The Character of LA’s First Jewish Mayor, Eric Garcetti
Eric Garcetti has just been elected one of Los Angeles’ youngest mayors ever. Eric was a Rhodes scholar in Oxford from about 1993 to 1995. We were close friends and he was a regular at my Oxford University L’Chaim Society. One unforgettable incident defined his character for me in a moment of terrible tragedy for one of our students.
One day in the late afternoon in 1995, I received a phone call from a student who was one of my wife and my closest friends and the President of our student organization. She was crying bitterly. Her name was Jordana and she was almost incoherent with grief. Jordana, who has given me her permission to use her name, was studying in Oxford far away from her home in Canada. She had just received a phone call that her beloved father, with whom she was very close, had died in a terrible accident. She pleaded with me to come around to help her in this moment of agony and incomprehensible pain. I reached her family and we all decided the best thing would be for her to return home as soon as possible. I told them I would drive her to the airport in London.
There was one problem. That night I had already invited Eric over to our home for a private dinner with me and my wife. Given that this was before most students had cell phones, the only effective way of communicating with the students was through the University’s painfully slow ‘pigeon post’ system. I could not tell Eric in time that the dinner was being canceled.
I drove to Jordana’s college where some of her friends were already helping her pack her things. I attempted to comfort her in the tragic news and then brought everything to the car for the trip to the airport. We drove straight to our home where my wife could speak to her and where she could eat something quickly prior to the long night ahead of her. As we walked into the house, there was Eric, smiling and looking happy to be at our home for dinner. He had no idea of the night’s events. I quickly introduced him to Jordana. Her eyes were red and was pale from grief. I said to Eric, “This is Jordana and I’m so sorry that we have to cancel dinner tonight. You see, she has just learned that her father passed away just hours ago.” Moments like this are what show the true character of an individual. Here was Eric, a young, popular Rhodes scholar at Oxford who had simply come to have dinner at his Rabbi’s home. Now, he was being confronted with a total stranger’s grief and tragedy. How would he react?
And here was an interaction that has lingered in my mind and which I will never forget. Eric looked right at Jordana and, in the softest gentlest words, said to her, “I am so sorry for your pain. I’m heartbroken to hear the news. Please tell me if there is anything I can do.” His face was contorted in agony. He spent the next few minutes speaking with her. It was not what he said but the way he said it. He spoke with extreme empathy and understanding. It is quite remarkable that nearly twenty years later I can remember the scene so vividly. What I saw was genuine human compassion for the plight of a complete stranger. I remember thinking to myself that here was a young man with a soft and special heart, that he had the ability to connect genuinely and compassionately with those who were suffering.
Jordana reciprocated the effort. Amid mind-altering loss, she kept her composure and apologized to Eric for having to cancel his dinner. She thanked him for his sympathy and did everything in her power to interact with him on a human level amid her shattered heart. She told him she looked forward to getting to know him better when she returned and under better circumstances. It was a herculean effort at composure.
Eric refused to leave the home until Jordana and I departed. He waited around, told me how he of course understands the need to postpone our dinner, and kept on emphasizing that he wanted to help in any way that he could. About 20 minutes later we departed to London.
Interestingly, over the years to come, whenever I visited Jordana and her husband she would inquire how Eric was doing, so deeply had she been touched by his caring at that moment. Conversely, Eric regularly asks me about Jordana’s welfare. I’m not sure they ever met again but for me, as a witness to a brief exchange between two people in a moment of extreme crisis, it was a demonstration of Eric’s desire to always be there for those who are suffering.
Indeed, Eric’s caring for those who are struggling would become his defining political legacy as a Los Angeles council member and as President of the Council.
In Oxford, our organization specialized in hosting world personalities lecturing on values-based issues. A few months after this painful story, Eric was instrumental in helping me host his father, Los Angeles DA Gil Garcetti, to lecture to our students. Gil was all over the news at the time, having been involved in the high profile cases of O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, and others. I remember witnessing just how close Eric was to his father and the special bond they shared. It was something that I was reminded of recently, when I was invited to the birthday party of a Garcetti family member, seeing the deference and respect Eric accords his parents and the loving bond with his wife Amy, whom I also knew at Oxford. Gil is now an accomplished photographer and the son he mentored has grown to become LA’s first Jewish mayor.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” has just published his newest best-seller, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.