Something in our DNA inspired Jews to be a voice for social justice and public service in America. Jews have served at all levels of civic leadership since the founding of this country. Whether motivated to advance perceived Jewish interests or to champion social justice issues, a disproportionate number of Jews have been councilmembers, Assembly members, members of Congress and senators. My generation has grown to expect that our local elected officials would be Jewish and that there would be Jewish political leaders on the national landscape.
However, Jewish leadership in civic life appears to be waning, as evidenced by a decline in Jewish political representation. At the national level, leading Jewish representatives will no longer be in Washington in 2013. The reasons are varied: retirement (Joe Lieberman and Barney Frank); redistricting (Howard Berman or Brad Sherman); or extraordinary circumstances (Gabrielle Giffords). As a result, 2013 will mark a historically low point for Jewish representation in Congress. This decline of Jewish representation is occurring at the local level as well. At its peak, five of the 15 Los Angeles City Council members were Jewish, yet as of July 1, 2013, we will have just two, possibly three. And legendary L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky will be leaving office in 2014, a result of term limits.
Experts see multiple reasons for the diminishing number of Jewish electeds at every level of government. Shifting demographics, housing patterns, term limits and the recent redistricting process all have played a role in this evolution. What’s more, who would want to enter public service at a time of unprecedented partisanship, polarization and gridlock? According to the Pew Research Center, American values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years.
But our concerns should run deeper than elected officials. In every aspect of Jewish civic activism, we must ask another question: As a community, are we actively developing the next generation of Jewish civic leaders?
The good news is that even in the crosshairs of debilitating partisanship and rampant apathy, the Jewish community is doing something to re-establish our leadership in helping build a better Los Angeles. The community offers a wide array of civic-minded Jewish leadership programs, such as Bend the Arc’s Jeremiah Fellowship, the Anti-Defamation League’s Glass Leadership Institute and AIPAC’s Leadership Training Initiative. I am proud to serve as the chair of The Jewish Federation’s New Leaders Project (NLP), one of our city’s premier civic leadership training programs.
NLP provides participants with the skills and relationships to work with diverse partners throughout our city and address the most critical issues facing Los Angeles. During NLP’s year-long program, participants gain a deep understanding of the fabric of our city and the issues it faces, including race relations, business development, education, labor, transportation and public safety — to name just a few. In an era where many refuse to entertain viewpoints that differ from their own, NLP members have no taboos or third rails. Our sessions are relevant to what’s happening in the city now and feature pre-eminent policy and thought leaders. Its participants learn valuable leadership skills and work hand in hand with a cohort of similarly motivated and ambitious young Jewish leaders. NLP’s only agenda is to create a new generation of leaders who approach their responsibilities grounded in Jewish values and have the skills to tackle the challenges that affect both the Jewish and civic communities. NLP is an integral part of the Federation’s Community Engagement Strategic Initiative as it seeks to strengthen the Jewish community, enhance relationships with key leaders and forge a better Los Angeles.
Since its inception 20 years ago, NLP has graduated hundreds of participants who are now part of an impressive network of alumni who work together across partisan lines to advance their civic passions and to better the Los Angeles community at large. NLP graduates include two Superior Court judges, leading members of local city commissions, elected members of the Los Angeles and Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School Districts and many candidates for elected office.
In light of the recent election, let us invest in developing the future Jewish civic leaders of Los Angeles. The day after the election we can either lament the decline of Jewish representation and tune out politics for another four years, or we can help develop civic leaders who translate our Jewish values into action. Democrat or Republican, we can all agree on this: Our country, our city and our community stand to benefit if our best and brightest dedicate themselves to the greater good through civic leadership. Programs like the New Leaders Project can help make this happen.