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Zev Yaroslavsky: From Soviet Jewry Activist to L.A. Mayor?

The movement to free Soviet Jewry was just heating up in 1971 when Zev Yaroslavsky and a crew of co-conspirators steered a rented motorboat across Los Angeles Harbor, attached themselves with a pair of toilet plungers to the hull of a Soviet freighter and, with hasty strokes of spray paint, delivered a seaborne message to the Kremlin: “Let Jews Go.”

“My handwriting gets a little smaller towards the end, see…,” Yaroslavsky said, chuckling, in an interview as he pointed to the photograph of his defiant graffiti, framed on the wall of his office on the eighth floor of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration building, in downtown Los Angeles. “I was hurrying — afraid somebody on deck was going to drop something on my head!”

Serving his fourth term on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the 62-year-old Yaroslavsky may be the most powerful American Jewish politician you’ve never heard of. But that could soon change. After spending his entire adult life in public office, Yaroslavsky faces a crucial career crossroads: retire to the private sector when term limits force him off the board of supervisors, or run for mayor of the nation’s second-largest city. His decision could result in Los Angeles electing its first Jewish mayor.

Yaroslavsky is one of five board members overseeing L.A. County’s 10 million people living in 88 incorporated cities spanning 4,000 square miles — more people than the constituency of most senators of the United States in an area greater than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Yaroslavsky’s own 3rd District encompasses mountain communities to the north, the Malibu coast and Beverly Hills to the south, a large swath of the San Fernando Valley to the east, the heavily Jewish West Side and all six major motion picture studios — a total of more than 2 million souls.

The 2013 race for city hall already has L.A.’s best political minds churning. The pricey algorithm of a political campaign — fundraising, legal filings, committee organizing, key endorsements from unions and community leaders, all balanced against strategic points on a timeline — requires that all hats be thrown in the ring sometime this year.

“I’ve been asked by many people,” Yaroslavsky said, speaking to the Forward in the spacious conference room of his office. His bespectacled gaze — from between a dense thicket of dark hair above and the walrus moustache below that have been unmistakably familiar to residents of L.A. for three decades — turned thoughtful. “I’ve been asked by some people you don’t ignore.”

“He has the potential to be a major contender,” agreed Raphael Sonenshein, chairman of the political science department at California State University, Fullerton, and a close observer of Southern California politics.

If Yaroslavsky runs, he will be able to point to a substantive résumé — one that includes building regional mass transport, overseeing the county correctional system and Sheriff’s Department, and approving museum expansions and the rise of a slew of new concert halls — all while maintaining one of the few fiscally sound local administrations in the woefully broke state of California.

Mayor of L.A. is an executive position exceeded in national prominence by only the mayoral offices of New York and Chicago, and exceeded by none in current difficulties; like the rest of the financially tarnished Golden State, L.A. is deep in the red. Cutbacks and layoffs have closed libraries and squeezed schools, and left the streets rutted with potholes. Former mayor Richard Riordan recently wrote an op-ed piece declaring: “Bankruptcy is not a bad word — insolvency is! The city of Los Angeles is insolvent.” The city’s current mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has been branded a “failure” on the cover of Los Angeles magazine. Who would want to shoulder such a task?

“It’s largely a personal decision about what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Yaroslavsky mused.

“I’ve been at [politics] for 35-and-a-half years, and to be mayor of the city would be a 10-year commitment: a two-year campaign, and eight years in office, assuming I’d be elected and re-elected, which puts me well into my 70s when I’m done. So the question is if that’s what I want to do with the lion’s share of my productive life.”

Yaroslavsky is the son of Labor Zionist émigrés from Ukraine who came to America and landed in Boyle Heights, the city’s original Jewish district on the bluffs of the Los Angeles River, where Yiddish echoed in the streets and the Forverts was a community newspaper. “My dad used to read it religiously,” Yaroslavsky recalled. He was born in 1948, and he and his older sister, Shimona, were raised in the culture of Zionist idealism — his father founded the Hebrew Teachers Union — and in the notion of aliyah, or immigration to Israel, as destiny. His sister lives in Israel today. But Yaroslavsky followed a different course. After he graduated from Fairfax High School, a visit to an aunt in Moscow opened his eyes to the Jews’ predicament in the Soviet Union.

