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NC Budget Day: Featuring Budget Discussion for the Main Course and a Dollop of Anti-Semitism for Dessert

GELFAND’S WORLD--Los Angeles is the third largest Jewish community in the world, right behind New York City and Israel itself. You wouldn't have realized that fact at the Neighborhood Council Budget Day that was held last Saturday. 

At Budget Day, appointed representatives from the city's 96 neighborhood councils get to elect 36 of their number to participate in an intensive, months-long study of the city's finances (well, most reps anyway -- the people from my neighborhood council neglected to show up). 

The 36 elected Budget Advocates work for months, meeting with department heads and even with the mayor. Eventually, they present their recommendations to the City Council and to the public. 

The elected budget advocates held their organizational meeting that same Saturday afternoon. One important question was when to meet in the future. Traditionally, the advocates meet twice a month. The practice has generally been to meet on a week night the first week of the month, and then to meet on the third Saturday of the month. It makes sense to meet twice a month because there is a lot of material to absorb. It makes sense to space the meetings so that there are a couple of weeks between one meeting and the next. But Saturday meetings became an item of discussion. 

In response to the proposal to adopt the previous practice of Saturday meetings, one man raised his hand. "I'm an observant Jew, and it is a problem for me to come to meetings on Saturdays." 

There was discussion, including some insensitive, dismissive remarks by three or four people. Apparently they were satisfied with meeting on Saturdays, and they weren't about to search for an alternative. One woman asked whether the person in question could join in the meeting using some electronic listening device. He responded that this wasn't very practical because he would ordinarily be at a religious service at the time. It struck me that asking the same question about someone attending a Catholic mass or a Protestant church service would have been viewed as ridiculous by most of us, but somehow this question was made with serious intent. 

After a while, the chairman invited those who opposed Saturday meetings to raise their hands. There were seven opposed and one abstaining. The chairman then announced that since there were only a total of 8 in opposition out of 31 advocates present at the time, that the motion to meet on Saturdays passed. 

In a post-meeting conversation with Budget Advocate co-chair Liz Amsden, I suggested that the vote was a fairly brutal rejection of what was, after all, a legitimate concern. She agreed that there was a concern, answering my questions respectfully and, I think, sensitively. At the same time, we both were faced with the fact that a large majority of the committee wanted to go with Saturday meetings. She agreed that some of the remarks we had heard were something less than understanding. 

Only then did it occur to me that something was missing from our argument. There was a reason that there were so few observant Jews making the argument on that day and place. Being observant includes "Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy." That's the reason that the more observant would never be at this meeting on a Saturday morning. Perhaps "never" is too strong a word, but skipping Saturday religious services on a routine basis to work on budget advocacy would run contrary to the chosen life-style for a lot of our fellow Angelenos. 

It’s a conundrum. Most citywide neighborhood council activities happen on Saturdays -- the once-a-year Neighborhood Council Congress, the monthly LA Neighborhood Council Coalition (first Saturdays) and Plancheck LA (second Saturdays). We've added the monthly Emergency Preparedness Alliance for another Saturday. The Budget Advocates will once again hold meetings on most third Saturdays of the month. 

I include this list in order to point out that I'm not trying to single out the Budget Advocates. Their meeting just happened to be the place where this question came up. Every other major citywide neighborhood council coalition has followed the same path, seemingly without consideration of the religious element. 

That's the way the system has developed over the years, with very little discussion about the propriety of what is clearly religious insensitivity. A quick look at the reference books reveals that the Los Angeles area includes more than six hundred thousand Jews. Not all of them are within the city of Los Angeles itself, but certainly a lot are. I wonder if a large number of observant Jews have long since written off participating in these citywide events. That would be unfortunate, but it wouldn't be surprising. After all, we wouldn't expect people to attend neighborhood council meetings on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday. 

It's true that some neighborhood councils exist in areas with substantial populations of observant Jews, and these councils do their best to accommodate religious preferences. I think it's also obvious that our neighborhood council system appeals to the more secular elements, not only of the Jewish community, but of many other religions and ethnicities. 

Antisemitism ancillary to neighborhood council communities in the harbor area 

There have been a couple of occasions when neighborhood councils in the harbor area held meetings on Friday nights. There were discussions, and it's likely that this won't happen again. Nevertheless, there was some blowback to the idea of religious sensitivity. One neighborhood council board member had no problem with holding a meeting on a Friday night. When he was asked whether he was OK with holding a meeting on a Sunday morning, he was utterly opposed. 

"Why not," he was asked. 

"It's the Lord's day." 

So much for nondiscrimination. I should point out that discrimination is not limited to religious populations. The other evening, one of our local neighborhood councils held a meeting of one of its standing committees in a place that does not have handicapped accessible bathrooms. It wasn't just an oversight. The neighborhood council was warned in advance, including by a direct call from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. 

One of the governing board members who attended the meeting didn't like the idea of being told to follow the law, and threatened to retaliate against the people who made the complaint. He said he would use social media to get back at the offender. He was apparently unaware that this sort of response is more suggestive of a seventh grade locker room than of what neighborhood councils are supposed to be. 

On another occasion, the grown son of a current neighborhood council board member responded on Facebook to a comment by a Jewish man. The response was a flagrantly antisemitic remark that played on centuries-old stereotypes. The parents (including the neighborhood council board member) were invited to repudiate their son's remarks. Neither was willing to repudiate antisemitism directly. Instead, they suggested that their son had much to learn. I'd like to think that any normal person would have responded, "I'm sorry, and I don't condone this kind of remark." The people of the harbor area are still waiting for that reply.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]) 

-cw