter of apathy."

"After the demonstrations in Seattle, Los Angeles saw thousands of people at the Shadow Convention and on the streets," he notes.

Even in choosing the location of its offices, PJA wants to make a symbolic statement. Rather than move into the high-rise, renovated Jewish Community Building, its offices are at the more modest Westside Jewish Community Center, on Olympic near Fairfax, and in a "grittier but more acceptable" neighborhood, says Sokatch.

PJA's phone number is (323)761-8350, e-mail address is dsokatch@pjalliance.org, and the website atwww.pjalliance.org

(The American Jewish Congress is making a comeback in Los Angeles, with a new regional president, executive director and offices. In an upcoming issue, we will report on this development.)

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