Yaroslavsky became a founder of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews while earning a bachelor of arts in economics and history, and an master of arts in British imperial history, both from University of California, Los Angeles. “My university education was, as my professors reminded me, an adjunct to my social action activities, which are somewhat legendary by now,” he said, with no pretense of false modesty.

The graffiti incident is part of the legend, as is his role organizing pickets of a visiting Soviet track team in the summer of 1969; a candlelight march the same year that drew 5,000, including L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty, and an aborted stunt involving black balloons at a Bolshoi Ballet performance, resulting in his arrest. In archival footage and contemporary interviews in Laura Bialis’s 2008 documentary, “Refusenik,” Yaroslavsky appears onscreen as one of the activists testifying to the power of that era’s most successful human rights movement.

In 1975, Yaroslavsky won a spot on the Los Angeles City Council, and was re-elected each year until 1994, when he ran for county supervisor and secured his current job.

As a city councilman, Yaroslavsky enjoyed high public visibility. For 20 years, whether clashing with Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates over police spying (the LAPD had collected information on Yaroslavsky’s activism), the use of “choke holds” by officers while making arrests, or the lack of women and minorities on the force, or successfully rallying his constituents to block oil well drilling along the Pacific Coast highways, Yaroslavsky seemed ubiquitous.

His county supervisor post has been less high-profile. The county’s far-flung geography and diverse populace conspire to muddle his image somewhat. At one end, he’s supporting the construction of a new library in the post-hippie wilds of Topanga Canyon. An hour away (in good traffic), or 35 miles distant as the speedometer clicks, he is wrangling with NBCUniversal over the neighborhood impact of the media giant’s proposed $2 billion commercial development of a large portion of the Universal Studios lot, where the “Psycho” house from the Hitchcock movie and Wisteria Lane of “Desperate Housewives” fame fall within county lines.

Perhaps his biggest accomplishment as county supervisor has been development of the Orange Line, a 14-mile bus system that opened in 2005 and cut through the Gordian Knot of urban transit debates in the San Fernando Valley (subway vs. light-rail?) by paving over an unused right-of-way and running buses through, from Warner Center to North Hollywood.

Among the many hurdles to forging that bus line was the largest and oldest Orthodox community in the San Fernando Valley, whose synagogue stood directly along the right-of-way. Led since the late 1960s by Rabbi Marvin Sugarman, the 5,000-member congregation was up in arms, worried that the Orange Line would cut access to the synagogue and destroy the community it had long anchored.

Inevitably, it was Yaroslavsky who ended up addressing and assuaging the community.

“Rabbi Sugarman came to me and said this is going to be a disaster for our synagogue,” he said. “I said no problem, rabbi. I said we’ll put a pedestrian crosswalk right in front of your synagogue, and we’ll put in a traffic signal, with a walk-don’t-walk sign.”

The rabbi objected: Activating the signal would violate the Sabbath. (Most stoplights in this car-crazy city are pedestrian-activated.) Yaroslavsky promised to install a special “sabbatical light” programmed to automatically go to a “walk” phase from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. “They still didn’t like it. They held a rally against me,” he said, “But I have a philosophy: I let the facts dictate the outcome; I don’t let the emotion dictate the outcome.”

It was a tough fight for Yaroslavsky personally. “Rabbi Sugarman and I had a very good relationship, more like a student to an elder rabbi,” he said. “Nothing pained me more than to be at odds with him — but I was.”

Sugarman had retired by the time the bus line was up and running. But when he was back in town for the High Holy Days shortly after the line opened, Yaroslavsky encountered him. “How do you like it?” Yaroslavsky asked him. “He said: ‘The Orange Line? What’s not to like?’”

The line is regarded as one of the most successful bus rapid transit systems in the country, with more than 20,000 boardings daily. And the synagogue survives and thrives.

At home, Yaroslavsky has been married to his wife Barbara for 39 years. His son David is 28 years old and a practicing attorney; his daughter Mina, 33, is an art therapist and recently gave birth to her first child, Yaroslavsky’s first granddaughter. His children now grown, the time seems right for the next chapter of his life.

Observers of the political scene handicapping the mayoral race see the potential lineup including Rick Caruso, a wealthy Republican real estate developer and shopping mall magnate with the business community backing to create an interesting contest. But Republicans account for only 23.6% of the city’s registered voters; Democrats generally pull a 51.4 % share.

