On Rosh Hashanah call, Trump urges support for his reelection
President Donald Trump implored American Jewish leaders to back his administration’s efforts to bring peace in the Middle East and support his reelection bid during an annual High Holidays conference call with rabbis and Jewish community leaders on Wednesday afternoon.
“Whatever you can do in terms of November 3rd, it’s going to be very important because if we don’t win, Israel is in big trouble,” Trump told participants on the call, adding that if he loses reelection and Republicans lose control of the Senate, “you are going to lose control of Israel. Israel will never be the same. I don’t know if it can recover from that.”
Trump noted the previous lack of widespread support among Jewish voters for his campaign, saying he was surprised to have only received 25% of the Jewish vote in 2016. “Here I have a son-in-law and a daughter who are Jewish, I have beautiful grandchildren that are Jewish, I have all of these incredible achievements,”” he said. “I’m amazed that it seems to be almost automatically a Democrat vote. President Obama is the worst president, I would say by far, that Israel has ever had in the United States… And yet the Democrats get 75%.”
“I hope you can do better with that,” Trump continued. “I hope you could explain to people what’s going on. We have to get more support from the Jewish people — for Israel… We have to be able, to hopefully, do well on November 3, and I hope you can get everybody out there. Otherwise, everything that we’ve done, I think, could come undone and we wouldn’t like that.”
On the call, White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner touted the administration’s record. “I can honestly say that there’s been no greater president for the Jewish people in history than Donald Trump,” Kushner said.
Trump ended the call by saying, “We really appreciate you. We love your country also.”
Amid layoffs and funder bailouts, the Jewish nonprofit world is fearing 2021
The American Jewish community’s network of approximately 9,500 nonprofit organizations has largely avoided collapse during the COVID-19-spurred slump that has caused many for-profit businesses to shut down or significantly shrink.
The federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed businesses and nonprofits to obtain forgivable loans if they kept staff on payroll, ended August 8. Making the difference now, experts say, are the American Jewish philanthropists who have stepped up to support the nonprofit system. Foundations are dipping into their endowments to provide additional funds to support camps, Jewish schools, human services agencies and others — well beyond what they anticipated when originally planning their 2020 budgets.
While the pandemic has led to struggles in the Jewish nonprofit community, including a months-long shut-down of fee-for-service organizations like Jewish community centers and camps, with resulting layoffs, furloughs and re-prioritization of funds, the biggest worries lie ahead.
“The real question is, what is 2021 going to look like? Everyone is making it through 2020. But everyone is very concerned about the impact on 2021. I don’t know where things will be,” said Reuben Rotman, chair and CEO of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, which represents 140 agencies providing food, counseling services, support for those with developmental and physical disabilities, vocational assistance and more.
“There have been reductions in staffing and services. But right now, our agencies by and large are being kept whole” with the help of government resources like PPP, and with aid from philanthropists, Rotman told Jewish Insider.
The worst fears — the collapse of the Jewish nonprofit community — have not come to pass, at least so far. “The catastrophic scenario we feared was averted,” said Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. “The entire camp system, human services, JCCs, schools, [were] at risk. It suffered a lot but it didn’t collapse. This should not make us complacent.”
No one knows how much, in the aggregate, American Jewish philanthropists have contributed to pandemic relief, experts say, but it is significant.
A new study by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy found that American funders in general donated $11.9 billion overall to coronavirus-related needs so far in 2020. This marks a strong contrast to the impact on nonprofit organizations during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
“If you dial back to the recession 12 years ago, philanthropy took a break. It went down in the short term. Between 2005 and 2010, philanthropy stayed flat,” said Avrum Lapin, president of The Lapin Group, a Philadelphia-based consultancy. “In this crisis, philanthropy has pretty much stood up. Not to say that organizations are not having a tough time. It has not only stayed current but looked at some systemic challenges and risen up to meet them.”
The umbrella for North America’s 146 Jewish federations and network communities, each of which is also an umbrella for social services, Jewish education and other agencies in its local area, is the Jewish Federations of North America.
Six months into the pandemic, “we’ve had 146 different emergency campaigns,” said Eric Fingerhut, JFNA’s president and CEO. Jewish federations have “raised $175 million dollars above and beyond their regular annual campaigns,” specifically for pandemic assistance, he told JI. “Federations made special allocations to camps and human services agencies to respond to the crisis in the moment. It is a moment of incredible generosity and response.”
