Ask a Northern Californian about Southern California, and normally you'll hear about everything that Southern California is lacking: lack of public transportation and lack of culture. Or else you'll hear about the excess: excess of fancy cars and excess of pollution.
But ask San Franciscan Elliot Brandt about Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Jewish community, and you won't be able to put a stop to his praise.
Since the 34-year-old moved here in April to become the Western States director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, Brandt expressed nothing but admiration. "To see the potential that is represented by the size of this Jewish community, the dynamism and the passion of this community ... it's amazing," Brandt said.
Reclining in his chair in his mid-Wilshire office with a bag of Sun Chips in hand, the 6-foot-2 Brandt seems settled here after spending the last few months meeting with top-level officials at Jewish organizations around the city.
Since Brandt took over, AIPAC's Southern Pacific region has more than doubled its new member enrollment from 500 to 1,200. Brandt insists that this is not his doing, but a natural communal response to the situation in Israel. "That is Federation and synagogue leadership stepping up its involvement," he said.
Brandt's public crediting of others is par for the course for someone working at an organization that has alway put Israel before its individual personalities. For the last 50 years, AIPAC, ranked by Fortune magazine among the top five lobbying groups, has worked with all Israeli administrations, and considers itself an apolitical group.
Southern California's increased involvement "is different communities across the spectrum, who come to the table with the idea that this is no longer about politics of left or right, Labor or Likud, this is about protecting Israel in a time of war," said Brandt,Â sitting forward in his chair, his relaxed tone changing pitch to passionate, as he tends to do when discussing Israel.
Israel has been central in Brandt's life from a young age. In grade school, he wrote letters to the president protesting the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System to the Saudis, and marched in Washington for Soviet Jews. "We were there. It is something that I've grown up caring about," Brandt said about Israel and Jewish causes.
Brandt began his relationship with AIPAC when he entered Stanford University. That's when the first intifada broke out and anti-Israel sentiment was rampant on campus. "It was a fairly raucous time on the campus. There were a handful of us that saw protecting Israel, defending Israel, as our cause," Brandt said.
But it was in 1991, the year after Brandt graduated college, that his dedication to Israel was solidified. While participating in OTZMA, a year-long fellowship program in Israel, talk of an impending war with Iraq began. Brandt was faced with a difficult decision early on: whether or not to stay.
His answer came to him after a young boy at Ramat Hadassah youth village, a haven for underprivileged and abused children where he volunteered much of his time, asked him on the eve of the Gulf War, "Are you leaving?"
The question was simple, but the impression was lasting. "Here was a kid who came from nothing, who had nothing, who had no choice but to stay. And I had the opportunity to leave anytime, leaving him and Israel behind. And I couldn't," he said.
And he hasn't abandoned Israel since. For the past nine years, Brandt has dedicated himself to AIPAC in San Francisco and was instrumental in mobilizing the large, previously uninvolved, Israeli population in the Silicon Valley, in addition to extending AIPAC's influence into areas with smaller Jewish populations, and training and empowering grassroots groups at Northern California colleges and universities.
When AIPAC began to restructure its staff positions in accordance with new intifada, the newly created position as Western States director was yet another opportunity for Brandt who oversees the pro-Israel political activity and strategy in California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. He supervises one staff person who heads satellite offices in Seattle and Phoenix and the full staffs at AIPAC's San Francisco and Los Angeles offices.
Brandt characterizes his plan for mobilization as a very "retail operation." "We are going to go synagogue by synagogue, community by community, we will speak in homes, in board rooms, in high schools, in community centers. We will truly go wherever there is a willingness to step up for Israel," he said.
As for Los Angeles, Brandt believes that the influence of the Jewish community lies in its numbers, not in its star power. "I don't want us, as an organization, spending lots of time tracking down or reaching out to high-profile actors and actresses. It's not a smart strategy," Brandt said. Instead, he is focusing on the entertainment community as a whole. He believes that although their names may not have as much clout, for many, their support for Israel is unwavering. "We're going to get agents involved, and producers, directors and lawyers, because these are people that are willing to take stands, they're willing to bring their friends into something that is cause-related," he said.
Some Los Angeles Jewish leaders find Brandt's passion inspiring. "From my vantage point he is a very positive influence on AIPAC," said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "He seems to be energetic and professional and he is a great colleague to work with in terms of advocacy for Israel. It is nice to have a professional colleague who sees his role in a broader context."
Brandt's outlook for the future is positive, but he warns that the opposition is strong. He says that Arab lobby groups are smart and that AIPAC has tripled its student budget in order to combat the anti-Israel sentiment that has been rampant on campuses nation-wide. Working with students to build coalitions with other student groups on campus, helping students understand the workings of student government and student policy and making sure that students are connected with the greater community so they don't feel alone, are just some of the plans that AIPAC has for campuses.
Brandt is also committed to reaching areas where there is a far smaller Jewish presence than Los Angeles. "[Los Angeles] has an obligation to build relationships with and support members of Congress from the South, from the Midwest, from the mountain states. In essence we have to be part of helping the Jewish communities in Mazula, Mont.; Visalia, Calif. and Sugarland, Texas."
For Brandt, the issue is not Southern California or Northern California, left wing or right wing -- the issue is the very existence of Israel. "We've spent the last many thousands of years answering the question: 'Are we our brothers and sisters keepers?' This is the time that demands an answer to that question." Â
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