It's a couple of hours before the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) quarterly Orange County Jewish-Latino roundtable group and Joyce Greenspan is worried.
"I don't have a clue what's going to happen tonight," says the ADL's Orange County director. "Usually, we have a dinner, but it's a different format this time. I'm just afraid that not many people will show up."
Her fears are unfounded; by the time the roundtable's scheduled 6:30 p.m. start time rolls around, the Santa Ana Police Department's Community Room is teeming with talk of Mexico and Israel by members of Orange County's Latino and Jewish communities. Some of the people present belong to civic organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American Jewish Committee; others are citizens eager to learn more about each other's culture. Conversations about the Sephardic heritage of Mexico (both old and new) serve as starting points for conversations among former strangers. One man tells Johanna Rose that a Latino friend of his recently married a Jewish woman. "I bet you the reception lasted forever," says Rose with a laugh. "Both of those cultures know how to party!"
Once the evening's program begins, though, the pleasantries quickly fade. A representative of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee presents a video called, "Arafat: In His Own Words."
The formerly friendly banter turns into tense conversation, with the Jewish members of the roundtable adamantly maintaining that Arafat has no credibility, while Latino participants ask who could possibly represent the Palestinian people besides Arafat.
To an outsider, the heated arguments would appear to be further proof of a growing animosity between the communities, except that by the end of the discussion, nearly everyone is on a first-name basis, and afterward, they go back to the casual banter.
Such is the purpose of the roundtable, says Greenspan, who has moderated the roundtables since their inception six years ago. "Our roundtable is a great opportunity for Jews and Latinos in Orange County to inform each other of problems that each face in a friendly environment, where issues that might be uncomfortable to speak about in public can be discussed openly," she says.
"This didn't happen after one meeting. It's like any good relationship; it grew slowly and deeply," she adds.
The Jewish-Latino roundtable originated as a joint effort of the ADL and Los Amigos of Orange County (a Latino grass-roots organization) so that the communities could better understand each other. Polarizing issues pertinent to both communities, such as immigration and the Middle East have been discussed over the years with no bitterness other than lively disputes. The roundtable also serves as a focal point for both communities to better understand each other's culture.
"I remember one time I went to a Los Amigos meeting to invite them to a Jewish-Latino Passover seder event," Greenspan says, "and I was surprised when someone asked, 'What's a seder?' Now many Latinos and Jews know about it and want to participate largely because of the roundtable."
But the Jewish-Latino roundtable is not just a sharing of food and debate; action is an integral part of the group. When the Anaheim Union High School District tried to sue Mexico for $50 million in 1999 for the cost of educating the children of illegal immigrants, Latino leaders enlisted the help of the ADL, which immediately came out against the proposal as tantamount to a legislative hate crime.
Similarly, the Latino participants of the roundtable wrote many letters of condolence and support to the victims of the Northridge JCC tragedy that same year.
Such mutual support is important to people like Eleazar Elizondo, a Santa Ana resident who "came on my own as a civic-minded person." Elizondo notes that meetings like these are important for both communities, especially as they begin to assert themselves in the traditionally conservative and white county.
"The Jewish community in Orange County has largely been transparent, while the Latinos have yet to truly find their voice," Elizondo says. "Meetings like this bode well for the future of the county. Diversity of both thought and culture is good for all of us."
Bridging both communities is Bruno Ledwin, an Argentine Jew who lives in Dana Point. Ledwin -- whose calm comments served as a respite from the sometime rancorous dialogue -- feels an extra urgency to see that events like these continue. "Belonging to both cultures, it's especially important to me that both communities communicate," he says. Echoing Elizondo's thoughts, Ledwin also views such events as a common ground from which both groups can further assert themselves in Orange County. "Jews and Latinos have great qualities from which both can learn from each other. We're two very important communities in the county."