Jewish federations generally distribute some $3 billion annually to the agencies they support domestically, as well as overseas programming through the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel and other groups.
Since the early days of the pandemic, JFNA has been an organizer of philanthropy efforts to support Jewish nonprofits through the crisis. On Sept. 1 it announced a new matching grant program totaling $54 million to aid the severely impacted human services field.
The Human Services Relief Fund is the newest of a number of pandemic emergency funds and systems put in place since March by major Jewish funders and the organized Jewish community.
JFNA also oversees the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF), which has provided approximately $91 million in emergency relief to Jewish nonprofits. More than $10 million of that has been distributed in the form of grants, and about $81 million as zero-interest loans, said Felicia Herman, who directs the grant program. Funding has come from seven foundations including the Aviv Foundation, The Paul E. Singer Foundation, the Lynn and Charles Schusterman Family Foundation and the Wilf Family Foundation.
So far this year, the Schusterman Foundation has spent $400 million addressing COVID-19-related needs and funding its regular grantees, which include civic programs nationwide and Jewish organizations.
Of that, “at least $10 million” has been designated as emergency funds for groups that do direct support, like the Blue Card, which aids Holocaust survivors, said Lisa Eisen, co-president of the Schusterman Foundation. It gave $15 million to JCRIF and overall this year has upped its support to Jewish organizations by about 50% over what it had planned, Eisen told JI.
The pandemic has still taken a toll on a number of Jewish nonprofit organizations. Income at fee-for-service agencies like JCCs — which employ a total of 40,000 people — took a big hit. Synagogues are currently tallying their High Holy Day renewals. Philanthropic funding is down at some organizations, though generally in the single-digit percentage range, which is in line with national trends. The National Council of Nonprofits published a study showing that individual giving in the U.S. overall was down 6% in the first quarter.
There have been significant layoffs at Jewish community centers around the country. JFNA itself laid off 37 of its 180 staffers in May. In April, Hillel International laid off or furloughed more than 20% of its staff.
J Street, the liberal Israel-focused lobbying group, cut its $8 million budget by $1 million, Jeremy Ben-Ami, its president, told JI, having saved a significant amount of money by moving the organization’s conferences online. J Street received a forgivable PPP loan of $660,000 and some tax credits, he said, and has not needed to lay off or furlough any staffers. J Street’s 2020 budget of $8 million is balanced, Ben-Ami said, and he expects it to grow slightly for 2021. But, he cautioned, “I am not ready to declare victory, because we have not seen the full impact” the pandemic will have on philanthropy. “The stock market [strength] has in a way cushioned the blow, and we haven’t quite seen the end of this story yet,” he added.
The Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing organization led by Mort Klein, has not fared as well. The organization pushed its annual gala dinner from December to January 2021, and then to March, and Klein is uncertain if it will be possible to hold the banquet at all. “A handful” of its approximately two dozen staff positions had to be cut, he said, though he did not provide more specifics regarding the layoffs or the organization’s annual budget. A recent ZOA campaign against the Movement for Black Lives saw the organization receive a number of unanticipated donations, which Klein said has helped to minimize the fundraising downturn.
The left-wing New Israel Fund has experienced a mixed picture, CEO Daniel Sokatch told JI. Unrestricted gifts to NIF were up 18% through the end of July compared to the same period in 2019, he said, but the number of individuals donating is down 9%. The biggest drop in support has been from supporters in New York City, where COVID-19 hit hard early in the pandemic. A PPP loan of $927,000 allowed NIF to retain its U.S. staff (it also has staff in Israel), though all staff members were forced to take a temporary salary cut and in Israel the entire staff was furloughed for a period. Looking ahead, with everyone continuing to work from home, Sokatch is considering dropping office space leases that are approaching their renewal dates, he said.
Even among organizations that are staying afloat, the big question is how long they will be able to do so. The American Jewish Historical Society, whose archives contain some 30 million documents, added an additional staffer, bringing the full-time employee count to seven, said Annie Polland, the organization’s executive director.
AJHS got a $130,000 PPP loan through the Small Business Administration, which helped it retain staff through the spring and summer. The organization received what Polland called a “lifesaver” grant of $205,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act fund.
While AJHS, like most public-facing Jewish organizations, quickly shifted to virtual programming in what Polland said was “a whirlwind adaptation to Zoom,” and the foundations that support its work have not lessened their funding, “we don’t know what 2021 is going to look like,” she said.
