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Jewish Journal

Latinos and Jews

March 16, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Sunday, March 12. It's a warm, sunny day. A wonderful day to drive up to Malibu. So why am I sitting here in Wilshire Boulevard Temple/West listening to six earnest men? They seem intent on telling me (and others assembled here) how important and necessary it is for Jews and Latinos in L.A. to come together.

Jews and Latino's share many things, Xavier Becerra, the Congressman from L.A.'s 30th district, who just returned from an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel, reminds us. Some in our communities must deal with immigration and with English as a second language. We each have a deep concern for our families and for the elderly in our midst. But we live apart, a great geographic divide separating us, almost as though we were citizens of different countries.

He's right of course. The other panelists are also bright and appealing -- Antonio Villaraigosa, the speaker of the State Assembly (he and Becerra are running for mayor in the 2001 election); Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, American Jewish Committee West Coast director; Dr. Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute; David Abel, a political activist who is also chair of Speaker Villaraigosa's Commission on Government Finance; and Steven Windmueller, director of Communal Services at HUC (actually a keynote speaker).

They all explain why we need to connect more. That our hope is in joining together. We Jews have organization, wealth, political savvy. We have clout. But the Latinos have the numbers, and they are organizing. We have much to offer one another. And of course there is the unspoken: Perhaps one day soon they will overtake us.

There are maybe 40 people who have forsaken sun to gather together. My subversive side peeks out. Why am I here, I write in my notebook.

The forum, to be sure, is filled with high purpose and ringing words. But the more words I hear, the wider the chasm appears. I look around. People seem interested, but the numbers are small. Several weeks ago more than 400 gathered to listen to academics and a few rabbis discuss intermarriage and Jewish identity at USC's Institute for the Study of Jewish Life in America. I see few academics here. Few leaders from the different Jewish communities; few from The Jewish Federation, Michael Hirschfeld, director of The Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee, a notable exception. I know: It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon and those not here are wisely spending the day with family and friends.

Lots of words, I scribble in my notebook. But not much that's going to set us on the road towards friendship; or deep connections. Nothing I hear sounds as though it will change my relationship with anyone in the Latino community, unless I decide to work for the election of Becerra or Villaraigosa.

I rationalize my impatience: I have a low tolerance for pep talks and exhortation. I want something focused more on action, on concrete suggestions that I can argue or agree with; something with an outcome. I jot down some of my own thoughts. I offer these to the panelists.

1) Let the JCRC have joint Latino-Jewish programs on a regular basis, with guest speakers (which already occurs), but also with many Latinos present in the audience. A joint session means something more than Latino and Jewish speakers. It means an assembly of men and women, Jewish and Latino, sharing ideas, points of view and a kosher lunch.

What can we discuss? Education and ways to teach English as a second language. Problems with the INS. The Rampart Division scandal. Also, if we must, the Pope, the Catholic church and the Holocaust.

2) Develop a set of programs, especially for children, at the Jewish Community Centers in the Valley and in L.A. Don't just announce that the Center is open to all people who live nearby. Initiate after-school activities and recruit children and families within the different Latino communities.

3) Work with the Israeli consul general. He wishes to launch an outreach program directed towards Latinos. The realpolitik here has to do with Israel and Latin America. Cultural contact seems to be the wedge that Consul General Yuval Rotem has in mind. Rotem's new director of Cultural Affairs, Kobi Oshrat-Ventura, has a Sephardic background and is eager to engage the Latino artistic community. Here universities, art galleries, the Skirball, USC's Jewish Studies Institute look like appropriate venues.

4) Embark upon joint school endeavors. Take as a model The Milken School and the Israeli schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, who now have student exchanges, weekly e-mail communications (as part of the school curriculum), and joint planning on the part of teachers.

5) Arrange for the Latino schoolchildren to interview their Jewish counterparts (along with their families) and produce a documentary about Jewish lives; and of course engage the Jewish students in a similar way, so that they produce a documentary depicting their view of the Latino world. That's a starting point for dialogue and interaction.

6) Instead of serious Sundays attending to a panel of smart, thoughtful men explaining what we need to do, perhaps we could actually engage with one another directly. Even in a modest way. Maybe organize monthly Sunday brunches in private homes, so that we cross borders. One month a Jewish, the next a Latino home. Keep the same core groups, but expand them each month. It's called developing social networks. I'll come on a sunny Sunday afternoon; heck, I'll even give one of the brunches... outdoors. -- Gene Lichtenstein


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