12-year-old Netivot Shalom congregant dazzles delegates at Democratic Convention

When Pauline Moreno watched 12-year-old Ilana Wexler win over the crowd at the Democratic National Convention, she couldn’t help but smile.

“That’s it, she just sealed her bat mitzvah,” joked the president of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom, where the Wexler family are active members.

After all, which is more difficult: Taking the vice president of the United States to task in front of 35,000 roaring, straw-hat-wearing attendees and millions of television viewers, or chanting in Hebrew in front of the congregation?

Wexler handled her speech with so such aplomb, perhaps a bat mitzvah may be more stressful.

The young Oaklander with fireapple-red curly hair reminiscent of Little Orphan Annie drew one of Tuesday, July 27’s, biggest laughs when she upbraided Vice President Dick Cheney for his gutter talk on the Senate floor. Cheney used “a really, really bad word,” she said. “If I used that word, I would be put in a ‘time out.’ I think he should be put in a time out.”

Odds are this won’t be the last time you hear that line. Wexler’s bravura performance earned booking calls the next day from both David Letterman and Jay Leno.

And Moreno is not the least bit surprised.

“Since she was very young, probably 2 years old, the minute that girl started talking, she talked. She’s always been very articulate and very inquisitive and intuitive for a little kid,” said Moreno of Wexler, who was the flower girl at the 1997 commitment ceremony of Moreno and Debbie Lobel.

“Seeing somebody you know on such a huge, international scale, it’s kind of a trip. And I think we were all way more nervous than she was.”

Wexler landed her speaking gig after a personal invitation from Teresa Heinz Kerry. Wexler founded the organization and Web site kidsforkerry.org, opting out of a summer at Berkeley’s Camp Kee Tov to volunteer for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. She even turned her birthday party into a Kerry fund-raiser, raising $2,000 with a dozen or so friends by going door-to-door and trolling at Oakland’s Pleasant Valley Mall.

“I am doing Kids for Kerry because John Kerry’s plans to help children caught my eye. He wants to make class sizes smaller so children get the best out of learning and he wants to fund more extracurricular activities at school, like art, music, physical education and technology,” Wexler said in a brief telephone interview before the conference began.

A seventh-grader at the Julia Morgan School for Girls in San Francisco, Wexler warmed up for the convention by addressing an audience of 500 at a Women for Kerry event in the Bay Area. That’s where Heinz Kerry ran into her, and evidently liked what she saw.

“When she called me she said, ‘Ilana, do you want to speak at the convention?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely!'” recalled the fast-talking Wexler.

Her parents, Jonathan Wexler and Heidi Neipris-Wexler, and her little brother, Mori, are supportive of her efforts, but, Ilana insists, no one is pushing her into politics.

“I am my own person. It would be strange if I were supporting Bush and my parents were supporting Kerry. But my parents aren’t pushing me to do anything,” she said.

“My parents weren’t there when Teresa Heinz Kerry called. I could have said no. But I said yes.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.