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights has also fared relatively well through the pandemic, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, its executive director. T’ruah has not needed to lay off or furlough staff and has even been able to add a full-time position and a part-time position to its roster of 10 full-time staff and six part-time workers, said Jacobs. “People have been very generous,” she told JI. “Those who are still employed or not dependent on a salary are more motivated than ever to contribute as a moral response to this crisis, as well as to the major threats to democracy. We’ve in particular had a strong response to our efforts to stand up the deployment of federal agents in Portland, OR, and the work of our rabbis who have been on the street there,” she said.
With no end to the pandemic in sight, funders and CEOs alike are grappling with the uncertainty of what the next year will look like, both in terms of programming and fundraising.
“We’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty so we in the philanthropic community should continue to be flexible, to dig deeply, maybe deeper than would feel comfortable, and to help nonprofits with scenario planning and other forms of technical assistance,” Eisen told JI. “The uncertainty makes it hard to plan and budget even as fundraising is anticipated to decrease.”
The uncertainty impacts not only planning for programs, but also trying to budget for 2021.
Spokoiny told JI that his biggest concern was the survival of what he called the “second layer” Jewish organizations, like Jewish federations, schools and community centers.
Because the stock market has continued to perform well, foundations whose money is invested have “more money than ever to give,” said Spokoiny. But “more than 80% of the funding in the Jewish community, in dollar terms, does not come from major funders, but by individuals giving $1,000 to the scholarship fund at their day school.”
It is that type of grassroots donor whose ability to give is most vulnerable to job loss, loss of government unemployment assistance, and a possible economic slump.
T’ruah’s Jacobs noted: “If we do see a deep and long recession, and if many donors find themselves out of work in December, we are concerned about a drop in donations, especially as more than half of our gifts come from a broad base of small-dollar donors.”
According to Eisen, “there are a lot more conversations about organizations joining forces in partnerships, or in mergers, of sharing assets, buildings and staff, of synagogues coming together. There are many, many conversations happening at the national level and the local level.”
She noted that the Schusterman Foundation has provided funding through JCRIF, offering technical assistance with a consultant to organizational leaders pursuing mergers.
“Not every institution is going to survive, nor should it,” said Eisen. “This is a moment to look at what our community needs to be sustainable, and that will include some tough and painful conversations.”
“I am optimistic that our community can emerge stronger, but there will be some painful decisions along the way.”
Twenty-six Republicans sign on to Duncan’s letter on Ukraine pilgrimage
Twenty-six Republican members of Congress signed onto Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-SC) letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the State Department to pressure the government of Ukraine to allow Jewish pilgrims to visit the town of Uman for the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
The announcement of the final list of signatories comes after a two-day extension of the signing deadline. Among the letter’s signatories are House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) andRep. Steve King (R-IA) — who was sidelined within the Republican caucus after controversial comments regarding white supremacy. Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) and David Kustoff (R-TN), the only two Jewish Republicans in Congress, also signed onto the letter.
Duncan told Jewish Insider that he took up the pilgrims’ cause out of a desire to protect religious freedom.
“I have a deep respect for all people of faith, and I believe Ukraine had good intentions in crafting their travel restrictions,” he said in a statement. “But I also believe they need to find creative ways to accommodate people of faith in a safe and commonsense manner. Governments don’t have to choose between allowing religious expression and public safety, and believe this letter makes it clear that common sense steps can be taken to achieve both goals.”
“Even during times of uncertainty, governments should continue to allow maximum flexibility for religious expression and practice,” he added.
None of the other signatories responded to requests for comment.
The political consulting firm Stonington Global had circulated the letter around Capitol Hill to gather additional signatures from other members of Congress.
Stonington founder and Republican lobbyist Nick Muzin has deep ties to South Carolina, Duncan’s home state.
Muzin, an Orthodox Jew, previously served as a policy advisor and chief of staff for Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), beginning more than a decade ago when the senator was a congressional candidate. Muzin advised Scott during his tenure in the House, and stayed with him after his appointment to the Senate in 2013. Muzin was also previously married to Andrea Zucker, whose mother, Intertech Group CEO Anita Zucker, is the wealthiest individual in the state of South Carolina.
“This is a religious freedom issue, and Jeff Duncan has always been a champion of religious freedom and Judeo-Christian values,” Muzin explained to JI.
