Los Angeles — When the head of California’s Jewish activist network, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, was first tapped to lead one of America’s largest Jewish federations, he politely demurred. After all, what could a dynamic young leader with a growing reputation as a visionary bring to a staid Jewish institution with a reputation for isolating young Jews? But after months of intensive conversations with board members at the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, Daniel Sokatch, the plucky founding executive director of PJA, said he realized that the federation was ready for change — and that he might be the right person to enact it.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how interested the board leadership was in building a new model of what a Jewish organization could be in the 21st century,” Sokatch said in an interview with the Forward.
Sokatch is set to take the helm at the San Francisco Jewish federation July 15. The 40-year-old social justice activist will succeed Thomas Dine, a former head of American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a supporter of both Iraq wars. Dine was viewed by federation insiders as a poor fit for the communal organization.
Sokatch’s appointment at the San Francisco federation represents a sharp left turn for the ailing Jewish federation system, which, observers note, has struggled in recent years to remain relevant. The century-old system, which has fought to keep pace with the ever-expanding field of boutique Jewish philanthropies, tends to draw its leadership from within its ranks. The appointment of Sokatch — a liberal activist widely heralded as a rising star in Jewish life — will inevitably shake things up at one of North America’s top 17 big-city federations.
“It’s a very big departure for the federation to reach out to somebody such as Daniel, who has an entirely different approach to organizing and the like,” said Gerald Bubis, a longtime federation observer. “In turn, it’s a very big departure for Daniel.”
Over the course of eight years, Sokatch, who earned a law degree from Boston College Law School, grew PJA into California’s leading Jewish social justice organization. While PJA started with only 250 members, it now boasts some 4,000, with offices in both Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In an interview, Sokatch said that his progressive political orientation, while not out of step with the Bay Area community, was not the focus of his new position. “This is not a job about politics, it’s about articulating values,” he said. “I understand the difference between running an advocacy organization like PJA and a consensus-based organization like the federation.”