Latinos are California’s fastest-growing ethnic segment, followed by Asians. Expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites in California by 2016, they currently account for an estimated 18% of those most likely to vote in Los Angeles. As a bloc, they have largely supplanted L.A.’s African American community as electoral kingmakers. The historic coalition of Westside Jews and South Central African Americans that came together in the 1970s to elect sharecropper’s son Tom Bradley five times as mayor, breaking the choke hold of white conservatives and reactionaries on L.A.’s social and political life, is a distant memory.

“I think the days of any one group having a disproportional influence over life in a community — Catholics, Jews, whites, African Americans — are over,” Yaroslavsky observed. “The world is flat now. To that extent, the Jewish community, the business community — their ability to dictate the outcome is diminished…. People are much more able to navigate their own way without a social or religious infrastructure to buoy them.”

But in a city where the Jewish community is 6% of the population and turns out 16% to 18% of the total vote, it wouldn’t hurt to be Jewish. And ironically, while L.A. has never had a Jewish mayor, the 2013 ballot may include three Jewish candidates, if Yaroslavsky chooses to run. Jan Perry, the city council’s president pro tempore and an African American who converted to Judaism, has already put herself forward, gaining the spotlight recently as champion of a new downtown stadium to lure a National Football League franchise to the city.

The other potential Democratic Jewish candidate is 40-year-old Eric Garcetti, the city council president. Son of a former L.A. district attorney, Garcetti is the product of an Italian-Mexican marriage on his paternal side, while his maternal grandparents, Louis and Sukey Roth, were Russian Jews, founders of Louis Roth Clothing, the first union shop in L.A.’s garment industry. He is fluent in Spanish and has been known to knock back tequila shots with Mayor Villaraigosa. He also attends services at IKAR, the congregation founded by Reconstructionist Rabbi Sharon Brous. Garcetti offers both Latino and Jewish ethnicity — a potent combination in a city where the surging Latino community helped elect Villaraigosa to his second term.

Adding further complexity in the event of a Garcetti vs. Yaroslavsky race is the fact that the legal ceremony uniting Garcetti and his wife, Amy, was performed by Yaroslavsky, whom the younger man regards as a friend and mentor. Garcetti told the crowd at a recent community board meeting that he was “seriously leaning” toward a mayoral run and will go public in the next six to eight months with his decision.

Asked by the Forward his view of Yaroslavsky’s candidacy, Garcetti offered carefully, “He’s certainly qualified.”

Yaroslavsky’s primary devotion is to the local arena, but his interest and involvement in international affairs, starting with his early efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, give him an unusual perspective and authority. It is a background that could have led him into a congressional seat that opened up in 1993.

“It was the road not taken,” said Sonenshein.

With this history, Yaroslavsky projects a kind of gravitas, yet — simultaneously and unusually for someone long in power — he retains an outlook forged in an era when anything seemed possible, and when realpolitik took a backseat to idealism.

“I think that the Soviet Jewry movement is a lesson that keeps on teaching,” he said, “whether it’s China, East Timor, Burma or wherever. Human rights are worth fighting for, and you can be successful fighting human rights violations.”

Yaroslavsky continues to pursue causes from a passionate perspective. On his website, he calls homelessness in American cities “a national disgrace at the heart of downtown.” In 2007 he sponsored Project 50, a $3.6 million pilot program, inspired by a similar New York City initiative, to provide housing and health care for the most at-risk denizens of L.A.’s Skid Row, the epicenter of L.A. County’s estimated 10,000 homeless. Although criticized by a fellow supervisor as “housing without healing,” the project has met with some success, but not without “political will and enormous effort by staff,” the L.A. Times wrote in a series of articles last year.

But some who have criticized him as indecisive ask, “Does Yaroslavsky have the ‘fire in the belly?’” And beyond that, is it a job worth doing?

“His decency could be antithetical to the job, and the job itself has diminished the last few office holders,” said Michael Berenbaum, noted Holocaust scholar, prominent member of L.A.’s Jewish community and a friend of Yaroslavsky (and a Forward contributing editor).

“He would have to reintroduce himself,” Sonenshein said, “as he’s become less visible since he left the City Council.”

For the moment, the only running that Yaroslavsky will talk about with certainty is the four miles he jogs daily in the Fairfax neighborhood where he lives. “I will give a mayoral candidacy careful consideration,” is his official pronouncement, “but for now my focus is on my responsibilities as a county supervisor.”

Contact Rex Weiner at [email protected]


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