Jewish Journal

From Punk Teen to Bet Tzedek Dream

by Marc Ballon

Posted on Jul. 10, 2003 at 8:00 pm

Mitch Kamin

Mitch Kamin

Mitch Kamin was a punk. As a teenager, he would don grubby jeans and an attitude and make his way to the Roxy, Madame Wong's or the Whisky A Go Go to listen to the sonic drum-and-guitar assaults of such bands as X and the Circle Jerks. Plowing his way through the mosh pit, the young Kamin experienced a cathartic release as the music pounded throughout his body.

But punk music made him think as much as it made him sweat. With lyrics about government repression, racial injustice and economic dislocation, the songs helped sharpen his already well-developed empathy for the dispossessed, an attitude cultivated by his liberal mother and a grandmother who admonished him to never cross a picket line.

Today, the 36-year-old executive director of public interest law firm Bet Tzedek sports a crisp button-down shirt and tie. With trendy glasses, the Berkeley Phi Beta Kappa and Harvard Law School graduate looks less like an ex-punker than a hip banker. But behind the establishment facade lurks the heart of an activist.

"I think he's always cared about folks who don't get a fair shake," said Dave Singleton, executive director of the Cincinnati-based Prison Reform Advocacy Center and a former colleague of Kamin's at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS). "I know his commitment to right unfairness in our society is very much part of his fabric. He is deeply committed to working for social justice."

Kamin, who beat out more than a dozen candidates for the position, took over from former Bet Tzedek head David Lash in April. His tenure begins at a time when nonprofits like Bet Tzedek are reeling from a combination of the sour economy and cutbacks in government funding. With about 60 percent of Bet Tzedek's money coming from increasingly cautious donors and 40 percent from cash-strapped governments, Kamin admits that maintaining its current level of service is a challenge.

Still, Kamin vowed that the agency -- which will hold its Justice Ball fundraiser July 12 and is the nation's only Jewish-run legal aid service -- would continue to work tirelessly on behalf of tenants, Holocaust victims and the elderly. To protect apartment dwellers, for instance, the nonprofit group recently joined the city of Los Angeles as a co-defendant to prevent landlords from unlawfully evicting tenants for failing to provide copies of Social Security cards, driver's licenses and other such "irrelevant" information, Kamin said.

Ever the optimist, Kamin said he has held preliminary discussions with executives at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, a Bet Tzedek benefactor, about opening a Tel Aviv branch within two years. Such a facility would provide legal services to indigent Israelis in much the same way that Bet Tzedek's North Hollywood and Fairfax offices assist area residents.

Kamin also said he has talked to Bet Tzedek's board about opening a third facility elsewhere in Southern California, a move that reflects his belief that the best way to serve a community is to be a part of it.

"I want to do more for more people," he said.

Georgetown University law professor Viet Dinh, Kamin's moot court teammate at Harvard and an avowed conservative, said Bet Tzedek's new leader possesses the right qualities to flourish in his new position.

"We both believe in the importance of integrity, in a commitment to public service and in community," said Dinh, the former assistant attorney general for legal policy at the U.S. Department of Justice and one of the main architects of the Patriot Act.

Growing up in a progressive household, Kamin developed an abiding concern for the poor, oppressed and victimized. As a sixth-grader, he was the youngest person to serve on a districtwide student council that promoted integration. At age 13, he gave a bar mitzvah speech on how nobody could really be free until Soviet Jews and other repressed people were liberated.

A straight-A student at Hamilton High School, Kamin went to UC Berkeley and studied social sciences. He also deepened his political activism, marching in anti-apartheid protests and canvassing for an environmental nonprofit. A few years later, he matriculated from Harvard Law. Kamin graduated cum laude.

While many of his classmates traipsed off to high-powered, high-paying East Coast firms, he landed a prestigious two-year Skadden Fellowship to practice public interest law. The pay: $32,000 annually, plus forgiveness of his law school loans during his service. Kamin considered himself lucky.

Heading to New York, he took a position with the nonprofit NDS in 1994. Kamin did civil rights work for poor Harlem and Washington Heights residents. Among his victories, he successfully sued the local police for brutality and won the right for a grandmother to continue living in her public housing, even though her grandson had been accused of selling drugs on the premises. Kamin was so enamored of the work that he stayed with NDS an additional two years after his fellowship ended.

Venture capitalist Daniel Weiss, one of his oldest friends, said Kamin takes pains to provide quality service to his poor clients. He remembers watching Kamin gently put his arm around a client during a hearing and whisper in his ear what was happening.

Temporarily leaving the nonprofit world, Kamin spent a year at blue-chip law firm O'Melveny & Myers and later became a partner at L.A.-based O'Neill, Lysaght & Sun. At O'Neill, he focused on civil litigation and business law, an experience that he said gave him the exposure to financial and accounting issues necessary to oversee a public interest firm like Bet Tzedek. Kamin is most proud of having won a large settlement on behalf of DeWayne McKinney, a wrongly convicted African American who spent 19 years in prison.

Although happy with his job at O'Neill, he felt like something was missing. That's why Kamin jumped at the chance to head Bet Tzedek, taking a substantial pay cut in the process.

"I feel like this is a job I was preparing for my entire career," he said.

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