This Thanksgiving, I’m Grateful to Councilmember David E. Ryu

Unlike the Talmudic sage Hillel, no one has ever asked me to teach the essence of the Torah while standing on one foot.

Hillel, who was up to the cheeky challenge, famously responded, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary.”

My response would have been a bit different. I would have said that to be a Jew is to be unabashedly grateful. And then I would have fallen over. Balance, whether on one leg or in opinionated commentary, isn’t my strong suit.

Gratitude is actually embedded in our namesake as Jews. The word “Yehudi,” which means “Jew” in Hebrew, is derived from “Yehudah,” one of the twelve tribes of Israel. And the root of “Yehudah” is “l’hodot,” which means “to thank.” So, to be a Jew is to be a literal embodiment of gratitude.

It’s with this etymology in mind that I dedicate this column to thanking Councilmember David Ryu of Los Angeles’s fourth district.

In 2015, Ryu became the first Korean American to serve on the Los Angeles City Council. In January 2020, he was named assistant president pro tempore of the city council, making him the first Asian American to serve on city council leadership.

Ryu has made significant and impactful changes in Los Angeles, including his landmark reforms to bring greater transparency to City Hall, but I want to focus on his relationship with the Jewish community.

In response to growing anti-Semitism in the United States, Ryu released a letter in January 2020 in which he offered support and resources for Jewish Angelenos. This came on the heels of anti-Semitic attacks in Poway, Pittsburgh and New Jersey, as well as vandalism against Nessah synagogue in Beverly Hills in December 2019.

In the wake of those attacks, many statements poured in from local elected officials condemning anti-Semitism. But there was something unprecedented about Ryu’s letter: He secured the support of 20 of the core Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations in Los Angeles who signed the letter, taking an important stand against anti-Semitism.

It gets even better: the open letter was released on the same day that Ryu drafted a resolution that urged the FBI to create a special task force to investigate anti-Semitism. He also created a security grants program through his office to get safety resources immediately to Jewish institutions in his district, as many of these smaller institutions could not afford to do so otherwise.

“Growing up in Los Angeles, one of the things I valued most about my City was its diversity and inclusion of all people, no matter what they looked like, how they prayed or who they loved,” Ryu said in a statement. “The AAPI (Asian-American Pacific Islander) community is no stranger to hate and discrimination. I think we feel a shared call to root out hate in all its forms, to protect our diverse cultural fabric, and to stand in solidarity with our Jewish neighbors facing unprecedented attacks. An attack against one of us is an attack against us all.”

The letter joined a call led by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its dean and founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, in asking President Donald Trump to direct the FBI to create a task force “in response to a series of attacks against Jews and Jewish religious institutions.”

Four months later, in May 2020, Ryu’s office co-chaired (with Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Bob Blumenfield) a special exhibition as part of Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM). It was the fourth time Ryu had co-chaired JAHM. In 2017, Ryu spoke at an exhibition titled “From Brooklyn Avenue to Cesar Chavez: Jewish Histories in Multi-Ethnic Boyle Heights,” which was co-sponsored with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

Councilmember David E. Ryu (third from left) at the exhibit “Brooklyn Ave. to Cesar Chavez: Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights.” Photo from Councilmember Bob Blumenfeld’s Facebook page

In 2018, Ryu’s office organized another JAHM exhibition, “KLAL: A Celebration of Jewish-Angeleno Culture and Civic Engagement.” That celebration featured Mayor Eric Garcetti, Controller Ron Galperin, City Attorney Mike Feuer and many non-Jewish Councilmembers, elected officials, local Jewish leaders and even a klezmer-Latino band.

There are moments when, as a Jewish Angeleno, I think to myself, “L.A.’s the greatest.” A klezmer-Latino band that sings in Korean, Spanish and Yiddish is a cherry atop such moments.

In 2019, Ryu co-chaired another JAHM celebration, “Being Deborah: A History of Jewish Women Creating Change in Los Angeles.” In May 2020, the annual exhibition was focused on “The Sephardic and Mizrahi Roots of Los Angeles” and, due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, featured a vibrant virtual exhibit and discussion, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation, the Sephardic Educational Center, JIMENA and many more.

Full disclosure — I was one of the women honored in the 2019 exhibit, “Being Deborah.” I joined 400 people in City Hall to celebrate the contributions of Jewish women to Los Angeles dating back to the early 1900s. Yes, 400 people gathered in City Hall to celebrate Jewish women.

I, a former child refugee, who was forced by radical theocrats to wear a hijab in post-revolutionary Iran, was recognized in the most magnificent and largest chamber of City Hall.

The city that had rescued and redeemed me now recognized me and my civic efforts, especially my involvement with 30 Years After, an Iranian American Jewish civic action organization founded by young professionals. 

You made it easier and safer to be a Jew in Los Angeles.

Being honored at City Hall in 2019 was one of the greatest moments of my life. And it was all made possible by a Korean American city councilmember. The exhibit on Jewish women in Los Angeles was so powerful that it even went on tour and was hosted by the Jewish Women’s Theatre, the Silverlake JCC and is currently on exhibit at the American Jewish University.

Ryu didn’t have to organize any such exhibitions, especially given that JAHM coincides with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. But the mensch in him saw a way to hold a space of dignity and support for both groups.

“Whether it is Asian heritage or Jewish heritage, it is about celebrating diversity,” Ryu said in 2018. “It is about celebrating everybody who makes us Americans.”

Ryu had clarity and compassion. But he also had something no one else had: a visionary Deputy Chief of Staff named Adeena Bleich. She served as director of JAHM.

Bleich’s paternal grandmother escaped Poland on the eve of the Holocaust.

Her husband’s family escaped Syria in the 1960s due to persecution against Jews.

“When I became a bat mitzvah, my mother told me: “Every choice I make, every interaction I have, every moment of kindness or harm that I cause — all of Judaism would be judged for [it]. She asked me whether or not ‘it’s fair that Judaism will be judged by your actions? You must always take seriously that you are and will always be an ambassador of Judaism,’” Bleich recalled to the Journal. “It was a big idea and an even bigger task to put on a 12-year old girl. It is a task I carried forward into everything I ever did, especially in my choices working in politics.”

Ryu, who was born in Seoul, feels a kinship with Jews from many different religious and ethnic backgrounds.“He feels the values of the Jewish community are the same as his own,” Bleich said.

His record is impressive: Ryu’s supported many organizations, including the Jewish Federation, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the Anti-Defamation League, IKAR, Temple Israel of Hollywood and Agudath Israel of California (an American ultra-Orthodox organization), to name a few. You can’t work across a wider spectrum than that.

Working together with Ryu, Bleich developed the meaningful exhibitions for JAHM with tremendous creativity, intuition and support from various Jewish organizations, academics and the other Jewish elected officials at City Hall.

On November 3rd, David Ryu was defeated by his challenger, Nithya Raman, an activist who ran as a Democrat but who is closely aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America.

The DSA’s record on supporting Israel and the Jewish community hasn’t exactly been stellar, but that’s for another column.

For now, I only want to say thank you, Councilman Ryu, for your clarity, vision and unflinching support. You made it easier and safer to be a Jew in Los Angeles.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and activist.


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