Robin Berkovitz and Laurie Newman Receive First Harriet Perl Tzedek Award
This year we introduced a new award, the Harriet Perl Tzedek Award, in memory of Harriet Perl, z’l, a BCC member for nearly 40 years and a fierce advocate for justice (tzedek). Its first recipients, Robin Berkovitz and Laurie Newman, have exemplified the pursuit of justice in many different ways. In addition to the achievements described in their acceptance speech, they have been cornerstones of BCC’s family learning program, Ohr Chayim. Robin has served multiple terms on the BCC Board of Directors and often leads Shabbat services, and Laurie drew on her background as a professional chef to help design the kitchen in BCC’s new building.
Robin and Laurie were introduced by former State Senator Sheila Kuehl (herself a past BCC Humanitarian awardee), on whose legislative staff Laurie served for 14 years with a focus on transportation and the environment. Here is a portion of their acceptance speech, with Laurie’s words in italic.
We are honored to be the first recipients of the Harriet Perl Tzedek Award. Harriet, who lived 92 years, was a dedicated teacher, passionate feminist, union activist, devoted grammarian, not to mention our temple’s most proud atheist. Harriet, your spirit is with us today. And Harriet: we promise that we spell checked this speech.
While Robin and I met at BCC, and I confess, I was there looking for a girlfriend, not a temple, it was our mutual involvement in politics and social justice that sealed the deal. Meeting Robin and finding out that, not only was she a good looking attorney, but a public defender, with a passion for justice—what a bonus! And the biggest bonus of all is our daughter, Eliana, who has made our family complete, along with Lucky, Rodeo and Sunny.
Laurie’s right, as always. She’s right about Eliana, of course, and about the work I do. I can’t think of a more fulfilling, exciting and rewarding job. Having the chance to stand up and defend the most vulnerable against the most powerful is an awesome and humbling responsibility. It has been said that the truest test of a just society is how well its weakest members are treated. Surely the criminal justice system cannot be just without defendants receiving vigorous representation that is matched against the government’s powerful resources.
It just so happens that this year is the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Gideon vs. Wainwright. It was Mr. Gideon, a man found guilty of breaking and entering into a pool hall, who helped win for himself and every indigent person who came after him, the fundamental right to an attorney. Imagine being charged with a crime, and having no lawyer. I’m sure many of us can’t imagine that. After losing at trial, Mr. Gideon was able to get the attention of the Supreme Court, despite a hand written plea, filled with many grammatical errors. At his retrial, Mr. Gideon was appointed a public defender and was acquitted.
As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, I grew up knowing all too well about the inhumanity that can exist in this world and that inspired me be involved in justice work. What better place to do that than standing alongside a shackled prisoner facing a serious criminal charge? As a public defender, I sometimes can’t believe I get to represent the underdog, challenge authority, and get paid for it!
Thank God you get paid for your work. Someone needs to work in this family! If it weren’t for the nourishment Eliana and I get from not only your food, cooked with panache and love, but the beautiful home and garden you take care of, I would not have the energy to fight this good fight. Of course, not every day at work is fun and exciting; some days are infuriating, depressing and filled with despair. But no matter what kind of day I have, I am incredibly lucky to work with the most dedicated, passionate, and brilliant lawyers around, who inspire, teach and support me every day. I could not do what I do without my colleagues. I want to give a special shout out to some of them who are here today.
I have been fortunate to have many incredible women in my life; besides my mother, there are two in particular that stand out, and they’re both here today: Sheila Kuehl and Robin Berkovitz. You have no idea what a privilege it was for me to work for an elected official who is so smart, progressive, kind, and supportive
of her staff. You too could have that opportunity. Sheila will be hiring at the end of next year, after she wins a
seat on the County Board of Supervisors. After working as a chef for almost 15 years, I happened to be between jobs when Sheila was first elected to the State Assembly in 1994. For a number of reasons, I thought why not? It could be fun to be paid for “volunteer work.” So I thought I’d stay for a year, and then go back to my beloved profession. Well, that didn’t happen. The work was so fulfilling and meaningful, and I was having too good a time to leave.
I have had so many great opportunities—to work on advocacy and legislation that helped progress the construction of the Expo Line, to bring diverse people together to solve complex transportation problems and to work on environmental issues including legislation that created the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, on which I am still involved, currently serving as the Foundation’s president. We work in partnership with government agencies, and other non-profits, to help cleanup Santa Monica Bay.
Judaism teaches that we each must work to repair the world. We thank BCC for sustaining us spiritually and guiding us to live our lives reflecting these Jewish values, and for being a place where we can continue to share and transmit these values to our daughter.
Thank you all for this honor. This is for you Ms. Perl