Among the patchwork of ethnic communities that shape the everyday life and politics of Los Angeles, few groups have been romanced as much by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as Southern California's substantial Jewish population.
Villaraigosa, who spent part of his childhood in the once-Jewish dominated neighborhood of Boyle Heights, is known to pop up at synagogues throughout the Westside and San Fernando Valley, without fanfare, and has been a fixture at some of the city's biggest Jewish events, whether it was last month's commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day at Pan Pacific Park or a major pro-Israel rally during the war with Hezbollah.
Today, Villaraigosa will lead a contingent of Los Angeles city and community leaders to Israel for a weeklong visit, his third trip to the Jewish homeland during his political career.
The purpose of the mission, which has been in the works for months, is to learn from Israel's impressive security apparatus to make improvements at Los Angeles International Airport and the city's mammoth seaport, as well as sharing L.A.'s "green" environmental technology.
But the trip also comes at a politically opportune time for Villaraigosa, who is about to embark on a reelection campaign for mayor and is widely considered a natural candidate for governor in 2010.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who could be a major Democratic rival in any bid for higher office, made a trip to Israel in early May with a group of Northern California community and business leaders.
There is a "certain expectation" that candidates must make at least a symbolic visit to Israel if they hope to have a connection to a broad segment of the Jewish community and understand the issues they hold dear, said Steven Windmueller, dean of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama made a visit, as have governors, mayors and members of Congress, he said.
"Israel has become a barometer," Windmueller said. "Jews vote, and, when you've got in the state of California probably somewhere in the neighborhood of a million Jews . . . that's a strong voter base."
Tom Bradley was the first L.A. mayor to aggressively court Jewish voters while building a coalition of political support in the ethnically divided city, and his success was not lost on those who followed, Windmueller said.
Jewish voters, along with Latinos and union members, were critical components of Villaraigosa's victory over incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn in 2005, according to Los Angeles Times exit polls.
Rabbi David Wolpe, of the Sinai Temple on the Westside, said Villaraigosa's long relationship with the city's Jewish community runs much deeper than election-day politics. Villaraigosa was the first politician he has even seen who visited his synagogue for the High Holidays, sat quietly through a service and slipped away "without demanding recognition."
"The mayor has repeatedly expressed in word and deed his affection and affiliation with the Jewish community since before he was elected," Wolpe said. "There have been gestures on his part that show a feeling for the Jewish community that goes beyond political calculation."
Wolpe said that as he was undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma last year, Villaraigosa called often: "Had he called once, that would have sufficed for 'Wow! The mayor called me.' "
In an interview Tuesday, Villaraigosa said that as mayor he "embraces every community" in this dynamic, cosmopolitan city, and considers it to be one of the strengths of his administration. Los Angeles is home to the nation's second largest Jewish population, estimated at about half a million.
The mayor emphasized, however, that the purpose of his trip to Israel was to increase safety and security in Los Angeles, the top target for a potential terrorist attack west of the Mississippi River. During his visit, Villaraigosa is set to sign an agreement to bring experts from Ben Gurion International Airport to review security at LAX and other city-owned airports, and expand the LAPD's relationship with the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
"It's an issue that I spend a lot of time on," the mayor said.
During the visit, Villaraigosa is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, which the mayor said shows both the importance of Israel-Los Angeles ties and the priority both give to improving security.
"The relationship between our region and Israel is real, in terms of people, in terms of programs, in terms of commerce and in other ways," said Jack Weiss, one of three City Council members joining Villaraigosa on the trip. "While it is typical to go, it is not typical to reach agreements such as the one between the Ben Gurion security team and LAX -- that is unique and pathbreaking and will make LAX more secure."