When Marc Levine and Richard Bloom were sworn into office on Dec. 3, 2012, they became the only Jewish members of the state Assembly. Now, two terms later, they’re part of a thriving 16-member California Legislative Jewish Caucus.
The group, which formed the nation’s first legislative Jewish caucus in 2014, is growing in influence as its membership expands. It currently includes all 13 Jewish lawmakers at the Capitol plus three allies.
The 16-member body has become a powerful advocate in Sacramento on matters of specific interest to Jews — such as support for Israel and opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel — and on universal issues such as supporting immigrants and the underprivileged that appeal to the Jewish sense of civil rights and tikkun olam.
“This is a different era than post-World War II, when Jews were less likely to be in front of issues as Jews,” said Levine, a Democrat who represents Marin and southern Sonoma counties and serves as the Jewish caucus chair. “Fundamentally, I believe there is a Jewish ethic that informs me as a policymaker today. My Jewish identity and my sense of social justice inform my policymaking.”
A caucus is a group of legislators or political party members who bond due to common interests or background and form a group that advances their causes. On its website, the California Jewish caucus states its mission is to “be a Jewish voice for justice, equality and progress” as well as promote the interests of its members and advocate on behalf of the Jewish community.
The caucus includes eight members from the Assembly and eight from the Senate. Jeff Stone, a senator representing parts of Riverside County, is the lone Republican in the group, and three of the legislators, officially designated associate members, are not Jewish.
“One of the strengths of the Jewish caucus is that it’s very diverse,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, a former San Francisco supervisor. He represents the state’s 11th District, which includes his hometown city and regions to its south. “In terms of giving more voice to our issues, having that formal caucus really helps — and it helps getting people elected. Having organized Jewish leadership brings us a certain strength.”
Levine said a 2016 bill opposing BDS sponsored by Bloom, of Santa Monica, is a good example of how the caucus can be a powerful tool in guiding legislation.
The bill, which went through extensive rewriting before it passed both houses and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, bars California from contracting with businesses that engage in discriminatory conduct due to a boycott of Israel or any other nation.
“There’s strength in numbers. That bill took an arduous path, so we needed to work together as a caucus to talk about it,” Levine said. “Working as a caucus was very helpful because it wasn’t a lonely author in the wilderness.”
Campus climate is also a big issue for caucus members, who have met with UC President Janet Napolitano and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block to talk about anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses around California.
Assemblymember Jose Medina, who represents parts of Riverside County, is one of the caucus’ three associate members. He said he worked with Rabbi Suzanne Singer of Temple Beth El in Riverside to put together a meeting with UC Riverside officials over concerns about a class with an anti-Israel slant being taught there.
“I think the caucus does make a difference,” Medina said. “No matter what issues we’ve taken on — whether it be anti-boycott of Israel or meeting with the prime minister of Israel or talking about campus climate — I think all of us are stronger when we speak as a caucus.”
The group sponsored a 2015 bill authored by former senator and caucus co-founder Marty Block that established the month of May as Jewish American Heritage Month; helped secure $2 million to train teachers to build safe and respectful schools in a program implemented by the Museum of Tolerance; and led 40 legislators and community leaders in condemning a swastika display in a Sacramento neighborhood.
When President Donald Trump issued his initial executive order blocking refugees from entering the United States in late January, the caucus was quick to send out a statement condemning the move and comparing it to American rejection of many Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.
“The Jewish community is a social justice community,” Wiener said in an interview at the Capitol. “I was raised, as were many Jews, with a sense of social justice. We do not live in a silo — whether it’s civil rights or helping refugees today, the Jewish community engages. It’s the philosophy of our religion and our culture, and also it’s our history.”
The group annually honors Holocaust survivors, children of survivors and concentration camp liberators from throughout California with a memorial program on the Assembly floor. The ceremony is set for April 24 this year.
The Jewish body also joins with other legislative ethnic caucuses, such as the 27-member California Latino Legislative Caucus, to support issues of mutual concern.
“We can find common ground with our colleagues on universal issues,” Levine said. “We also can be there when they need support, and they can be there for us when we need support. This is heightened in the age of Trump. Our friends need us more now, and we need our friends as much as ever.”
