Jewish Journal


March 14, 2002

Viva la Similarities

The Israel Consulate realizes its dream of bringing Jewish and Latino community leaders together.


Actor Tony Plana addresses attendees during the March 10

Actor Tony Plana addresses attendees during the March 10

It was a great idea: a restaurant gathering at Tomayo's, an East Los Angeles eatery known for its vibrant Latino cultural life, hosted by Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, that would unite Los Angeles' Jews and Latinos.

"The idea was to bring the Jewish people to the Eastside and have half Jewish food, half Mexican food," said Yuval Rotem, the Israeli consul general.

That event was scheduled to take place on Sept. 12. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the consulate's cross-cultural event never materialized. Six months later, on a clear March evening, 210 people set sail on a FantaSea Yacht from Marina del Rey's Pier 52. And aboard the ship, the Israeli consulate, in conjunction with New America Alliance (NAA), finally realized its multicultural mission by holding its inaugural Jewish-Latino event.

Such bonding is only natural in Los Angeles, said Rotem of the city that happens to be home to the second-largest Jewish community and the largest Latino community in the United States.

"I think these kind of events help introduce different perceptions about each other, as well as sensitivities toward each other," Rotem said.

"It was extremely festive," said Naomi Rodriguez, the Israeli consulate's liaison to the Latino community. "It was a huge party of community. It just felt like family."

On the dinner cruise, the mariachi group Mariachi Sol de Mexico and Israeli singers, such as Pini Cohen, performed for a wide range of dignitaries from both communities.

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel, University of Judaism President Dr. Robert Wexler, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and attorney Gloria Allred were among those present from the Jewish community.

Representatives of the Latino community included Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto); former mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa; Ruth Castro, president of the Alhambra School Board; Dorene Domiguez, NAA's human capital committee vice chair and vice president of Vanir Construction Management, Inc.; and film producer Moctesuma Esparza.

The Jewish-Latino function is not the consulate's first gesture to bring the two cultures together. A year-and-a-half ago, the Israeli consulate took a bold step by hiring Rodriguez as its liaison to the Latino community.

According to Rotem, it was the first time that a non-Jewish Latino was brought in on this level in any Israeli consulate. Only this week, an Israeli consulate in Texas began employing a Latino liaison.

Rodriguez will be stepping down from the position she inaugurated to work on L.A. Mayor James Hahn's staff.

"We were able to introduce ourselves to dozens of leaders in academia, church, education, security -- different elements of leadership. Not necessarily politicians," Rotem said.

Rodriguez told The Journal that she is "both excited and sad that I'm leaving, because it's just starting to pick up momentum."

"A lot of my work has been groundwork," continued Rodriguez, who spent her time facilitating introductions between Jewish and Latino community leaders. "Now what's starting to happen is that more things are coming of it. So I'm very optimistic about the future of these relations. think I helped build a good foundation and the relationship between the communities will continue."

In assuming her role as the mayor's deputy director of protocol, Rodriguez said that she will still work with the consulate on some level.

"I'm still going to do whatever I can to move this agenda forward," Rodriguez said. "I had a wonderful time working here. I just think I ended on a good note."

Despite Rodriguez's departure next week, "this position is going to be an integral part of the consulate," said, Rotem, who added that the consulate is currently interviewing candidates to fill Rodriguez's shoes.

Esparza formed the NAA three years ago in hopes of strengthening the world of American-Latino commerce. Today, the NAA is a thriving coalition of 70 Latino entrepreneurs who Esparza said pay $10,000 in dues annually to belong to the organization.

Esparza sees much overlap between the Jewish and Latino communities.

"There are several areas of commonality -- historical experience of persecution and suffering of immigrant blocks and discrimination," Esparza said, adding that both people are always "seeking tolerance, justice and acceptance."

Then there's the Jewish lineage that harkens back to pre-Inquisition Spain.

"Most Spanish names that end with a 'Z' are Sephardic origin," Esparza added.

"By building bridges and understanding each other's heritage and traditions," said Baca, "we begin to respect one another. There is no difference between us. This is about inclusion."

"We live in a city where we often don't talk to each other," said the Boyle Heights-raised Villaraigosa, who has long worked side by side with the Jewish community. Villaraigosa saw the cruise event as "an opportunity to reach across and embrace each other."

Among those present on the dinner cruise was Teresa McBride, a self-made business success story who, after modernizing her Albuquerque restaurant, began helping others do the same. By 1986, she had turned her formula for computerizing businesses into a national computer consulting firm. Now based in Virginia, McBride commands a nationwide staff of 350 people.

She said that the American Latino community can learn a lot from American Jews.

"The Jewish community has years of experience and knowledge to establish programs, and they have done a phenomenal job in this area," McBride said. "What they offered us very graciously is to give us insights on what they've done around the world."

Likewise, McBride said that the Jewish community will exact much knowledge and inspiration from the Latino world "culturally -- through our values, our work, our food, our art, our music. California has benefited greatly from Latino involvement in this state. Just look around you."

McBride, indirectly invoking the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, affirmed that both communities have much to gain from forming a cultural and commercial exchange.

"When you help anyone, it improves everyone," she said. "By helping others, you improve their environment, as well as yours. You make the world a better place."

The grand irony of the evening did not escape Yaroslavsky.

"It's funny how it took a foreign diplomat to put this together," said Yaroslavsky from the podium.

Esparza said that he hopes that the goodwill continues, and added that he welcomes his Jewish friends to attend the NAA banquet-conference scheduled for May 19 at the Four Seasons Hotel, where Latino entrepreneurs will learn more about capital foundations and angel investors.

"Our communities should, on a social basis, break bread and get to know each other," Esparza said.

Rotem plans to host more events like the cruise and to introduce visiting Israeli politicians to Latino community leaders and the Spanish-language La Opinion newspaper.

"This is an ongoing effort, not a one-shot event," Rotem promised.

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