Two years ago, Fred Kramer took a big, luxurious break from work to travel the world and find himself.
In March, as the newly minted executive director of Jewish World Watch, he found himself locked in a jail cell with George Clooney.
“It was quite a day,” Kramer said of the civil disobedience he stirred alongside the world’s most famous movie star, outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.
It began with a protest walk from the Religious Action Center, just down the street from the embassy, but instantly morphed into a paparazzi party, as hordes of reporters desperately cleaved to Clooney. “People were literally tripping over themselves,” Kramer recalled. Kramer got his one-on-one from a Clooney-side seat in the cop car.
“I rode in the wagon with him; we got booked together at the police station; then we were in a cell together for two or three hours before everything got resolved and they let us out,” Kramer said nonchalantly.
Just a short time ago it would have been almost impossible to imagine that he’d be touting his celebrity run-ins to draw attention to his work, but Kramer’s unexpected turn from business developer to nonprofit overseer has demanded it.
“Our culture is clearly somewhat infatuated with celebrities,” he said.
A mellow, free-spirited type with a penchant for white linen, Kramer once fancied the artist’s life.
An early foray into filmmaking that produced two smallish independent films — “Wednesday’s Child” (1999) and “Amy’s Orgasm” (2001) — quickly proved to him that “my movies were not going to end up getting made.” So he quit producing and went to work developing the technology company WithoutABox, an online international film-festival application program that, after just eight years, he and his partners sold to the Web giant Internet Movie Database. At 37, Kramer had a bundle of cash and a ballooning wanderlust, which he parlayed into a 34-foot Catalina sailboat and a one-year sabbatical.
When he wasn’t wandering Peru, India or one of six countries in Africa, he was likely to be found chattering in the back at IKAR, the synagogue where he served as board chair. But if the social justice seed was nurtured within the walls of the Westside JCC, it flourished while traveling through the African wilderness, where his wanderings brought him into contact with the consequences of modern genocide.
He returned to Los Angeles inspired to act but unsure what to do. A friend told him Jewish World Watch was looking for an executive director. “My initial reaction was, ‘This is not what I do,’ ” Kramer said. “I had considered myself a businessman, and had assumed when I began looking for new work that it would be finding a new business and making money. I had never really considered the option of running a non-profit.”
He said his involvement with IKAR “had a tremendous effect on my willingness to try something like this, both [in terms] of my Jewish identity and my obligation toward the world.” From living in the lap of luxury to visiting the depths of deprivation, Kramer found himself compelled to support “people having a more difficult time than I am.”
Los Angeles, land of plenty, was the perfect place from which to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “I can tell you that the level of attention we’re able to draw to our issues when a public figure is advocating for them alongside us is completely different than what we are able to attract when they are not,” Kramer said. The glitter of fame has two sides. “Clearly it’s effective.”
Which is why one of Kramer’s early priorities in his new position is to use L.A.’s backyard celebrity candy store to bring attention to his organization’s cause. On May 20, the Jewish World Watch annual 5K “Walk to End Genocide” will take place at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles, and for the first time some notable Hollywood names will join: Josh Radnor (star of CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother”), Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Ocean’s Eleven”) and TV’s Lisa Edelstein (“House”).
For some of those connections, Kramer owes a debt to his fiancée, actress Michaela Watkins, who represents another sea change in his life inspired by his travels. “It was really an opening on a number of fronts,” he said, “and that element of the journey started when I met the woman of my dreams.”
Kramer’s dreams for Jewish World Watch include more interfaith work, expanding programming around the country and creating an office for the organization in Washington, D.C. And just maybe, a little help from Clooney.
“One of the things I asked of him,” — in jail — “was, I said, ‘You know, we have the world’s largest solar cooker project,’ ” which provides women and girls with a cooking alternative that eliminates the dangers of collecting firewood. “And in a movie he did, ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats,’ he actually kicks a solar cooker and talks about what a piece of s—- it is.
“So I told him about the cooker project and reminded him of that scene, and he chuckled, and I asked him if he would help me rectify that image and maybe produce a spot where he explains that there’s some real good that comes out of solar cooking.”
Clooney said yes.