Tapestries, traffic jam compassion, and human responsibility—this is how Jay Sanderson sees the world we live in.
President and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Sanderson channels his story and that philosophy into his daily work. “I would say that the world is a complicated place. The more complicated things get, the more we need to hold to our stories. Coming to this job was me connecting to my Judaism,” the father of two said. “I’m a storyteller, and my Jewish story definitely impacts the work I do.”
Growing up in the 1960s projects on the outskirts of Boston, Sanderson was one of many young victims of anti-Semitism. His father died when he was five. He was beaten up many times as a boy and buried alive once as a teenager.
Anti-Semitism, which is only an echo of the violence that raided the Jews during the Holocaust, is something that Sanderson believes was deeply personal for people who lived during and after the genocide in 1945. The story resonated most with them. However, as decades passed, new generations became less and less connected to the events of the Holocaust. This, Sanderson believes, is a detachment that must be fixed because it runs the risk of letting the same things happen again.
One of the primary responsibilities he takes on, therefore, is making Jewish life attractive and open to young people, to create new rules that work for everybody and meet people where they are. One of the projects Sanderson started in 2011 is The Next Big Jewish Idea, whose purpose was to engage a community in conversation. The project provided an opportunity for individuals and organizations to submit ideas for programs that would benefit the greater Los Angeles Jewish community.
The reason for the search was that this generation is the first to completely reject ‘I told you so’ reasoning, according to Sanderson. Independence and free choice are, after all, characteristic of American ideology. Therefore, if we want a rich tapestry, he believes we must meet people where they are.
As a father of two young adults today, Sanderson strives to build lives for them that make Judaism a natural, open, but also personal lifestyle so that they can feel connected to their heritage.
He also sees responsibility on an international level. All people of faith harbor a value system and a direction for social betterment. These, Sanderson asserts, are the tools we have been given to heal the world.
“We are all responsible to make the world better. My Judaism is only as good as my ability to impact the world.” The thoughts and dreams of peace and love around the world are unrealistic, he says, and if any single group believes it can accomplish that, it is arrogant. Sanderson believes that our responsibility is to improve the world in small increments, little victories, when and where we have influence.
Channeling that ideology, when he was still part of the Jewish Television Network, Sanderson produced the epic genocide documentary “Worse than War,” a film led by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen that documented the victims, perpetrators, and personal accounts of different genocides that occurred internationally in the last 100 years . Sanderson joined on this trip to see various history-making war sites, and the experience undoubtedly changed his approach to the world for the better.
He stays faithful to his responsibility on large and small scales every day. Stand in an elevator with him and he will greet you with a smile and hello. Drive to work in rush hour down Wilshire Boulevard and he will let you pass because he knows your life and time are just as valuable as his.
He endeavors that on the day of his funeral when his loved ones speak of him and the legacy he left, they would say he was authentic, conscious, cared, and made a difference. Sanderson lives his life each day wanting to make his late father proud, and wanting to help create a world environment in which his children can continue the legacy.
Coupled with his forgiving and open heart despite the anti-Semitism he faced in his past are a love and appreciation for human differences, an authenticity and humility in his demeanor, and an absolute hatred for the word “tolerance.”
“Tolerance?” he says. “Is that enough? No, it is not.”
The real challenge we all face is then one that tests our individual appreciation for each other. Sanderson works with this mantra: Live life authentically and consciously with a purpose knowing we all have something to offer each other. If not, Sanderson attests, then Democrats and Republicans and North Korea and South Korea will always be at odds. All people will be driven by self-interest and no one will value the people standing silently next to them in an elevator.
Peace begins with the recognition that every life has equal value. Then comes individual responsibility, and then comes the realization that we all have different gifts. It is his deeply-rooted belief that if people delve into their faith with genuine attitudes and determination, we can fix the brokenness. This change begins through the acts of conscious, humble, and determined individuals.
Jay Sanderson is one such individual.