City of Angels

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Over the next three days, journalist Simona Fuma will be guest blogging from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. This is the largest gathering of the American-Israel political action committee, where the organization’s direction is decided, steered, and reengineered.

Here’s a mystery: Why does Los Angeles have the largest contingent at the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. this year? After all, greater LA has about 500,000 Jews, while New York City alone has over a million. New York is a four-hour drive from Washington, while LA is a 5-hour plane ride. Also, demographers would tell you that most indicators of Jewish affiliation are higher in New York than LA. For instance, synagogue membership averages at 34 percent in LA but 43 percent in New York. It’s a cliché, but aren’t people supposed to move out west to shake loose their old identities?

I don’t know the answer, but apparently there are a handful of activist rabbis in LA who are not embarrassed to urge their congregants to get involved in AIPAC. These include the rabbis of the Conservative Sinai Temple, the Reform Stephen S. Wise Temple and the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom. I met David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple, at a panel discussion for his congregants last night that included Congressmen Eric Cantor and Rob Andrews as well as pollster Frank Luntz.

I wasn’t allowed into the closed event–an AIPAC staffer stood at the door and turned all uninvited guests away—but when I did manage to slip in, they were discussing the pending legislation on Iran that AIPAC is pushing. Rabbi Wolpe is a star of the Conservative movement. He was named #1 pulpit rabbi in North America by Newsweek last year, and his congregation boasts 2,200 families, of whom 192 individuals have flown into DC with him for this event.

On first meeting him, it’s apparent that he is handsome, sharp-minded and charismatic. When I ask him whether his more liberal congregants are put off when he recruits for AIPAC, a woman immediately jumps in. “I’m liberal!” she shouts. “I’m a pro-choice, gun-control Democrat!” says Janet Halbert, adding that she also supports Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. “But this is both sides of the aisle, this is about the strength of the US-Israel alliance.” Halbert is so fired up that Rabbi Wolpe simply adds, “I agree with what she said.”

As I sit in one of the sleek seating areas of the Washington Convention Center, the din of conversation is so loud it amounts to a roar. To my right is a group of Israelis speaking Hebrew. To my left, a pair of middle-aged men are conversing in Farsi. Half of Rabbi Wolpe’s congregation are of Persian descent. It was they who notoriously scoffed at New York Times columnist Roger Cohen a few weeks ago when he told their congregation that Iranian Jews had a good life in Iran. “They’re always treated as second class. Religious minorities have no voice. Jews or Baha’i get arrested for espionage,” Joseph Marvisi tells me.

There is a large presence of Persian Jews in their 20s at the conference–perhaps 200. These are first generation youngsters who are doing well and want to get involved in the political process: hosting politicians in their bachelor and bachelorette apartments and making political donations — which is the way AIPAC works its influence. Many of them also view this as an opportunity to look for spouses–although they won’t say so outright. This is the first generation of Iranian girls who don’t get married at age 19. Their parents have started giving them more freedom to get an education and explore new roles. Twenty-year-old political economy student Kayla Lahijani explains the attraction to AIPAC thus: “It’s a way to seem smart and active. It’s not just about looks.”

Read all of MJL’s AIPAC blogs so far.

Posted on May 4, 2009

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