Adeena Bleich: An Ambassador for Judaism

imageA candidate running for public office who coolly alleges that she hates politics may be a bit of an anomaly, but that’s not the only thing that sets Adeena Bleich apart.

At thirty-three, Bleich, a Democrat, is younger than the majority of political candidates. A graduate of Pitzer College in Los Angeles County, Bleich earned her degree in industrial psychology, not political science. What’s more, she is an observant Jew.

A Connecticut native, Bleich lived across the street from Senator Joseph Lieberman (CT) while growing up. So being frum and running for office always seemed quite natural to her.

In 2009, the shy California transplant who served at one point as the Los Angeles director of AIPAC, decided to run for LA’s City Council. Previously she had worked as a City Council deputy to Councilman Jack Weiss and helped run the mayoral campaign of Robert Hertzberg, former speaker of the California Assembly. Both of these experiences enabled her to witness the need for change firsthand, she says.

Hertzberg, Bleich’s former boss, supported her bid. “The reason I stuck my neck out for someone who was really young,” he explained, “is because it was clear to me that Adeena loves the work; she’s not in it for the promotions or the press.”

Although close to half of the registered voters in her Fifth District are Jewish, Bleich knew she had to build a stronger base for support. “She didn’t want people to vote for her because she was the Orthodox candidate but because she was the best candidate,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a contributing editor at Jewish Action and an LA resident.

“Adeena understands politics from the inside. She’s a hard worker . . . a take-charge person who gets things done,” Rabbi Adlerstein says.

As a woman and an observant Jew, it wasn’t always easy for Bleich in the political arena. People told her that “her keeping the Sabbath . . . made them uncomfortable and that [she] couldn’t serve as well as other people who didn’t keep the Sabbath.” Bloggers and several writers in local papers made sexist remarks. On the other hand, one of her former colleagues in City Council termed her the “moral compass” of the office, a compliment that gratified her.

Bleich, who is engaged to be married, got to know the Orthodox Jewish communities in her district really well. “Being a Sabbath-observant Jew who ran for office means that I have had a Shabbat meal in almost every community in this city [while campaigning], and that was an amazing experience,” she says.

Former Councilman Jack Weiss considers Bleich a “pioneer.” “There is a general reluctance in the Orthodox community to engage with the non-Orthodox world,” says Weiss, who is not Orthodox. “To see an Orthodox Jew [such as Adeena] engaged in Federation and beyond was eye-opening.”

Closing what he calls the “counterproductive gap” between the observant and non-observant communities was an important goal for Weiss when he served as councilman. “There are prejudices on all sides,” says Weiss. “There is so much work to be done to bridge the unnecessary divide between the observant and non-observant communities [in LA]. The only way to do this is on the person-to-person level, and that’s what Adeena did.”

Bleich, however, lost the election. Nevertheless, she explains that the bid made her stronger and gave her invaluable experience. “I learned more in that year-and-a-half campaign than [I would have] in most other jobs.”

The very fact an Orthodox woman ran for public office in LA is indicative of the increasing maturation of the city’s flourishing Orthodox Jewish community. The LA Jewish community has seen extraordinary growth in recent decades, with 621,000 Jews in the metropolitan area, a region with the second-largest Jewish community in North America after New York City.

Bleich, who currently works as a manager at a business and events management company, was brought up Modern Orthodox and attended a Jewish day school. “My parents let us know that [while] we keep and protect the values and traditions of Judaism, we are modern and we live in this world,” she says. She attended public school for high school and a Talmud Torah program three days a week. She remembers her mother telling her before she started public school that she was “an ambassador for Judaism and, for better or for worse, the Jewish people would be judged by how I carried myself and acted.” Bleich took this message to heart.

She remembers her mother telling her before she started public school that she was an ambassador for Judaism and, for better or for worse, the whole Jewish people would be judged by how she carried herself and acted.

Losing the election was one of Bleich’s main motivations to engage in politics in a different way. She co-founded an organization called CiviCare in 2009 along with other young, active Jews in the LA area. “I saw how much apathy still exists in the Jewish community,” she explains. The mission of CiviCare is to “engage, educate and empower Jews in LA to use their voice and their vote to create a better life in Los Angeles for all of its citizens.” Bleich believes that many frum people are unaware of the importance of local elections. Often they don’t even know who their council members are or what their state legislators do, so why would they vote? Her goal is to create a forum for healthy dialogue between the community and the local electeds to “make a win-win partnership.”

While the broader goal of CiviCare is to target the entire Jewish community, the group wants to start by reaching out to Orthodox Jews. Currently CiviCare is working on voter registration education.
When asked whether there was anything she wished to say to America’s Orthodox Jewish voters, Bleich says, “Don’t be cynical about the process. Don’t think that you don’t need to be involved in politics.

“We are a part of a larger whole; we are proud of our traditions, but we have a part to play in the greater world,” Bleich asserts. “Voting and political engagement is one of the best ways to do this.”

Olivia Wiznitzer, a graduate of Stern College for Women, is pursuing her master’s in Bible at Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. She is associate director of alumni programming at the OU.

This article was featured in the Spring 2011 issue of Jewish Action.
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