The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), a pro-Israel group associated with right-wing Israeli politics, is setting up shop in Los Angeles and, in keeping with California custom, has named a personality from the entertainment industry as its local president.
He is Ed Ames, the smooth-voiced former lead singer of the Ames Brothers, one of the most popular harmony groups of the 1950s.
In announcing the appointment in a recent interview, national ZOA President Morton Klein said, "We want to have an important voice on the West Coast, so we chose the best voice we could find."
At this point, ZOA has rented offices in Tarzana and is in the process of forming a board of directors, which currently has 18 members.
When fully organized and running, the Los Angeles chapter will be the first professionally staffed ZOA office in the western United States, joining the established branches in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Pittsburgh.
"For some time, we have been asked by supporters and major donors to establish a formal presence in Southern California, and we are now in the financial position to do so," Klein said.
He added that the Los Angeles chapter would hold off on long-range program plans until the group broadened its base, reached a sound financial footing, and appointed a full-time executive director.
Founded in 1897, ZOA had been in decline from its heydays under the leadership of Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, but has regained some prominence since the energetic and vocal Klein assumed the presidency 10 years ago.
ZOA's national budget, though still quite modest compared to the major American Jewish organizations, has increased fivefold in the last decade, and national membership stands at 40,000, Klein said. The opening of an office in Southern Florida is now under consideration.
With its aggressive policy statements and aggressive Israel advocacy, ZOA is generally placed on the right wing of the American Jewish community. A Klein opinion piece, posted on the ZOA Web site, refers to the impending Israeli pullout from Gaza as "throwing Jews out of their homes and giving land to a terrorist regime."
How will the organization fare among the predominantly liberal Jews of Los Angeles and California?
"The issues for Jews are not left wing or right wing," Klein said. "Jews are not educated because they get most of their information from the mainstream media. Once they hear the truth, they are no longer left wing."
Klein said he had spoken at liberal synagogues in Los Angeles, as well as at Berkeley and other campuses, and enjoyed positive and often enthusiastic audience responses once he had explained the "real facts."
Ames, born Edmund Dantes Urick as the youngest of nine children of Russian Jewish immigrants, starred both as a scholar and athlete at the prestigious Boston Latin School.
After high school, he and three of his brothers formed the Ames Brothers, whose cool and classy renditions of numerous hit songs soon made them a national favorite in club appearances, variety shows and on radio and television programs.
The brothers act broke up in 1961 and Ed went solo as a singer and actor, co-starring in the popular television series "Daniel Boone." In his 40s, Ames enrolled at UCLA and earned a bachelor's degree.
"I am a secular Jew, but I feel strongly about Israel and the Jewish communities of Europe," Ames, 77, said.
He elevated his concern into action after he heard the first President Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker make what he termed disrespectful remarks about Israel.
"I was so mad, I couldn't sleep all night," he recalled.
Politically, he said, "I used to be way, way left, but now I am a true centrist. I am not very involved in domestic issues, but I feel deeply that they are coming at us again and that the situation for Israel and European Jewry is precarious."
Responsible for developing leadership and support for ZOA in Southern California is Harold Samuels, a long-time Jewish community professional for the Anti-Defamation League, Israel Bonds and American Friends of Hebrew University.
In addition, Julie Sager, ZOA's national director for campus activities, is transferring from New York to the new Los Angeles office.
The Los Angeles ZOA office can be reached at (818) 342-3363, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.