June 8, 2006
Latin American Jews Create L.A. Oasis
Imagine that you live in Latin America and you're Jewish. Typically, you and your family would belong to a full-service Jewish club with cultural, recreational, educational and athletic activities for all ages. The club is reasonably priced, promotes Jewish identity in a secular manner and is the backbone of your social life.
You spend a lot of time in club-sponsored activities with your nuclear and extended family, and with friends from the club: Friday night dinners, Sunday afternoon barbecues, weekends in the country, vacations at the seashore -- a full and active communal life.
Now imagine that -- mainly for economic reasons -- you emigrate from such a country and come to Los Angeles. You have your nuclear family, but you're separated from your extended family and friends. You may know enough English to earn a living, but you're not at ease with the language. As a result, it remains difficult for you to have a social life with English-speaking friends, or participate fully in an American cultural life -- whether you're a new arrival or have been in the country for a number of years.
And even though you have a strong Jewish identity -- you may speak Hebrew and/or Yiddish -- you're not really interested in a communal life that revolves around a shul: first, you're not observant and you don't want to make a shul the center of your life; second, it would be in English, not Spanish; and third, it would mean spending more than you feel you can afford. The Jewish Community Center (JCC) might be a possibility, but in the last few years there has been a cutback in JCCs in Los Angeles, and what they offer is not exactly you're looking for.
So what do you do?
What you could do is start your own Jewish organization, using the Latin American model. That's what happened in early 2005 when the Latin American Jewish Association (LAJA) was founded by several people with exactly that idea.
Omar Zayat, director of LAJA and one of its founders, said the "drive to create this organization came from the fact that after 2001, with the economic crash in Argentina, many Jews left there, and a lot of them came to L.A. Once here, they wanted to recreate the kind of community they'd left behind, and creating their own club seemed a good way to go about it."
In Argentina, Zayat had worked for Jewish groups, organizing children's summer camps and programs for seniors and other age groups, so it was logical that he would continue doing that kind of work here. He's not a hands-off administrator: LAJA presents evening dance workshops that are both energetic and sweat-inducing and where about 20 to 30 people get a good workout in Israeli and other kinds of dance. Zayat himself leads these groups.
"For now," he said, "we have 85 families signed up and many more come when we have special events. We have the names of 400 families that we contact for these events, like movies that someone has brought from Argentina or casino night or a tango show."
One of the challenges for LAJA has been to adapt to Los Angeles' sprawling area, which has meager public transport. Here, a parent needs to drop off and pick up a child, which takes getting used to by Latin American parents whose children were accustomed to using good public transport or cheap taxis to navigate their own way around a city like Buenos Aires. It also means scheduling activities to fit working parents who double as chauffeurs.
LAJA divides its activities into youth, Jewish education, university student programs, adults, sports, arts and drama and marketing. Youth activities are handled by teenage madrichim, Hebrew for guides. Zayat said that "using the Latin American model, older kids are trained to guide the younger ones, encouraging Jewish identity and having fun while doing it."
LAJA is co-sponsored by The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, which has provided office space and other facilities. Since many of the new immigrants arrived with limited resources, the JCC has permitted them to become members at a discounted price.
If you go to The New JCC at Milken nowadays, you're as likely to hear Spanish as English. There's an unmistakable spark of creative, communal energy in the air, whether one attends a workshop that helps new arrivals get oriented to life in Los Angeles or a Latin American-style barbecue or a musical recital.
Michael Jeser, director of development and community affairs at The New JCC at Milken, noted that "one of the most exciting pieces in working with the Latin American Jewish Association is that the JCC, historically, has been a home for new immigrants and a venue for the absorption of new immigrants into American society. And here we are in 2006, and it's really no different. When the Latin American group came to us and said, 'We're looking for a home,' it was a really natural partnership, and we've sort of adopted them, made them into one of our own programs, and have watched them flourish."
Jeser said that "seeing how the members are interacting with our other JCC members, it's the extension of a real family, and the feeling of a real international ethnic Jewish community, even beyond Los Angeles' typical ethnic diversity. The JCC has been home to a large Russian community, a large Persian community, a large Israeli community, and now with the growing Latin American group, it's just getting larger. And we are very proud to have this community [because] they have a strong history with Jewish community centers in Argentina, which lent itself to this partnership."
"Having them here is like having a piece that we were missing," Jeser said. "Now we've filled that void in the community and are looking to expand it."
?LAJA is located at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. They can be contacted at (818) 464-3274. Their Web site (in Spanish) is www.laja.org.