For non-legislative organizations that advocate on issues of interest to Jews, the caucus is a crucial ally. The Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, which calls itself the largest single-state coalition of Jewish organizations in the nation, represents Jewish federations, Jewish community relations councils and other Jewish community groups.
In lobbying legislators and forming alliances with them, JPAC has focused on issues such as health care funding for low-income seniors, the California-Israel relationship, Holocaust-era insurance claim issues and public education.
“It definitely is extremely helpful to JPAC we have a very close relationship with the Jewish caucus,” said Julie Zeisler, the group’s executive director. “We’re very fortunate that we have a group of elected officials in the Legislature looking out for the interests of the Jewish community. It is really nice to have champions in the Legislature to work with,” she said.
“I think it would be important [to have the caucus] under any presidential administration, but I think it is especially important now given the threats against JCCs and the rise in hate crimes against groups around the nation.”
Like Medina, the other two non-Jewish members of the caucus, all Assembly members, not only were drawn to the group because of affinity with its positions, but also because they have Jewish family connections. Adrin Nazarian and Blanca Rubio, both Democrats, represent, respectively, the central San Fernando Valley and a swath of L.A. County that includes West Covina.
“I am born and still am a Catholic, but my two children are Jewish and grew up in the Riverside temple,” Medina said. “My ex-wife and I raised them as Jews and they went to religious school and did their bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah. My daughter was very involved in Hillel at USC and did Birthright and a year of study in yeshiva in Jerusalem.”
Thus, “I was kind of naturally attracted to the Jewish caucus,” said Medina, a 2012 electee who also is a member of the Latino caucus. “I think strongly [caucuses] are more important now, because I think it is very important we stand up to the hate I see coming out of Washington, D.C.”
Nazarian, a Tehran native of Armenian heritage who is the first Iranian American to serve in the California Legislature, is Orthodox Christian and didn’t know until he was a senior in college that his paternal great-grandmother had been Jewish.
“When I started talking to some of my Assembly colleagues about my heritage, they sort of adopted me and asked me to join [the Jewish caucus],” Nazarian said. “Some of my mentors in life have been Jewish friends who have not only helped me but have taught me invaluable lessons in life. An elderly Israeli woman helped us quite a bit in our transition to the United States.”
Nazarian said he’s also proud that groups such as the Jewish caucus can serve as a role model for teens and college students. The lesson? People working together for a common cause.
“And there’s always been a personal connection,” he added. “Armenians and Jews have vast diasporas. The struggle of maintaining your identity, the issue of ensuring the past of our heritage is passed on. And given that we are diaspora communities, the families are always focusing on education and making sure the next generation does better.”
Rubio, a native of Mexico, discovered about 10 years ago during genetic testing by a cousin that she had Jewish ancestors dating back to the 1500s. Rubio, who is Catholic, said she played a dreidel-like game (tomo toda) with a six-sided top as a child in Mexico — without realizing it was something of a Jewish thing.
“When we did the genealogy, it all made sense,” she said. “So when I joined the Legislature [three months ago], I saw there was a Jewish caucus and I realized I didn’t know that much about my history. I wanted to contribute my perception. There’s a whole bunch of people who don’t practice, but it’s part of our lineage.”
In addition to Levine and Wiener, there are three other Bay Area legislators, all Democrats, in the caucus: Assemblymembers Marc Berman (whose district covers the Palo Alto area and the San Mateo County coastside) and Tony Thurmond (Hercules to Berkeley to Piedmont and a small part of North Oakland), and Sen. Steve Glazer (Contra Costa and eastern Alameda counties).
Levine had his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek and was a member of United Synagogue Youth. He now belongs to Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and has two kids in Hebrew school there. While doing an interview in his Capitol office, he briefly interrupted the chat to take a call from his wife asking if he’d be able to drive his son to Hebrew school the following day.
The caucus, which held a retreat three months ago at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, supported four candidates for legislative spots in 2016 — two in the Assembly and two in the Senate — and all four won.
“The growth of the caucus has been organic,” Levine said. “We do have a political action committee. When there are good Jewish candidates, we want to be able to support them.”