JPAC sets policy agenda and lobbies state legislature.
JPAC, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, is an advocacy organization that lobbies for the interest of California’s Jews. We sat down with its Executive Director, David Bocarsly, to discuss its important work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daniel Levine: For someone who’s never heard of JPAC before, how would you summarize the work?
David Bocarsly: We are the umbrella organization that represents 32 leading Jewish community organizations in California (including Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys). And we work with all of them to put together a policy agenda and lobby the state government on behalf of the Jewish community’s issues and values. The issues range from what I call core Jewish community issues like fighting antisemitism and hate, supporting Holocaust and genocide education, and supporting the California-Israel relationship to core Jewish community values around supporting children, immigrants and older adults, and fighting hunger and poverty.
So, we’re a diverse coalition, but we represent what I think is a broad spectrum of California’s Jewish community and specifically focus on the state government, which is an underutilized resource, but such a really important avenue of power and resources for our community.
DL: Before getting into specifics of your work, I wanted to ask a philosophic question here. JPAC is committed to upholding two different things. There are the values that affect the Jewish community so that’s internal Jewish particularisms, and then there are the wider, more global, universalistic causes. How do you navigate both?
DB: There are Jews who are deeply engaged in Jewish life who believe that being Jewish is doing each of these things. So, when we’re doing work on behalf of the Jewish community, we find it important to make sure that we’re representing the array of Jewish organizations that we partner with. So that’s why we do work on both of these issues.
I’ll also say just a thing or two about how they’re connected. Obviously, fighting antisemitism and hate, supporting Holocaust and genocide education, supporting Israel are core to who we are as Jews. But there is a really strong argument to be made about why a lot of the social service and civil rights work that we do is as well, and how it connects to one another. So as a community, we talk a lot about two primary reasons to do social justice work.
One is because it’s deeply rooted in our tradition and Torah. And the second is because we have a long history of oppression ourselves. And so the saying goes: We must help fight oppression wherever we see it. And these are both really important reasons to remember and to reiterate. But they’re also rooted in this kind of monolithic idea that Jews are all white or privileged or no longer suffering from our own oppression. And it’s important to root this work for other important reasons too.
The first is when we talk about helping immigrants, people of color, people experiencing food insecurity or homelessness, etc., we’re also talking about helping Jews because our community is diverse and it’s made up of immigrants and people of color and people experiencing food insecurity and homelessness and so many others. The other reason is also because when we show up for other people, we build trust and we build deep relationships with others who we can then ask to show up for us when we need it. So, there’s a strategic value added in partnership.
So, to bring your question back to its core, in my mind, these are all core Jewish issues. We are helping across the spectrum with what we do. We’re helping Jews. We’re helping other people too, because that is really deeply rooted in who we are. But in that we’re helping ourselves in the process.
DL: Do you have any concrete examples of what you’re describing in terms of allyship with other communities?
DB: Yeah, one that I’ll share is an example from my last job. Prior to being the Executive Director of JPAC, I was on the other side of things. I worked in the state legislature running the Legislative Jewish Caucus, which is now a group of 18 Jewish elected officials. And I was their staff director. And one of the big programs that we organized in 2019 was for a group of Jewish and Latino elected officials to go down to San Diego. This was at the height of the family separations instances under the Trump administration.
There was a lot of attention around people fleeing real persecution at home, near-death experiences coming to our border, and then being separated from their families and being put into our detention centers. So we took a group of Jewish and Latino elected officials down to the border to a Detention Center to meet some of these asylum seekers who were held in the detention center there. And we heard about their harrowing stories of escaping persecution at home and how they came to our borders trying to seek a lawful process to get into our country.
And then we took these Jewish and Latino elected officials down the street to the Jewish Family Service migrant shelter. Now Jewish Family Service is one of the amazing organizations that’s part of the JPAC coalition that is on the front lines, helping migrants access health benefits when they cross the border. Legal support system, financial support systems, so many different resources that get them into shelter and into jobs when they’re here, as they’re awaiting the determination on their status. And I can tell you, I watched the faces of these Latino elected officials and saw how they were transformed.
This was the same year as the Chabad Poway shooting. And after the shooting we had a big press conference up in Sacramento where we invited the leaders of all the other ethnic caucuses to come and speak about the need to support the Jewish community, fight antisemitism and hate, and support institutional security. And we invited the leaders of all the other ethnic caucuses and they all came. They all came, and they all spoke very beautifully. But notably, the chair of the Latino caucus got up and said, “I saw firsthand how Jews risk their own safety and security on the front lines in San Diego, helping predominantly Latino migrants. And because of that I and the Latino caucus in the Latino community stand strongly with the Jewish community today, and we demand that their requests for community security are met.”
It was this beautiful, powerful moment of solidarity going from one side to the other. And at that same press conference, the governor came and announced that they were actually going to meet our request and grant our community $15 million to support synagogue security initiatives.
DL: It’s interesting because if we look at Jewish history vis-a-vis governments over the last 2,000 years, Judaism has had a philosophy of “let’s try to stay as far away from the government as much as we can in hopes that they leave us alone.” I’m reminded there’s this famous and comedic scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” where somebody asks the rabbi in the opening song “Tradition,” do you have a prayer for the tsar? And the rabbi says, of course I pray for the tsar, that he stays far away from here. It sort of cues this reality that we’ve cultivated over thousands of years. Now what’s fascinating about what you’re describing in the current American political sphere is really a time where Jews are actually coming into both politics and political advocacy wearing their identity externally.