“These travelers have offered to adhere to every health precaution that others who have been granted exemptions by the Ukrainian government are taking, so we hope that even in these challenging times, the Ukrainian government will respect American citizens’ right to worship,” he said.
In new ads, Jewish Dems highlight ‘antisemitic’ attacks by GOP candidates in GA, MI
The Jewish Democratic Council of America is set to launch two digital ads aimed at Jewish voters in the states of Michigan and Georgia, targeting Republican senatorial candidates in close races ahead of the November 3 elections.
The ads, which were shared in advance with Jewish Insider, accuse Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) and John James, who is challenging Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), of employing antisemitic tropes in attacks against their rivals. The ads are part of JDCA’s six-figure digital ad spend leading up to Election Day.
The 15-second video targeting James highlights a 2018 campaign ad in which a swastika briefly appears on screen — James later apologized for the symbol’s inclusion in the ad — and comments made by the candidate in June suggesting that the political establishment was “genuflecting” for the Jewish community.
Recent polling in the Michigan Senate race shows James beginning to close the gap with Peters, who is serving his first term in the upper chamber.
The ad targeting Perdue, who is fighting a challenge from Jon Ossoff, spotlights a July Facebook ad promoted by the Georgia senator, which included an image of Ossoff with an enlarged nose — a classic antisemitic stereotype. Perdue took down the ad after coming under fire for the image.
JDCA executive director Halie Soifer told JI that she expected Jewish support for Ossoff and Peters to increase as a result of allegations that the two Republican candidates “have invoked antisemitic language, imagery, and tropes in their campaigns.”
“There’s a reason these two ads are similar — sadly, Republicans are using antisemitism and other forms of bigotry as part of their political strategy in 2020,” she said.
In a candidate questionnaire submitted to JI last month, Perdue, who has maintained a slight lead on Ossoff in recent polling, touted his fight against antisemitism as a top priority. “I’ve been a friend of Israel and the Jewish community since I was very young,” the Republican senator averred. “Since I got to the U.S. Senate, I’ve made fighting antisemitism and all forms of bigotry a top priority.”
Jared Polis hails increasing visibility of Jewish Americans in politics
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who was elected in 2018 as the state’s first Jewish governor, celebrated the increasing number of Jewish Americans involved in politics, with some rising through the ranks of the Democratic Party.
“It is very heartening to see the increasing visibility of Jewish Americans throughout politics,” Polis said during a virtual event on Tuesday for Jewish Democrats hosted by the Democratic National Committee during the 2020 Democratic National Convention. “This year, several of the candidates for president of the United States were of Jewish heritage. And of course, with the selection of [Sen.] Kamala Harris, our soon-to-be second gentleman of the U.S., Douglas Emhoff, is Jewish.”
Polis noted Emhoff’s possible role is “another reason” why Joe Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate “was not just outstanding, but, frankly, groundbreaking.”
“These are milestones and speak well of the inclusive nature of our nation and of the Democratic Party,” said the Colorado Democrat.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who participated in a follow-up panel focused on American Jewish voters, said he was deeply moved to watch “a Jew named Bernie Sanders give, I think, the most enthusiastic speech about a nominee in the nomination that he competed for and came in second place, of any second-place finisher I’ve ever heard.”
On the webcast, Polis also highlighted President Donald Trump’s comments on the campaign trail on Monday, suggesting that he “moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem… for the evangelicals.”
“For once, President Trump was honest about his motives. It wasn’t because of a belief that Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel. It wasn’t because of any deeply held belief in the Jewish state. It was simply what he said it was: an appeal to evangelical voters,” Polis stressed. “I have friends on both sides of when or how, or if the embassy should be moved. But it should not be moved — I think we would all agree — simply because evangelical voters in America want it. It should be situated because of where we can best support the peace process, the stability and survival of the Jewish State of Israel.”
Eric Garcetti leans on his Jewish faith amid pandemic
Eric Garcetti has been praying more than usual lately.
The 49-year-old Democratic mayor of Los Angeles — who now takes part in a bi-weekly prayer session with local religious leaders — currently finds himself knee-deep in the most consequential moment of his political career as he works to confront the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives in the broader Los Angeles area.
Not that Garcetti is relying on just prayer. He was faster than most leaders across the country in shutting down his city — issuing a stay-at-home order in mid-March.
