A Conversation with Bobby Shriver: Continuing A Family Tradition

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By Ruth Judah.

Conversation with Bobby Shriver (3)

Bobby Shriver is making a bid for election for Los Angeles County Supervisor. The primary will be on June 3rd and the General election will be on November 4, 2014. Success in the election will place him in a job that leaves him in charge of $26 billion that is spent each year on 10 million Californians. Shriver has invested heavily in his election bid and the polls are showing that he might just win. While you may or may not support him, it is rewarding to consider his heritage.

Shriver’s parents immersed their five kids in the idea of public service. Sargent Shriver became director and founder of the United States Peace Corps in 1961 and the Peace Corps still functions today, working to eradicate disease and poverty in the 134 countries where it sends volunteers. Shriver’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, against immense adversity, created the Special Olympics. With a childhood already steeped in social awareness, it is fascinating to learn that Shriver came of age in Israel, where his parents sent him during the summers of his teen years. This week, Bobby Shriver talked with The Jewish Home about his longstanding relationship with Israel.

“I certainly had a fun time in Israel as a teenager. My father was very intent that I learned about Israel so that I would understand what was going on. I went there several times. I visited a kibbutz one summer and I went another summer when my father got me a job on a movie and I drove a truck and went around picking up stuff and carting it to different sets. I didn’t learn a lot of Hebrew, but as a teenager driving a truck all summer I am sure you can imagine the kinds of words I did learn! Living in East Jerusalem and driving a truck in 1970was very, very interesting indeed. In that era, it was perceived to be less dangerous than it is now. A tough war had already been fought, and it is not like today for many Israeli’s that live in fear of rockets coming over. It was a very hopeful and exciting time and the idealism and self-determinism of the Israeli people that I met there was terrific. I hope to travel to Israel many times in the future.

As a teenager, in 1970 I was able to experience a Country that few of my peers had the chance to experience firsthand. Some of the most impacting memories I have are from the times I met with Golda Meir and Mr. Ben Gurion. I remember Mr. Ben Gurion specifically telling me I should get a haircut, because in those days it was the fashion to have longer hair. I liked him even though he had short hair. Golda Meir had been a school teacher in America and she asked me what books I was reading. I had some good answers and she asked me my views on the book. She was a character. They were both characters. Ben Gurion as much as Golda Meir. They had a very nice sense of humor, both of them, I remember. They needed it, given everything that they went through. You had to have a laugh here and there; otherwise you’d spend all your time crying.”

The Shriver family connection with Israel goes back to January 9, 1964. Sargent Shriver, brother in law of John F Kennedy, had been chosen to deliver a letter from President Johnson to the Premier of Israel, Levi Eshkol. The letter promised Israel continued friendship and support for Israel from the US. Mr. Shriver was also welcomed to a lunch hosted by Golda Meir, then foreign minister.

A report released this month by the Associated Press, confirms these details, noting that White House tapes have recently reiterated President Johnson’s ,“personal and often emotional connection to Israel” LBJ, as he was known, was president from 1963 to 1969 and in that time, “The United States became Israel’s chief diplomatic ally and primary arms supplier.” This was fragile times, just two months after the assassination of John F Kennedy and four years before the Yom Kippur war.

With just two months of his presidency behind him, President Johnson wanted to make a clear statement of support for the State of Israel. Johnson had long supported the Jewish cause. Back in 1938 he arranged for visas to be given to Jews seeking asylum from Warsaw, Poland, as well as securing the safety of hundreds of Jews who arrived illegally in America via the port of Galveston, Texas, which was Johnson’s home state. Sargent Shriver worked closely with LBJ and went on to run President Johnson’s programs that were set up to help families out of poverty.

Shriver has a law degree from Yale University and worked in finance before he became the cofounder and chairman of (Product) RED and co founder of DATA and has spent the last ten years working to eliminate issues relating to financial and health emergencies that effect many people in Africa. “I think my parents, being so involved with charity and with people set me up to be who I am.” We all want to honor our parents and learn from them. I saw my Mom creating stuff and my Dad doing so much that was great. I saw what a great impact this had on people. All over the world you realize that you can have an impact. I had a text today from a friend of mine who is in Florence and he’s walking down the street and saw a poster for the Special Olympics. It’s kind of incredible that all these years later, the organization is doing so well. I’ve already done a lot for charity, although I earned money for them, I didn’t come up with the idea. I didn’t execute the idea with advisors telling me that I was crazy as people did to my mom. My mom was working in a different era and she was very brave to create the Special Olympics in a time when many did not fully accept adults with physical and intellectual disabilities. I produced records that earned a lot of money and helped individuals, on the other hand my Mother executed her plans for the Special Olympics and that was a much tougher thing to achieve.

The link to Africa was from my Father who got me involved when I was young because of his work with the Peace Corps. He wanted us to know about Africa, yet he was also the one who very strongly wanted me to go to Israel as well and to learn what was going on there. My parents thought we should go and learn things in summer vacations and so we rarely went on vacation to more fashionable or fun places. We were always sent on educational projects in the summer so that we would understand the world and I think my dad got that from his own childhood of travelling around Europe when he was a young man and he learned there are many, many things to be learned which you couldn’t learn from books. You had to see people to understand their struggle. I try to do it with my children. I’ve taken both of them to Africa; it was a powerful thing.”

The role of Los Angeles County Supervisor is not a glamorous job, or a job based with the political elite in Washington, yet County Supervisor is a role that can substantially help to cure and support those people who are most in need. The primary focus is on mental health issues, mass transit, prisons, orphans, adoptions, fostering, and the extreme needs of low income adults and their children throughout the state.

Shriver discussed the role in some detail, explaining, “I think the values that come out of the Jewish and Christian faith are reflected in much of the work the county does. As Supervisor you have to look after the needs of foster children, deal with a crisis in the community or working out the needs of social workers. Another part of the job is looking after the mentally ill, looking after people who are suffering, or who have suffered from mental illness, and these are things that our faith empowers us to do and where we learn the values of education and community and looking after the weak. I think this job is strong in faith based values.

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I moved into politics later in my life because I got into a fight with local government. In dealing with what should have been an easy issue to solve, with respect and humanity, what I found was a system that was condescending to my community. It was the arrogance that I met that I couldn’t accept and that’s why I got involved. I had to stand for something. Israeli’s have to do this on a daily basis.

In a world that is changing rapidly and unpredictably, there is something comforting about lineage in our political candidates. We like to feel that their dedication to political and social issues comes from a deep set of values, not something that might pass. We want the power of their position to be true. From a kibbutz in Israel in the ‘70’s to the Hall of Supervisors, Shriver is bringing his family tradition that just might impact Los Angeles County for the better.