(From left) Assembly member Jose Medina, JPAC board chair Lynn Bunim, Assembly members Marc Berman, Richard Bloom, Jesse Gabriel, Adrin Nazarian and Marc Levine; and JPAC executive director Julie Zeisler. (Photo/Courtesy JPAC)
(From left) Assembly member Jose Medina, JPAC board chair Lynn Bunim, Assembly members Marc Berman, Richard Bloom, Jesse Gabriel, Adrin Nazarian and Marc Levine; and JPAC executive director Julie Zeisler. (Photo/Courtesy JPAC)

Jewish advocates get face-to-face time with Sacramento legislators

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Jewish professionals and lay leaders walked the halls of the state Capitol on May 7 to advocate on behalf of the poor and the aging, and to voice their support for anti-hate crime legislation.

It was the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California’s annual Advocacy Day, with 160 participants from throughout the state visiting with legislators, chiefs of staff and others, seeking support for bills addressing these key issues.

Julie Zeisler
Julie Zeisler

“It’s their opportunity to have civic engagement, get involved and build relationships with their elected officials,” said JPAC executive director Julie Zeiser. “People find it eye-opening and are galvanized by the experience. They say, ‘This is how I can help make change in my community.’”

Before marching en masse from Sacramento’s Sheraton Grand Hotel to the Capitol, participants attended programs in the hotel ballroom, including a panel discussion on hate crimes and keynote talks by state Treasurer Fiona Ma and Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Praising the audience for focusing on hate crimes, Becerra said, “California is a forward-leaning state that works harder than most states to advocate on behalf of hate crimes, but we are not immune to them. We all came on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Other speakers included Rabbi Noah Farkas of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, who delivered the invocation; Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), who provided perspective on the current political landscape in California; and Lynn Bunim, JPAC chair, who set the stage by emphasizing the importance of citizens using their voices to effect change.

“Your advocacy,” she reminded the packed room, “will make a big difference in letting legislators know there is a strong Jewish voice about these issues.”

As the first and largest statewide Jewish lobbying organization in the nation, JPAC’s annual legislative agenda is set by its board of 20 Jewish organizations. Past priority issues have included immigration, gun violence, early childhood education, anti-Semitism on college campuses, human trafficking and housing/homelessness issues.

These issues, Zeiser said, are based on the political realities of the day.”

Case in point: hate crimes. From targeted attacks against Jews in Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to Poway, as well as attacks that targeted other immigrant and ethnic communities, racially and religiously motivated hate is on the rise. The 2018 ADL Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents identified 1,879 such incidents, the third-highest number on record since the ADL began its tracking in 1979. 2017 had the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents on record, and in 2018, California had the highest number of such incidents.

“This year, more Jews were murdered while acting Jewishly than in the past 40 years,” said Farkas. “How is it that we live in a world that is so beautiful, inspirational and prosperous, but with hate, violence and xenophobia?”

With the attack on Poway’s Chabad center, including the murder of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, fresh on everyone’s mind, the issue of hate crimes took center stage.

Political commentator Dan Schnur, board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, moderated a discussion on the state’s role in combating anti-Semitism and hate crimes. Panelists included Joanna Mendelson from the Anti-Defamation League; Michele Beckwith, criminal chief for the U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of California; and Assembly members Kansen Chu (D-San Jose) and Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino).

Mendelson, who tracks anti-Semitic incidents, including the use of red drinking cups to form a swastika in Newport Beach and middle-schoolers forming a human swastika in Ojai, said that ideology is being weaponized to “spew poison online and in the world.” She cited the online manifestos written by shooters. “If we don’t address hate at the low level — jokes or memes — it can escalate to genocide.”

Noting that the rise in hate crimes prompted him to create a subcommittee to address the issue, Chu, who emigrated from Taiwan, said, “I want to put those who feel empowered on notice that we are watching them. We are a country of immigrants. I know what is happening and it’s heartbreaking. An attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us.”

In response to this alarming rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate-motivated activity, JPAC’s hate crimes bill package takes the Federal Homeland Security grant a step further by allowing more flexibility in how grant funds are used. Currently, grants only support hardware upgrades, such as cameras and bulletproof glass. Gabriel introduced AB 1548, which would codify a $15 million budget request to establish the California State Nonprofit Security Grant program that would also allow for human resources, such as security guards, for organizations that are at high risk of terrorist attacks, Jewish and non-Jewish.

The package also includes Chu’s AB 300, designed to increase the accuracy in the reporting of hate crimes and incidents, including a check box to indicate whether a peace officer suspects a crime was motivated by bias. Chu also introduced AB 1052, which would require hate crime training for peace officers.

While hate crimes were a clear focus of the day, poverty and an aging senior population also were part of JPAC’s lobbying agenda.

“Aging with dignity and caring for elderly has long been a top concern for the Jewish community and JPAC,” said Gia Daniller-Katz of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, 19.5 percent of Californians — or 7.5 million — lacked enough resources to meet their basic needs in 2015. Disturbingly, the rate of poverty was highest among children — 21.6 percent — compared with 19 percent for adults ages 18-64, and 18.1 percent for those 65 and older. To remedy the disparity and inequity for children, families and seniors who are living below the poverty line, JPAC’s anti-poverty bill package includes the following:

AB 24 (Burke) supports families and children living in deep poverty by establishing a Targeted Child Tax Credit.

Gavin Newsom’s 2019-20 budget proposal doubles the existing California Earned Income Tax Credit by investing $1 billion in a new Working Families Tax Credit.

AB 898 (Wick) would help meet the behavioral health needs of children in poverty.

“The challenge for the working poor is that they may not file tax returns so they are not eligible for the earned income tax credit,” explained JPAC’s legislative advocate Cliff Berg.

Without the federal and state Earned Income Tax Credit, according to JPAC, 840,000 more Californians — including 376,000 children — would remain in poverty, and children who don’t receive behavior health care services face lifelong challenges that often keep them in poverty. In addition, childhood poverty has a direct impact on academic performance and employability.

In addition, the state is heading for a crisis in caring for older adults, according to JPAC. California’s senior population is on the rise with four million additional seniors anticipated by 2030.

Allowing this growing population to age with dignity would require:

A one-time increase of $24.9 million over three years for the Multi-Purpose Senior Service Program to help ensure that frail seniors receive comprehensive direct services designed to keep aging adults at home.

A Master Plan for Aging (SB 228) to address what is currently fragmented long-term care and a lack of accountability.

Support and training for the caregiver workforce (AB 1382), including $5 billion in respite care funding to help unpaid caregivers.

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.