LOS ANGELES — On the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5775, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti came up to the bima at progressive synagogue IKAR to recite the prayer for the United States during morning services. The day before, just hours before the holiday commenced, Garcetti spoke with the Times of Israel about his Jewish roots, how his Judaism impacts the way he governs, and his hopes for Israel for the New Year.
The 43-year-old is Los Angeles’ first elected Jewish mayor and came into office in July 2013. He lives in East Los Angeles with his wife Amy Wakeland and their daughter, Maya. In a city of immigrants, Garcetti could have campaigned on his multi-ethnic roots, but most people weren’t even aware of his Jewish identity until after the election.
Garcetti is the son of Mexcian-American former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti (who oversaw the prosecution of O.J. Simpson). While his father’s side of the family traces its roots back to Spain and Italy, his mother is the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants.
Nicknamed the “kosher burrito,” Garcetti happily embraces his diverse background and since taking office has made a decision to study Torah and Talmud with IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous twice a week.
Do your Jewish values inform your style of governance?
Jewish history informs the decisions I make all the time along with the kind of values I was raised with in my family: the interconnectedness of morals and the importance of establishing local roots, but having global awareness. And I think the idea of having a kind of duty to give back and stay engaged, not just because it makes you feel good but because it’s part of your contract with your fellow human being.
I grew up in a pretty secular family so there wasn’t anything specific, but I think every day I have a sense of the members of my family that came before me and what they struggled to go through and achieve.
Can you talk about your (and the City Council’s) support of Israel during Operation Protective Edge this summer?
The images that we saw were horrifying but I like to paraphrase what then president [Shimon] Peres said, which is: “Of course it’s horrible but what else is there to do under attack?”
‘There’s a need to defend yourself but nobody can be happy to see images of injury and death. I think we wouldn’t be humane if we didn’t feel that way’
There’s a need to defend yourself but nobody can be happy to see images of injury and death. I think we wouldn’t be humane if we didn’t feel that way.
It was important as a city to stand up for peace and a halt to the fighting but also to be able to stand on principles and stand up for Israel because often it was portrayed as just one way or the other.
I think all of us know that to be Jewish and pro-Israel there’s a wide range of opinions, but there’s unanimity about the support of the State of Israel and any state’s right to defend itself under attack.
I was pleased to see a very unified message from Jewish and non-Jewish representatives in Los Angeles, which has been a welcoming city to folks of every religion and every background and certainly has become one of the most important Jewish and Israeli-American cities.
Are there any direct connections between the City of Los Angeles and Israel?
Eilat has been our sister city for many years, and we also have the Los Angeles Tel Aviv Partnership. We do a lot of work with them around technology, the environment, and security. We’ve had folks come out here and look at our airport and vice versa. We have a very robust formal agenda as well as informal business, social and cultural ties.
You began studying Torah and Talmud with Rabbi Sharon Brous shortly after you came into office and you’re still doing so a year later. Why?
It’s very important for me as a city leader to take time to reflect and to connect with ethics and morality and the decisions that political leaders have made since the beginning of recorded history.
It’s wonderful to learn from somebody as knowledgeable as Rabbi Sharon. For instance, you’re not supposed to pray in a windowless room even though you’d think it would be a good place to concentrate on your relationship with God. The idea was people had to be able to see so they could see the divine radiated out.
There’s something about that that I can apply to government: you can’t just make decisions behind closed doors. It’s important for people to understand how you make those decisions and to be able to share.
Do you have any other major Jewish influences?
On an informal basis I have family, but they’re quite secular. Rabbi [Shmuley] Boteach who I knew at Oxford comes in and out of my life at times. I think I couldn’t probably get a bigger contrast between [Boteach and Brous], but I’m a coalition builder!
‘I think I couldn’t probably get a bigger contrast between [Boteach and Brous], but I’m a coalition builder!’
[Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi] Susan Goldberg, who spoke at my swearing in has worked with us on things like the minimum wage initiative. I have great friendships at the Jewish Federation.
I say that my chief of staff who is Mexican has doubled the Latino and doubled the Jew in me. My deputy chief of staff is Jewish and I think there’s a nice connectivity between the Jewish elected officials in the city – there’s six of us out of 18.
Have you been to Israel before and do you have plans to visit as mayor?
I haven’t yet been as mayor but I’ve been about four times. I first went as a teenager in high school after doing work with the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry between Operations Solomon and Moses. We went to Ethiopia to help folks who were left behind in the Jewish villages and then we went to Israel to see the resettlement areas for Ethiopian Jews. I’ve been back a couple of times since then.
The last time was a few years ago as part of a fellowship of young elected officials. We toured Israel, Jordan and Egypt. I definitely have plans to go back as Los Angeles’ first Jewish mayor to visit Israel.
Do you have any New Year’s wishes you’d like to share with Times of Israel readers?
Absolutely. I hope that this is a year of peace in Israel. I think a strong Israel that continues to innovate and save lives through health care and save the earth and the environment and connects people through digital technology innovation is something that we can all benefit from.
I hope this is the year that the Israeli people have the peace to be able to continue that incredible progress and that they can count on Los Angeles always being their great cousin just over the ocean.