Palo Altos Jewish mayor has passion for government

Judy Kleinberg is surprised there aren’t more Jewish elected officials in the Peninsula — or in the entire Bay Area, for that matter.

“I marvel at that fact because I grew up in the 1960s, when we were so motivated to get involved in government,” she said. “And that forged my passion for government and law.”

Kleinberg, a 59-year-old attorney, was elected mayor of Palo Alto last month. In a smaller city like Palo Alto, the mayor is appointed by the city council and not directly elected by the people. Kleinberg has served on the city council for the past five years.

Kleinberg is hardly the first Bay Area Jewish mayor — no one is forgetting Diane Feinstein. More recently, Bernie Meyers retired as Novato’s mayor in December.

Kleinberg was raised in Providence, R.I., in an extremely assimilated family, where Christmas and Easter were celebrated in her home rather than the Jewish holidays. Though her father gave generously to Jewish institutions, it was Kleinberg herself who decided to attend religious school and be confirmed.

“My father felt a tremendous responsibility because he grew up so poor, so he became a major donor to the Jewish hospital and the temple,” she said. “He gave to everything.”

She added, “You observe and respect what your parents do.”

In college, Kleinberg began drawing closer to Judaism, and when she met her husband, a strongly identified Jew, she embraced it fully. She and her husband belong to Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

And while her resume has far too many titles and volunteer positions to list, Kleinberg served on the boards of the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center and the South Bay’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

Kleinberg has been a Palo Alto resident since 1984 and began serving on the city council in 2000. She has always worked as an attorney, and her involvement in community service gave her the bug to serve as an elected official.

“I always thought it was really interesting to be making the law rather than applying it, and thought it would be a great experience to be on the other side of that equation,” she said.

Additionally, she felt there were issues she cared about as a volunteer that she couldn’t advocate for as strongly as she liked.

Kleinberg has several goals as mayor: increasing public safety and disaster preparedness, upgrading Palo Alto’s libraries and creating more recreational opportunities for both youth and seniors.

None of these issues seem remotely controversial, but Kleinberg has not been one to shy away from controversy in the past. She was a sponsor of a resolution that the city of Palo Alto oppose the Iraq War before it began, but while she assumed there would be strong opposition to the resolution, most people were in favor of it.

Kleinberg said she has experienced anti-Semitism in her time on the city council.

Once she was the only city council member to receive Aryan hate mail, and her house has been vandalized.

There were also occasions where “people who came to meetings didn’t exactly attack me, but made references that were clearly identifying that I was a Jewish woman and perhaps I shouldn’t vote on certain matters,” she said.

This reached its height when the city of Palo Alto was debating whether to allow the Orthodox community to build an eruv, a symbolic wire enclosure around an Orthodox neighborhood that allows the inhabitants within to carry without violating the rules of Shabbat.

She was new to the council then, and found her support of the Orthodox community brought all kinds of ugly comments.

“There were those truly anti-Semitic forces, and then there were the ones who never would have identified as such but they were,” she said.

Kleinberg has maintained a full-time job throughout her career in public service. She is currently vice president of policy and programs at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network.

While the longest she can serve as mayor is two years, she doesn’t rule out anything in the future. For years, people have asked whether she plans to run for the state assembly, and in the past, the time was never right.

In two years, things may be different.

“I’m very interested in continuing to serve in government at another level, but at the time the assembly race came up, my husband had just become a judge, and there was a lot of transition,” Kleinberg said.

“But would there be a right time? I’m open to all kinds of possibilities, in government or business or philanthropy, I’m open to all kinds of things.”