New Chief for West Coast Activist Group

By Rebecca Spence

Published February 05, 2009, issue of February 13, 2009.
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Los Angeles — The West Coast’s leading Jewish social justice organization has named a former corporate litigator turned legal activist for the poor as its new executive director.

Elissa Barrett, a 38-year-old attorney, will take the helm of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the group announced February 2.

Barrett, a University of Michigan Law School graduate, worked as an international human rights lawyer in Israel and South Africa before becoming a corporate litigator in Los Angeles. In 2002, she left Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP to work for Bet Tzedek Legal Services, an organization that provides legal representation to low-income L.A. residents. There, she fought against slum housing and worked to pass legislation for safe, affordable housing for the poor, disabled and elderly.

In 2007, Barrett became the organization’s founding pro bono director, placing pro bono legal cases with corporate attorneys. That same year, she launched the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network, which helps survivors claim monies from a new reparation fund in Germany.

The executive director slot at PJA has been vacant since last summer, when Daniel Sokatch, who greatly expanded the group’s membership and influence during an eight-year tenure, left to become CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. Sokatch grew PJA’s membership to 4,000 from a mere 250, with offices in both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

At a time when many Jewish organizations are struggling to keep afloat, Barrett said that PJA — with an annual budget of $1.3 million — is financially secure and positioned for a national expansion. “We are exploring the possibility of an East Coast office and the opportunity to work in strategic alliance with other leaders in the Jewish social justice movement,” she said. “My priority as executive director is to consolidate our growth in California and to move ambitiously and aggressively toward exploring planned national growth.”

Barrett, a longtime PJA board member, is also a lay leader at Beth Chayim Chadashim, L.A.’s oldest gay and lesbian synagogue. She will start work at PJA on March 16.

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