Before the pandemic, Garcetti had been wrestling with another intractable issue: homelessness. But according to Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, the mayor’s response to the coronavirus has been on point.
“This crisis has given him an opportunity to really display a lot of leadership, and I think he’s done it very effectively,” said Sonenshein.
Garcetti — whose second and final term ends in 2022 — was seen as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination until he announced that he wouldn’t run in early 2019. That calculation seems to have served him well. He now serves as a national co-chair on former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and is one of four members to sit on Biden’s vice presidential search committee.
“He has some options to be a major player in the Democratic Party nationally in whatever role he chooses or is available to him,” Sonenshein said of Garcetti’s post-mayoral prospects.
In the meantime, however, Garcetti is focused on the present moment. He spoke with Jewish Insider in a phone conversation on Wednesday morning, as the city was easing its shelter-in-place restrictions and — in a limited capacity — opening up retail businesses, drive-ins and houses of worship.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jewish Insider: You’re in the process of opening up retail businesses and drive-ins in Los Angeles. How do you think that will play out?
Eric Garcetti: There’s a couple things that I think we’ve learned. We’re not moving beyond COVID-19, but we’re learning to live with it. And we’re getting smarter. I think people really want to live in the white or the black, completely shut down or completely open, and it’s much more complicated. And unfortunately, it’s the reality that we’re all living in this gray, where nothing was ever fully closed down, and probably we won’t get back to a fully opened up, do-whatever-you want-world for a long time. And one of the things we had confidence in Los Angeles — we’ve seen steady cases, but that’s because we’re expanding testing all the time. But our positive rate has gone way down, our infection rate has gone way down, our hospital admissions have gone down, and our capacity remains very strong that we can’t strangle our economy to death. There’s real suffering that’s caused by COVID-19 and people getting sick, but there’s real suffering for workers and small businesses that feel like they’ll never come back.
And so we had the confidence, through the permission from the state of California, that once we hit these thresholds, to take some steps forward, and the reality is with retail, we never stopped shopping. We just allowed you to get your pants at Target instead of at the local store. And now we have the capacity to help those stores get open, do it safely, monitor them and start rebuilding local wealth, local jobs and some local Main Street prosperity again. So we announced that last night, and today is the first day that all retail establishments are open for in-person shopping. Drive-through theaters are easy, those are safe by definition. But we’re looking at the next steps, whether that’s going to be, in the coming days, limited percentages at our restaurants, our offices — and we also opened up houses of worship but for either 25% or no more than 100, whichever number is lower.
And one of the things I’ve said is, just because we say you can doesn’t mean you have to — either as the people who run these places or the people who go to them. So let’s get it right, let’s learn how to do it safe, and let’s make sure that we are, again, learning how to live with COVID-19 rather than saying we’ve beaten it.
JI: In terms of opening up houses of worship, will you be attending services at the IKAR synagogue, where you’re a member?
Garcetti: I’m a member of both IKAR and Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Not anytime soon, and they don’t have plans immediately to open. I think they’re smartly using their discretion. We’ve seen this around the world. Political leaders declare victory — I opened up restaurants — and then most restaurateurs can’t make any money and most customers are saying I don’t want to go to restaurants yet. So we really should steer away from politics on these things, and we should make really sensible decisions. We need to increasingly rely on people’s good judgment, which is a tough thing, I think, for leaders, and even for some of the public to trust, right? But we aren’t a police state in America, I’m not going to turn my city into one, and I always say, look, enforcement is the last step, and only in rare cases, where people are truly endangering people’s lives. We have to educate and encourage where we can, engineer spaces and build a culture where we all own this.
It’s the only way 350 million people will keep each other safe. There aren’t enough government workers, there aren’t strong enough laws to be able to mandate that, nor do we want those trade-offs. That said, I don’t think that that’s a pipe dream anymore. I’ve watched my city do that. There’s no way we could have saved as many lives as we did simply because we had cops out there on the street enforcing it. We did this out of an act of love, that people started wearing masks — the first big city to embrace that — that we stayed away from our senior centers. We couldn’t have had a guard at every single one. That we just used our head and our heart and our guts to do the right things. The only caveat I’d say, now, is don’t let up. Don’t become lazy. Don’t let the things we’ve earned through our good behavior lead us to bad behavior.
JI: Looking back on the past couple of months, are there any days in particular that have been more difficult for you, on a personal level, as you’ve dealt with this crisis?
