While the Bush administration's strong support for Israel might not yet be paying off dividends in the Middle East, the stance has certainly been a boon for local Jewish Republicans.
Since its start in November 2000, two months after the second Palestinian intifada began, the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles (RJCLA) has attracted more than 400 paid members, making it the Republican Jewish Coalition's (RJC) largest and most powerful local chapter nationwide. Its monthly meetings at the Skirball Cultural Center have been known to draw hundreds, as influential speakers and local conservative candidates come seeking Jewish support.
"The growth is based [in part] on the Republican Party's strong support for Israel and the leadership of President Bush," said RJCLA President Bruce Bialosky, who also serves as Southern California chair of RJC, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that took Bush on his first trip to Israel in 1998.
"To Bush it's a simple act of morality. He understands who the good guys and the bad guys are, and he's on the right team."
Support for the Jewish state from the president and the Republican-controlled House, especially when contrasted against lackluster support for Israel from the left, has managed to make traditionally liberal Los Angeles fertile ground for a blossoming conservatism among Jews.
The increased interest has pushed the grass-roots organization to expand. The group hired Scott Gluck, 32, as its executive director in March and opened a field office in West Los Angeles. Until recently, most people found out about RJCLA through word-of-mouth or advertising in The Jewish Journal.
"The more that people see the members and see what we're doing, the more people join," Bialosky said.
On Tuesday, the group hosted a town hall meeting with Adam Goldman, Bush's liaison to the American Jewish community, at Stephen S. Wise Temple that drew more than 700 people.
At the Israel Festival in April, the group collected more than 200 names for their mailing list and even ran out of voter registration forms.
"There are a lot more Jewish Republicans than people think there are, even in the voting numbers," Bialosky said.
Luntz Research, a Republican-oriented polling company, found a reexamination of Bush and the Republican Party among Jewish voters since the 2000 election. The survey, released Dec. 3, found that 48 percent would consider voting for Bush in 2004. Only 23 percent of those surveyed had voted for him in 2000.
Among Jewish collegians, that number may be even higher.
"At least 50 percent of Jews under the age of 30 voted for George W. Bush in the last election," said Bialosky, referring to results from a Zogby poll following the 2000 election.
With an increase in anti-Israel rallies and protests on colleges campuses, RJCLA is recognizing the need to play a greater role supporting Jewish students.
"Our goal is to have a Jewish Republican chapter in each of the major universities here in Los Angeles. The key to the future of this organization is going to be the younger people," Gluck said.
Orthodox Jews constitute another bloc of interest to RJCLA. The organization, which has a number of members who attend Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, recently held a few meetings with the observant community.
"They told us that the ones who aren't Republican already just haven't reregistered," Bialosky said.
RJCLA's support base is spread throughout Southern California -- from the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay -- so organizers have found that monthly meetings at the Skirball Cultural Center work best for its membership. The group is diverse: from teens to septuagenarians; secular to Orthodox; Ashekenazim, Mizrahim and Sephardim -- all are represented.
RJCLA has built up interest with an impressive list of speakers: former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, Proposition 209 proponent Ward Connerly and terrorism expert Steve Emerson. Dennis Prager spoke at the organization's Chanukah celebration about why Jews should be Republican. Bialosky is hoping to attract more White House speakers like Goldman in the near future.
For participants, the group events are a coming-out party of sorts.
Zina Lovitch, 48, came to the United States from Russia in 1978 and is proud to be a Republican. A member of RJCLA for more than one year, Lovitch said she's been impressed with the number of candidates who make appearances at the monthly meetings and the diverse points of view brought up there.
"Thank God it's here," she said. "Thank God we're out of the closet."
"The one expression people say when they come to a meeting for the first time is 'I thought I was the only one,'" Gluck said.
Perry Zuckerman, 44, came to the May RJCLA meeting for the first time seeking to meet people with similar political views and said that the party's stand on Israel also had an impact.
"The Republican support for Israel has certainly been welcome," said Zuckerman, who complained of a growing anti-Israel sentiment among the extreme left. "I feel like this is more of a home now."
Dr. Reed Wilson, RJCLA's activity chair, had been involved with The Jewish Federation's Super Sunday campaign and was head of the group's medical division, but felt that the values espoused by Jewish organizations were not representative of his opinions.
"If you said you were a Republican and Jewish in Jewish circles you were shunned or looked at as if something was genetically wrong with you." he said.
Through RJCLA, Wilson has met with local and national leaders, like John Ashcroft, experiences that he describes as "critical." With the guidance of people like RJCLA's Vice President Joel Strom, Simon's state volunteer chair, Wilson has also taken on a more active role in politics and is currently leading the Jewish outreach for the Simon campaign.
"Jewish ideals and goals need to be represented, no matter which party is in power," Wilson said.
Participation with RJCLA leadership has also borne fruit for Connie Friedman, RJCLA's board secretary, who jumped into the fray this election cycle and is challenging Jewish Democrat Lloyd Levine for Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg's 40th District seat.
The Los Angeles chapter's success is now serving as inspiration for the creation of other local chapters, which now total 17.
Prior to the creation of RJCLA, there were 13 local chapters nationwide, many of which were organized around the efforts of one person, and their activities had waned.
Orange County, started in 1996, was one such chapter. The success of RJCLA sparked new interest, and the group has reorganized with the help of Bialosky and Gluck. Based in one of California's most conservative counties, the Orange County chapter will celebrate its rebirth with a June 12 kickoff.
"From being a Washington-based group, [RJC is] now becoming a national group with regional satellites around the nation. Now when they're doing it, they're doing it on our format," Bialosky said.
"It's really been a role model for us. The success of what we've been doing in Los Angeles has reinforced what we're doing nationally," RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said. "If we can go into Los Angeles, which has notoriously been Democratic, and have the kind of success we have, that shows we can do this on a larger level."
For more information about RJCLA, visit rjcla.org or call (310) 271-7429.
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