The Zionist Organization of America’s West Coast office has had quite the revolving door, with, by my count, four regional directors since the end of 2006. The latest selection for the post is Mark Paredes, who happens to be Mormon and one of L.A.‘s most famous philo-Semites.
Paredes, who had been working as national director of Latino outreach for the American Jewish Congress and previously served at the Israeli consulate, moved into the office Monday. He’s the only employee. I e-mailed him yesterday to see why he’s spent his career in Jewish life and what he has planned for making ZOA relevant in Los Angeles again.
ZOA West has struggled for years. Why do you think that is?
While I have spoken with the collective “institutional memory” of the ZOA in Los Angeles in order to get the lay of the land, I’m not a person who dwells on the past. Sometimes it takes a combination of the right people with the right talents and a little bit of luck to make things happen in a big way. With apologies to Shakespeare, the past is not necessarily prologue.
What about job longevity? I count at least three people who have held your position since late 2006.
Since I expect to succeed in this position, I’m not worried about longevity. Also, keep in mind that there is a new dynamic in the organization: Gary Ratner is the new national executive director. Gary and I work well together, and he was the executive director for the LA office of a national Jewish organization for many years. He knows what we need to do to make inroads here, and we are excited about working with ZOA President Mort Klein to organize events for our supporters in the Western Region. I am also fortunate to be able to work with the indefatigable Julie Sager, our LA-based Director of Campus Activities.
What is your formula for turning ZOA around?
I plan to bring together Jews, both religious and secular, who are proud to be Zionists, who are willing to defend Israel and the Jewish people, who want Israel to negotiate peace only with partners who have already renounced terror and incitement and recognize Israel, and who believe that Jews have the right to live in the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. Belief in these principles transcends movements and the religious/secular divide, and it’s my job to organize events that will inspire our supporters and attract other defenders of Israel to the ZOA banner.
Sixty-one years after the creation of the state of Israel, you think there’s still a need for the Zionist Organization of America?
Absolutely. In fact, we’re currently planning a national conference whose theme will be the meaning of Zionism in the 21st century. Let’s look at college campuses, for example. I’m proud that the ZOA is the only Jewish organization that takes college students on trips to Israel where they visit Judea and Samaria. In order to understand the miracle of a modern-day Jewish state, one has to visit Hebron, Efrat, and Ariel as well as Tel Aviv and Haifa. In this age of worldwide anti-Israel marches, attacks on synagogues, anti-Zionist professors and authors, and Holocaust deniers, Zionist advocacy is sorely needed—and all too often absent.
How much of ZOA’s role today is about fighting anti-Semitism and how much is about promoting Israel?
I’d say the breakdown is about 75% promotion of Israel’s security and 25% fighting anti-Semitism. Of course, these days it’s sometimes hard to separate the two.
Now, you’re still Mormon, right? I know Mormons are major Zionists, but it’s got to be unusual for a Mormon to be running a regional office for a major Jewish organization.
I am still a Latter-day Saint, though I also think of myself as a “yehudi b’nefesh” [Jewish in soul]. I’m unaware of another non-Jew who has headed a regional office of a national Jewish organization, but I don’t foresee any problems. After all, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist or to understand what’s happening in the world.
What is it about the Jewish community that has attracted you to its employment?
Jews and Judaism have always exerted a pull on me. I couldn’t escape it even when I went to Russia: while I served as the interpreter for Time correspondent Nancy Traver, she spent all of her time covering the Jewish community there! In 2001 I was introduced to former LA Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem, and he hired me to be his press attache after we rapped in Hebrew for several minutes about camels in Mauritania. The rest, as they say, is history. I love the energy and passion that Jews bring to everything they’re involved in, and I have a deep love for Jews, Israel and Judaism. I write a monthly religion column for a local newspaper, and love nothing better than to ask Jews questions about their faith.
So what’s next?
Many weeks and months of hard work.