Garcetti: In the earliest days, it was some of the most devastating days I’ve experienced, both as mayor and as a human being. When I looked at the projections early on, we looked at maybe 5,000-20,000 deaths in L.A. County. It was almost too much to contain. It did, though, help guide the courage that we collectively had in Los Angeles to take actions really early, to step out when there were vacuums in leadership on everything from face masks, even how we described what people needed to do — safer at home instead of shelter in place is a small example of that — to stand-up testing when we don’t even have a health department in the city of L.A. That’s run by our county. And to be the first big city to offer universal testing for free with or without symptoms.
I kind of look back at this and realize that, what somebody once told me is, as leaders, we’re not defined by what we set out to do and how well we do them. We’re defined by what we don’t expect to happen and how well we react to them. And I also just learned a lot about informal leadership — talking to my city every single night and realizing that that was a moment to hear from them, and for them to hear from me, and for us to to build a stronger kind of civic and spiritual culture.
That helped me get through those tough moments, because when I spoke about L.A. love, it was what I was trying to tap into and find, and I saw all around me. It’s really easy to read all the bad news and the deaths and the suffering, and to be totally kind of drowned by that. But I also have seen so many acts of generosity and of love and of coming together — many times more than those tragic moments. So, it was early on looking at those numbers, but it’s been throughout, you know, talking to a police officer who loses his wife who is perfectly healthy in her 30s and leaves behind their two young kids. It’s talking to an immigrant who got no help from Washington, D.C., is starving and doesn’t know if they’ll be homeless.
These things are every single day, and for those who are relatively well off, but inconvenienced, I think people really need to get out there and hear how deep the suffering is right now economically for people across America.
JI:Has your faith figured into dealing with this crisis?
Garcetti: I used to pray every night going to sleep, and maybe I slipped a little bit before this. But I never formally kind of prayed as much as I have now. At the beginning of this, my wife — who probably generously describes herself as agnostic — nevertheless reached out to Rabbi Sharon Brous at IKAR, Rabbi Steve Leder at Wilshire Boulevard, but also some other religious leaders who have been close friends: Jon Bruno, who is the Episcopalian Bishop, and Bishop O’Donnell from the Catholic Church and a Muslim leader who leads a Jewish-Muslim interfaith project here, and a couple pastors from the African-American tradition.
And every day, we pray. We’re now doing it twice a week, but for, I don’t know, six or seven weeks, we prayed every weekday together. It would just be 15 minutes. But I don’t know if I could have gotten through my days without that. It was early on that Rabbi Leder led the prayer and talked about, you know, Psalm 23 — something we’ve all heard hundreds of times at funerals — and it felt like we were walking through the valley of the shadow of death. He emphasized that we are walking through it, and the way that a shadow is only there because of light. I’ve shared some of those moments even in my addresses at night, in a way that I probably hadn’t done very publicly in my life before.
So it’s absolutely strengthened me, and I asked them, finally, could I lead one prayer one day? They said OK, Rabbi Sharon asked if I would do it this past weekend because I had just put a prayer together based on Numbers, which to me was a perfect metaphor for what we’re walking through as well. And so this Saturday I had my debut. It was a commentary on Numbers. It was how this space in between is what we’re living in. We’re not in Egypt and we’re not in the promised land, but also just kind of in depth a little bit about how even in Numbers itself, most of it is the first year and the last year, and the 38 years in between barely gets a mention. And so we have to figure out a way to not only comfortably live in this in-between, but embrace it.
JI: Are those Zoom calls, or are you doing them in person?
Garcetti: No, just a conference call. We don’t want to see what we’re wearing, probably pajamas and robes or whatever.
JI: Is there anything that you miss most about pre-pandemic life in Los Angeles?
Garcetti: I miss my city and I miss my people. I mean, being mayor is a tough job, but it’s one that I love, and one of the things I love about it is just a chance to hear the stories of all my people and hear them face-to-face, to visit them in their community, or to talk about somebody’s lost hope on the streets and help them get into housing, or going to a graduation and speaking to students who have made it through a tough school. I just miss my city. I was just asked by a journalist a couple hours ago, ‘Well, you’re out and about, you have a different experience than everybody else has.’ But I’ve been out maybe five or six times for press visits to publicize testing centers or this, that and the other. But for 70 days, I’ve been going back and forth between a very limited group of people at City Hall and my family at home. And that’s it. So, I think like all of us, I miss what we have.
