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Jewish Journal

Latino pastors celebrate Sukkot and Israel in Westwood

by Brad A. Greenberg

September 27, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Consul General Ehud Danoch presents an Israeli flag to Father Pedro Contreras of Old Catholic Church. Photo by Peter Halmagyi

Consul General Ehud Danoch presents an Israeli flag to Father Pedro Contreras of Old Catholic Church. Photo by Peter Halmagyi

Wandering through a sukkah at Sinai Temple, Jesus Alfredo Alfonso, a Pentecostal Christian, wore a navy tie embroidered with the Star of David, a menorah and the words "Amigos de Israel."

"Every day," Alfonso said, "me and my congregation pray three times for you. For Israel."

Alfonso is the pastor of Iglesia Centro Christiano de Los Angeles, a 14-member church he founded two months ago. He was among about 200 Latino evangelical Christians who were guests for a Sukkot meal and Israeli flag ceremony hosted Monday by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Israeli consulate.

The event was designed to strengthen relations between Jews and a specific segment of the Latino community -- evangelicals. On the whole, surveys have found that Latinos harbor stronger feelings of anti-Semitism than most Americans. But among Latino evangelicals there resides a powerful love for Israel and gratefulness to Jewish tradition.

"Ahavat Zion," said Randy Brown, AJC-LA's director of inter-religious affairs. "They are lovers of Israel. They've followed the history; some of them have visited Israel. They clearly are Christian in their faith, but for the roots of their faith they are very appreciative of Judaism."

Brown first noticed this when he visited a few of the 3,000-plus Latino churches often located in Southern California storefronts. He noticed that some of the congregations used Hebrew in their names -- such as shekinah and shalom -- and others hung the Israeli flag on their stages. Then Brown was invited to speak about Judaism on a Spanish-language station, Radio Zion.

Many of the Latinos he met had had little interaction with Jews and were longing to learn more, so, working with the consulate, Brown decided to invite pastors from 55 churches to Sinai Temple. Next year, he hopes to take them to the Holy Land.

The evening began in the Kohn Chapel with Brown explaining the meaning of Sukkot, the festival of booths. Carrying the lulav and etrog, he then led the pastors and their wives outside to a large sukkah erected along the Wilshire Boulevard edge of the synagogue. The men wore kippot out of reverence to the God of Jacob -- the same God they said they serve.

"We pray always for the people in Jerusalem, for the Jewish people. Jesus Christ was a Jew; we love the Jewish people," said Magdiel Sarmiento, pastor of a Pentecostal church in El Monte. "The more we know about the culture, about the religion -- about the Torah, the shofar -- it's important because it helps us remember the love God has for us in the history of the Jews."

AJC is not the only Jewish organization trying to improve relations with Latinos. Earlier this year, the American Jewish Congress hired a director of Latino outreach to focus on business owners and politicians, and the Anti-Defamation League has about 15 years experience working with the community, thanks to its Latino Jewish Roundtable. And there is good cause for the efforts.

"For Latinos, their perceptions of Jews, if any exist at all, are in part framed by their current economic encounter, principally in an employee-employer relationship," Steven Windmueller, L.A. dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, wrote in the book "California Jews." "It may be defined as well by images of Jews and Judaism created through traditional teachings of the Church, by media images of Jewish wealth and power, and the belief by many of Jewish influence within Hollywood and its power within the entertainment industry."

Polls have backed that up.

The Pew Hispanic Center reported in April that only 44 percent of Latinos hold a favorable view of Jews, compared with 77 percent of all Americans. The negative feelings are strongest among Latino Catholics.

A survey conducted by the ADL in 2005 found that 35 percent of foreign-born Latinos held "hardcore" anti-Semitic beliefs. That was down from 44 percent of those surveyed in 2002. The percentage was cut almost in half both years when looking at U.S.-born Latinos.

"Assimilation works," said Amanda Susskind, ADL's regional director. "Going to schools with Jews, going to different parishes, learning about diversity in the school system and on the playground actually changes the way Latinos look at Jews. It is nothing genetic. It is just what they learned. But they can de-learn."

The stereotypes swing both ways, though. This reporter was recently told a story about students at a Jewish day school being asked during last year's immigration debate to share what they knew about Latinos. "They're gardeners," was one response. "They're nannies" was another.

"They are not hateful stereotypes. They are just stereotypes borne from inexperience," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, AJC's national director of inter-religious affairs.

He said programs that bring Latinos and Jews into communion help dispel myths about both groups. With the Latino population of the United States expected to grow significantly during the next few decades, many Jewish leaders are attempting to strengthen bonds between the communities.

"You have to ask yourself, when you are 2 percent in such a large country, and you have the fastest growing ethnic community, now about 15 percent, you have to ask if it's important to build relationships," Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch said after delivering the keynote at Sinai Temple.

Danoch, who is fluent in Spanish from the three years of his youth he spent in Uruguay, where his father worked for the Jewish Agency for Israel, thinks outreach to Latinos is given too short shrift by many American Jews.

"It's the most important thing for the Jewish community," he said.

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