In a modest office near the floor of the state Senate, 12 California legislators meet to talk politics every month. Nothing unusual about that in Sacramento. Except that with this group, the lunch usually consists of lox and bagels, and the conversation is peppered with Yiddish.
Meet the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which launched in January.
Its nine Jewish members and three non-Jewish associate members hail from the Senate and the Assembly. Their mission: Meet monthly to coordinate on legislation, speak as one on issues of concern to the Jewish community, and do a little shmoozing while they’re at it.
Civil rights, immigration reform, anti-Semitic hate speech on campus and support for Israel top their agenda.
Sen. Marty Block of San Diego, who chairs the caucus, says it will work on “legislation we might offer as individuals or something the caucus as a whole can get behind,” and will “also determine if there is any legislation coming down that’s harmful to the Jewish community.”
On that count, the group hasn’t wasted any time. Last month members met with the newly installed president of the University of California, Janet Napolitano, to express their concern about anti-Israel vitriol on U.C. campuses. They say they got a sympathetic response.
“She seemed very concerned and wanted to continue the conversation,” Block says. “Several of us are attorneys, and we understand the importance of protecting free speech and academic freedom. It is a tough balancing act.”
All the caucus members happen to be Democrats, although Jewish Republicans would be welcome to join. Currently there are no Jewish Republicans in either chamber.
The caucus has four greater Bay Area legislators: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco, Sen. Lois Wolk of Vacaville and Assembly member Marc Levine of San Rafael. Block and four others represent Southern California districts: Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara–Oxnard and Assembly members Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, Steve Fox of Palmdale and Bonnie Lowenthal of Long Beach–San Pedro.
Jewish legislators getting together is nothing new in Sacramento.
For three years, the so-called Capitol Knesset — an ad hoc, multifaith group of lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists — has met regularly in the governor’s conference room. Its purpose is to engage in dialogue about issues that matter to the Jewish community. Those gatherings often draw as many as 75 people for discussion and kibitzing.
Block, a former president of the American Jewish Committee’s San Diego chapter, co-founded the Capitol Knesset. He says when it comes to issues of the day, political players in Sacramento care very much what the Jewish community thinks.
But that is an informal gathering with no direct impact on the Legislature. So six months ago he floated the idea of an official Jewish caucus.
There are plenty of other similar bodies in Sacramento, including a women’s caucus, a Latino caucus, an LGBT caucus and the Black Legislative Caucus.
Block says the California Legislative Jewish Caucus will work with constituency groups and support their legislative agendas if they match up. “The best lobbyists are not from outside,” Block says, “but when members lobby other members.”
Levine hopes the new caucus, which is secular in nature, will serve as an ethical force in the Capitol. “We obviously identify with a lot of social justice and civil rights issues,” says the Contra Costa County native, “and of course our love and support for Israel. We have a mission statement to be the voice for progress and justice.”
Members are not the only ones enthusiastic about the new caucus. It also pleases Jewish community professionals, especially those who deal with Sacramento politics.
They include Cliff Berg, the Sacramento-based representative of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California. JPAC serves as a lobbying arm of the state’s Jewish federations, Jewish Community Relations Councils and other Jewish advocacy groups.
JPAC’s agenda includes supporting bills that expand the social safety net and combat human trafficking, domestic violence and anti-Semitism — all issues the caucus cares about.
“This [caucus] will hopefully give us an opportunity to further the Jewish community’s pro-Israel and social services agenda on a wide variety of issues,” says Berg. “It gives us focus, and I expect it will give the Jewish community more clout in Sacramento.”
Levine grew up attending Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek, where he had his bar mitzvah. He says his Jewish background, which included a United Synagogue Youth trip to Israel when he was a teen, had a huge impact on his life path.
“Tikkun olam was a central part of my upbringing,” he says. “In college I went to Israel with Hillel. My Jewish identity is incredibly important to me and has informed my outlook throughout my life.”
After serving on the San Rafael City Council, he was elected to the 10th Assembly District in 2012, representing a swath of Marin and Sonoma counties. His areas of interest include long-term care for seniors, higher education and the environment, all of which rank highly with Jewish voters.
The Jewish caucus, Levine says, provides a forum to promote those issues.
“It’s very important to us that we find common cause with other members of the Legislature about issues that Jews have been passionate about,” he says, “and that are important to other communities. We want to show we can be supportive of them.”
Levine hopes caucus members will co-sponsor legislation in the months ahead, though right now it’s too early to say which bills might get the nod. A Jewish caucus political action committee members hope to form could make a difference in helping to elect candidates, though that won’t happen right away.
Once it’s in place, though, they have agreed on a tentative name: the California Legislative Jewish Caucus Political Action Committee. Levine says he would prefer to call it the Repair the World PAC.
Leno, a former Assembly member and San Francisco supervisor, says the Jewish caucus could “promote a legislative agenda supportive of many of the health and human services issues that come before us. We will have the wherewithal for consideration of reinvesting in many of the state programs which have suffered severe cuts through the recession.”
Among the programs with reduced funding are adult day care and nursing homes. California is running a budget surplus, but Gov. Jerry Brown has promised to devote most of it to paying off debt and setting up a “rainy day fund.”
“So many programs have been cut; to suggest we haven’t got a few more dollars to benefit the beneficiaries of some of these programs because we have to put everything into reserves and repayment is less than a sensitive call,” Leno says. “I like to think a compromise can be found.”
Leno stresses that the caucus is not a religious entity, but an ethnic and cultural one. This, he says, reflects the members’ “respect for the separation of church and state. We’re doing this on the taxpayer dime, and we need to always be respectful of the separation.”
In what may be a first, the caucus opened its doors to non-Jewish associate members. Jose Medina, an assemblyman representing Riverside and other neighborhoods east of Los Angeles, was one of the first to sign up.
His connection to Jews and Judaism goes well beyond any political overlap.
Medina married his first wife, a Sephardic Jew from Panama, in a Riverside synagogue. His adult children identify as Jewish, and one daughter lived in Jerusalem before settling in the Orthodox Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Still, as a non-Jew, he was happy to be welcomed into the caucus. “It is atypical,” he says of the fact that the Jewish caucus is open to non-Jewish members. “I think it’s the only caucus that has opened membership to others.”
Like Levine, Medina won his Assembly seat in 2012 after a career as a high school history teacher in Riverside. Though he attended a few Capitol Knesset lunches, he says he did not really know any of his caucus colleagues before he joined. But the bonds have since grown strong.
“It’s personally rewarding to associate and take part with my fellow Assembly members,” he says. “The Jewish caucus will do well and be able to accomplish lots of good things.”
Block says having associate members such as Medina strengthens the caucus, noting they “express a great deal of interest in what we stand for.”
Another associate member is Assembly Speaker John Perez, long considered a close ally of the Jewish community. Because his district includes heavily Jewish neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Perez has drawn close to Jewish issues and Jewish culture.
Adds Block: “John speaks more Yiddish and probably more Hebrew than I do.”
While campus tensions, BDS campaigns (boycott, divestment and sanctions), a frayed social safety net and much more keep Jewish activists and politicians up at night, the members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus hope they can make a difference in Sacramento. Perhaps even a big difference.
“This represents the fact that today it’s popular to be Jewish,” says JPAC’s Berg. “That’s always a good thing.”