JI: What measures are you taking in Los Angeles to ensure that people can vote safely in the November election?
Garcetti: In Los Angeles, the county controls that and it goes through the state. But I’ve been part of a coalition of cities around the country that are helping to make sure people are registered, to get out the vote and to pre-register young people. I worked with Billie Eilish before the crisis, for instance, to get as many high school students to register to vote at a time, because you can register when you’re 17 here in preparation, and the winning campus got a Billie Eilish concert, which is pretty amazing. So we try to do as many creative things as we can. We’re trying to make sure that our census workers are reminding people that it’s an election year and a census here. And in California, we’re going to have mail-in ballots for everybody. The governor’s moved forward with that, too, so we feel pretty strong and secure out here in California.
And I don’t even get this: mail-in ballots usually help Republicans and they’re fighting it. And Democrats usually do better with in-person voting, and Republicans are trying to force that to happen in places like Wisconsin. So it just makes no sense. We should put politics aside and really educate people about how to vote and how to do that safely. So we’re going to continue to push that through a lot of public education that we’re doing, and a lot of helping people sign up to get their ballots and to turn them in.
JI: You’re also a national co-chair on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and you sit on his vice presidential selection committee. Have you been able to focus on that, as much as you would have liked to, amid this pandemic?
Garcetti: Mostly I’m 95% of the time focused on my city. With no evening events happening, when I get home and I’m done with my day, I do try to give an hour or so each day to the campaign, and I’ve been very honored to not only be one of the first two co-chairs of the entire campaign — and I think there’s five of us now total, I might be the only Jewish one — but also one of the four folks that the vice president has asked to help him find a vice president. So I’m certainly fulfilling my duties there, and I’m all information in and no information out on that process because it’s a process that’s personal for Joe Biden to find the right person, which I know he will.
But both as a Latino and as a Jew, I kind of, in the back of my head, also have that sense of responsibility of making sure those values of my communities inform that work. And especially when you see things like the antisemitism that’s ticked up and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 that seem to be enabled by this White House — or whether it’s the way that immigrants were left behind in the legislation that moved forward, or even the children of immigrants who are full citizens who got no money unlike every other American citizen — I think both of those perspectives inform my work on the campaign a lot too.
JI: Everything is uncertain now, but what do you think Los Angeles will look like a year from now?
Garcetti: It’ll be very fragile, but I hope it will also be a moment of ambition and hope as well. I’ve said we can’t just react and respond, nor can we have as our end goal just reopening and rebuilding. We have to reimagine, because I want to bring back everything I loved about my city and my country when this pandemic is over. But there’s a lot of things that aren’t good enough with what normal was — whether it’s homelessness, whether it’s the health disparities by community, whether it’s the way the economy is leaving too many people behind or the climate emergency.
I gave a state of the city address four weeks ago now. Talk about a tense moment to give a state-of-your city address because usually it’s like, the state of L.A. is strong and it’s like, no, I think I did use the word fragile. But I said this is a time to reimagine and not just to return. And so, I hope that, a year from now or whatever we’re looking at — hey, wasn’t it amazing when we closed some streets to be able to walk? Maybe we can keep those closed. I hope it’s a moment we can say, African Americans shouldn’t die at 50% more than other communities because of pre-existing health conditions. Let’s fix that. I hope we can look at education and say, hey, long before we realize not everybody has a laptop and an internet connection, it’s time to fix our schools. And that we can look at things like maybe our place in the world is engaged with each other and not isolated from one another.
So I hope those lessons of love, those lessons of mutuality and those lessons of justice aren’t lost when this crisis is, ‘over,’ because there are a lot of crises that predate this that will continue the day we declare victory.
JI: Looking ahead, past your mayorship, do you have any thoughts about what’s next for you?
Garcetti: No, I don’t at this point. I mean, that’s not the usual coy answer. Somebody asked me that too, like, are you going to join the administration if [Biden] wins? I’m like, I have no frickin’ idea. I have to save my city right now. I take this job incredibly seriously. I didn’t run for president even though it was something that was a possibility because I kind of felt like my obligation and my love was here. You don’t just go to the next thing. I’ve always been kind of a late decider on those sorts of things. And it has to be true in the moment that you’re in. So I don’t, and I have the gift of two and a half more years as mayor, and these may be the most critical days of our life.