DB: Professor David Meyers at UCLA writes in his brief introduction to Jewish history that the Jews have survived this long despite so many other people disappearing because of this constant fluctuation of assimilation and antisemitism. We assimilate. And just as we might assimilate ourselves out of existence, we experience a moment of antisemitism that forces us to reckon with our uniqueness.
And it’s really interesting to look at Jewish history from that lens. I then look at Jewish engagement in civic life in America in the last 150 years, right after the big waves of immigration from people who fled antisemitism. As an oppressed people in America, we, for many years, were very active in civic life. We were very active in protest movements and joining hands with other marginalized oppressed communities because we were truly victims of a lot of the same oppression that they were. So, you saw Jews really engaging in the founding of the labor rights movement in the early 1900s and the women’s suffrage movement. Of course, we know the long legacy of our engagement in the civil rights movement.
And then I look at the last 30, 40 years, and I start to see a pattern. As Jews gained racial and economic privilege, let’s say white Jews gained racial and economic privilege in America, you start to see this familiar pattern of us going from an oppressed people to starting to assimilate a little bit. And a lot of institutional life actually shied away from civic engagement. The “Fiddler On The Roof” motto. I think we’re hitting a moment of inflection in our community where antisemitism is hitting record levels and we’re starting to realize that assimilation isn’t protecting us. And we actually need to be engaged very actively in civic life.
I really believe our member organizations have started to invest in this space in a significant way because they realize that when we show visibly as Jews doing work both for ourselves and for all vulnerable people, we are actually doing the best thing we can to protect ourselves. Building meaningful relationships with other oppressed communities, being visible, highlighting how we exist in the world and some of the struggles we deal with. I think that we were really hitting a moment of reckoning for our community as a whole and that coincides, non- coincidentally, with the work that we’re doing being much more visible and much more significant.
DL: A couple years ago I recall a statistic that said that two-thirds of American Holocaust survivors live on less than $23,000 a year. A failure on all of our parts in terms of caring for this community. Why do you think this is the case, and how does your work help fix the issue?
DB: I think the major problem here is that, first of all, most of our Holocaust survivors are older adults, and there are strategies and systems that our society has put into place to help care for older adults. And we have often times forgotten that the trauma inflicted on Holocaust survivors is unlike anything anyone else has ever experienced and needs to be responded to with specific trauma-informed care. And right now, we think of lower income Holocaust survivors as any other lower income seniors, and we treat them the same way and provide the same resources, and they can’t take advantage of the same resources.
So, one major example is institutionalization. We have a lot of senior homes across the state, but going into an institution that has rigid meal schedules and people who serve in many ways as authority figures oftentimes doesn’t work for Holocaust survivors. And so, we just don’t have the right support systems to care for this specific community of people.
Now we’ve got Jewish Family Service organizations across the state that are incredible and leading social service providers for these older Holocaust survivors, and they’ve figured out how to provide trauma-informed care and core resources so that Holocaust survivors can age at home. The problem is they don’t always have the resources to be able to help all of the survivors, and survivors might not necessarily know how to access the resources that Jewish Family Service provides. So, in JPAC, we have eight Jewish Family Service organizations that are part of our coalition that serves thousands of survivors across the state. And this past year, actually, there was an amazing advocacy effort that resulted in $36 million from the state budget going towards Holocaust survivor assistance. To put into context, the federal government provides Jewish Family Service agencies across the country some money for this. And I think the max they provide is $10 million. The state alone last year provided $36 million.
DL: Where can people learn more about JPAC and potentially get involved in the work you’re doing?
DB: We have a robust newsletter, and I would encourage anyone who’s interested in this type of work to subscribe. You can find out about it at our website, jpac-cal.org. We do an incredible conference in Sacramento where every year, we bring up hundreds and hundreds of Jewish community leaders and community members from across the state. These are staff members, board members, executives, young professionals, people looking to get involved in Jewish community organizing for the first time. It’s an incredible array of Jewish life and an opportunity to really meet people who care about a lot of the same things as you from across the state. It’s a two-day program. This year it’s May 9 to 10, and we engage with statewide elected officials.
Last year we had over one quarter of the entire Legislature come and participate in our program, whether it be at our reception, at our dinner, speaking on panels, or being our keynote speakers. We have the lieutenant governor and the attorney general as keynotes.
We do a ton of really amazing networking events, and then we break everyone up into groups and actually go lobby. We bring people to the state Capitol and they meet with a handful of elected officials and talk to them about the different priorities for our community. And so, it’s just been a really powerful and empowering event for a lot of people.
And it’s open to anybody, open to Jews and non-Jews who want to be involved in this work. I really want to encourage people to come up. And we’re also starting to build out some advocacy initiatives throughout the year that are to be announced on our newsletter. So, stay tuned there!
RABBI DANIEL LEVINE IS THE SENIOR JEWISH EDUCATOR OF OC HILLEL, A RABBI AT TEMPLE BETH TIKVAH, AN ADJUNCT PROFESSOR AT UC IRVINE, AND A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.