Progressive groups new leader grounded in social justice

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Attorney Elissa Barrett was born in very Jewish New York and grew up in not very Jewish Houston. Naturally she developed a taste for Texas barbecue, but she also took something important away from her Lone Star experience.

“It’s still the South,” Barrett said. “It gave me an appreciation of [Jews’] status as immigrants and outsiders that I continue to carry with me. No matter what level of prestige and integration we achieve, I am always aware of our place in America.”

 

Elissa Barrett

That sensitivity led Barrett to a career in social justice with a distinctly Jewish perspective. Next month she becomes the new executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, after working since 2002 for the pro bono Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles.

 

Barrett, 38, will replace Daniel Sokatch, who last summer became the CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Like her predecessor at the PJA, Barrett will be based in Los Angeles.

“I’m not the least surprised,” said Sokatch of Barrett’s selection to head the 10-year-old organization. “She is part of the DNA of PJA, and I think it’s an inspired choice.”

The aim of the PJA remains unchanged: to “educate, advocate and organize on issues of peace, equality, diversity and justice, as a progressive voice

in the Jewish community and a Jewish voice in the progressive community,” according to its mission statement.

With a background that includes working for a Palestinian women’s legal aid center in Jerusalem and combating slum housing in Los Angeles, Barrett has a history of melding social justice work with her Jewish identity.

“It’s so a part of who I am. I don’t know how I could have made a different choice,” Barrett said. “I’m one of those 30-somethings that was born out of a Jewish social justice template. I went to the Jewish summer camps, I was active in NFTY [National Federation of Temple Youth], I was in Hillel, I worked on South African divestment from a Jewish perspective. Each step along the way my Judaism has been the lens through which I’ve seen social change.”

Barrett was director of pro bono services at Bet Tzedek, which secures free legal aid for low-income L.A. residents. She also launched another pro bono project, the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network, which links Jewish social service agencies, law firms and corporations to assist Holocaust survivors. 

A member of the PJA’s board of directors since 2000, Barrett is a lifetime member of the National Council of Jewish Women.

She’s also been active in LGBT issues, in particular fighting against Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California. Barrett married her partner, playwright Zsa Zsa Gershick, once same-sex marriage was made legal by the state Supreme Court earlier last year.

“Opposition to Prop. 8 was a major animating force in our civil rights work in 2008,” she said. “We felt that rather than focusing on the anti-gay hatred and fear that seemed to be motivating the Prop. 8 campaign, we wanted to focus on the humanity of LGBT people and their place in our communities.”

Not surprisingly, Barrett sees the election of President Barack Obama as a sign that the country is moving toward a more progressive future, one that will help her own organization’s agenda.

“The role PJA can play is to say to the Jewish community: How can we be conscious in our consumerism?” Barrett said. “How can we be active as citizens? How can we take the concept of kosher and have it be more than how our food is prepared, but what the conditions of labor are that went into the preparation of that food, or clothing, or car wash, or bank.”

Lest one view Barrett as unduly partisan, she has nice things to say about those on the right. “They have a unified approach and understanding of how to move their values and policies forward. Progressives could learn something from them.”

She intends to apply those lessons as soon as possible to push the PJA’s agenda of helping the poor, the indigent and the underserved.

Another goal is to consolidate the PJA’s growth in California and upgrade the infrastructure. It has regional offices in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, where Rachel Biale will continue to head up the office in El Cerrito.

“It’s such a talented staff and such a creative, highly energized membership,” Barrett said of her PJA team. “We’re only at the beginning of what we can do as an organization.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.