Amanda Susskind doesn't look like she was raised in Berkeley. With her tweedy, conservative suits, paired with sweater sets and pearls, the new West Coast director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) doesn't look like she was brought up anywhere near the laid back, hippie haven.
But don't be fooled by appearances. Susskind, 45, brings a down-to-earth, politically liberal but eminently practical style as one of the top people in one of the most powerful organizations in the country. In that role, her background has served her well.
"Berkeley in the '60s was a place of great and open debate," Susskind said. "Everywhere you went, whether in school or with friends or around the dinner table, there were great discussions. We were at the center of all the larger movements: free speech, the women's movement, the anti-war movement, even the environmental movement. It was a great place to be."
Susskind attended Stanford University and UC Hastings College of the Law, after which she moved to Los Angeles and built a career as an attorney specializing in public policy. Her passion for politics led to a run for the Assembly in 2000. Though unsuccessful, the campaign laid the groundwork for her eventual bid for the top job in ADL's West Coast region, which she officially took over July 15.
Her duties include overseeing three West Coast offices and 35 employees, acting as spokesperson for all organization-related issues and raising funds for both the local and national offices. She has begun to refine her role as leader of one of the most influential Jewish organizations in California devoted to the task of fighting bigotry and discrimination of all kinds.
Lay leaders in the ADL describe Susskind as warm, friendly and passionate about her causes. They believe that she has the leadership ability necessary to boost the morale of an office in a slump after the dismissal last December of Susskind's predecessor, David Lehrer.
Lehrer had been with the ADL for 27 years and was fired by Abe Foxman, the organization's national director, without any consultation with Los Angeles lay leaders. The dismissal generated anger and confusion among both lay leaders and the West Coast staff.
The outcry and bad feelings over Lehrer's dismissal lasted well into the spring, making a challenging year even more difficult because of increases in hate incidents and anti-Semitic rhetoric. For a new director facing such a situation, Susskind met the challenge with diplomacy and skill, ADL leaders and staff said.
Jonathan Rosenbloom, chairman of the ADL's Valley advisory board who has known Susskind for almost 20 years, said, "She has a wonderful energy and enthusiasm that she brings to any task she undertakes. She's passionate about the issues on which she works, whether it involves legal problems for private clients or women's causes or, now, the ADL's mission. What's really admirable is how quickly she has absorbed what the ADL does and brought her own style to the leadership of the ADL."
Nicole Mutchnik, a member of the ADL's Salvin Young Leadership group, first met Susskind four years ago, when both became involved with the Women's Political Committee in Los Angeles. Mutchnik was one of the more vocal supporters of Lehrer, but eventually came to serve on the search committee for his replacement. She encouraged Susskind to apply for the ADL job.
"While I was and am an enormous fan of David, when the opportunity arose to select someone from our community for the job, I thought Amanda had all the goods to become a strong leader for the ADL," Mutchnik said. "She is part of an emerging group of young women leaders."
"She is so fresh, despite all her experience, so unjaded, and that is not common for people in politics and community work," she continued. "We needed someone with her strengths, someone with a confident public face, but who can also lay back and let other people shine."
Susskind said her most profound on-the-job discovery is the depth of anti-Semitic sentiment that lurks beneath the surface of 21st century society. "I think my generation and the generations that are the children and grandchildren of the Holocaust have been really blessed with peaceful times and cursed with complacency," she said.
"If you ask the common man, 'Does anti-Semitism really exist in Los Angeles?' they would say no, it's a thing of the past, look how far we've come," Susskind said. "But when you're in a position where every day you get the reports and the e-mails across your desk, you see that it's not a thing of the past. It's on the rise in the world, and it's on the rise in America, and it is very much alive and well in the Pacific Southwest region."
The specter of the Holocaust is ingrained in Susskind's psyche. Her father, Charles Susskind, was one of the 10,000 mostly Jewish children who were forced to flee from Nazi persecution, in what was called the Kindertransport, and found safety in Great Britain.
His mother was not so lucky, Susskind said. "My grandmother was in three different camps, including Auschwitz, but she survived," she said. "There is a story [that] she was visiting one of my uncles in Amsterdam, and on the train going back to Germany, a German official turned to her and said, 'Madam, you are going in the wrong direction.' But who could imagine what was ahead. They were a well-to-do, assimilated family, much like a well-to-do, assimilated family in Los Angeles today."
Susskind's mother, Terry, was in London during the war, and lost an entire contingent of her family from the Lodz ghetto. Her parents met and married in London and immigrated to the United States in 1945.
"They actually came to Pasadena [first], and my mother thought she had died and gone to heaven," Susskind said. "You can't find two bigger patriots than my dad and mom."
Susskind said she is impressed with the commitment of the ADL staff, which she attributes to Lehrer's leadership, and hopes to continue building on that quality. She said that if she were to change one thing, it would be to increase the organization's political profile.
"With my experience and comfort in the political arena, I would like to have us to have a slightly higher presence," she said. "We need to participate in the political process, and we need to be seen as participants in the political process. "
"We need to raise people's awareness that we are here, that we have amazing programs and resources available," she said. "There is a belief in the greater community that Jews only care about Jews. I like to say we [the ADL] are not only here to serve the Jewish community, we are Jews that are here to serve the community."