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Mayor Eric Garcetti on the George Floyd protests: ‘This is a Jewish struggle’

As protests over racial injustice stretched into another day under the shadow of the enduring coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles encouraged the city’s Jewish community to increase efforts to address the underlying causes of a fracturing American society.

“Be brave. Step up. Step out. Do something. Listen. Learn. Hope. Love. Our current system is untenable,” he said in a June 2 Zoom call with members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

After another night of peaceful protests tarnished by roving groups of looters and vandals in commercial areas, Garcetti described himself as “optimistic and worried simultaneously — a very Jewish concept.” The challenges include a health crisis, rampant unemployment, the demands of social distancing and now nightly violence that has created severe economic challenges for local businesses just as the state was allowing them to reopen.

“It has to start with ourselves,” he said. “We need bias training, to erase the injustices in our hearts, not just in our policies. We have to engage in formal conversation. This is a Jewish struggle but also an Anglo struggle, a Latino struggle. We have to organize where we can and invest in justice.”

Garcetti said Los Angeles is facing “one of the most trying moments in the city’s history,” with issues of racial justice now pushing other issues to the side as television cameras offer a split-screen screen of respectful protests and rampant looting.

He decried choosing “peace or justice” as a false choice that ignores the urgent need for both.

“We can’t choose a side,” he said. “We have to embrace both. There’s a lot of shouting at each other right now. We need dialogue. We need to engage with each other, to be a healer, to find the better angels in all of us.”

He mentioned several ways, like summer jobs programs for young people, mentorship programs for youth and easier access to housing through federal and community programs to lower the incidence of homelessness. Solving the homeless program, he stressed, would go a long way toward reducing economic disparities.

“I don’t think homelessness ends until we have deeper access to housing,” he said. “We need more Section 8 vouchers, food stamps and health care. Here, there’s only a one in eight chance someone can get a housing voucher. We’ve never done as much and it’s still not enough.”

As a member of two local synagogues, Garcetti also addressed concerns that Sanderson said are on the minds of many Jews across the city: How can congregations maintain programs and financial stability in the midst of a pandemic and what will this year’s High Holiday Days look like.

Garcetti said he expects synagogues to offer services “but they will look a little different.” It wholly depends on safety recommendations from the state and county, which for now allow for gatherings of 25 percent of a congregation or 100 people, whichever figure is less.

Instead, he said, services might play out “electronically, [or] in person in shifts but it won’t be the same if the situation is not stable or improved. Synagogues will have to rethink how they’ll do things and still meet the spiritual needs of their congregation.”

In a follow-up interview, Jewish Federation president and chief executive Jay Sanderson, who hosted Garcetti on the call, said he worries about the city’s vast Jewish community, the second-largest in the country after New York, and how Jews are coping with a pandemic at a time divisions in the country have exploded into wide public view and a presidential election is just five months away.

“I worry about how we’re going to come together as a Jewish community,” he said. “Every single person I talk to is feeling under stress. We hear sirens every night. We have looting in our neighborhoods. Every element of our community is under tremendous stress, and I worry about how we’re going to move forward.”

The Federation, which implemented several programs to help Jews affected by the coronavirus, is now contemplating how to help during the civil unrest. Part of that, Sanderson said, is asking congregation leaders “what we can do with them, not for them.

“We’ve done a lot of good work,” he said of efforts until now. “But things change and we have to pivot and see what we’re capable of doing”

Garcetti, in his Zoom call, urged that Jews should do what they always do in the face of challenge: Act.

“There are some dangerous forces out there,” he said. “We have to organize, educate, have face-to-face conversations and get involved with building, painting, restoring things.”

“To live a two-dimensional life inside our own rooms,” he said, “our society will collapse.”

To hear Mayor Garcetti in conversation with Jay Sanderson, click here.

Michael Janofsky is an editor and writer in Los Angeles

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