Saturday, October 14, 2006

The New Latino Jews

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Farsi, Hebrew, Russian and, of course, English have long been the languages of conversations at the Jewish community center in West Hills.

Now, you're as likely to hear Spanish.

Latino Jews who came in a wave to Los Angeles during the past five years were without a home and without a place to celebrate their Jewishness. But Omar Zayat, an Argentinian Jew who immigrated in 2003, solved that problem.

Last year, he and a few other area Latino Jews created the Latin American Jewish Association. The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, the only full-service Jewish community center in Los Angeles, decided to support the program by providing Zayat with an office and a modest salary.

"Jewish community centers for decades have emphasized immigrant absorption," said Michael Jeser, the center's assistant executive director. "It is part of our mission, and it is part of Latin American culture to link up with JCC, so it was a natural partnership."

There are two major differences between Latino Jews and American Jews. The first is their sense of connection to and concern for the state of Israel. While 40 percent of American Jews have visited Israel at least once, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey, Latin American Jews often go regularly.

"In the Mexican Jewish community, it is not if you have traveled to Israel, it is how many times," said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC's Latino and Latin-American Institute.

The other significant difference deals with Jewish community centers. In the United States, involvement in JCC activities has been on the decline for years. Many Jews no longer find the services relevant or convenient. But in Latin America, Siegel Vann said, JCCs are "the heart of Jewish life."

There, they serve a role similar to synagogues here. Latino Jews, who don't see their Jewish identity as linked to a religion, rely on JCCs as their social network, the place they go to embrace their tradition.

Also, in the United States, many Latino Jews have lower incomes than the general Jewish population and cannot afford synagogue membership dues.

A mixture of legal and undocumented immigrants, middle class and working class, many of Los Angeles' estimated 11,000 Latino Jews previously lived in anonymity. But what began with 13 people, Zayat's organization - which goes by the name LAJA (pronounced La-Ha)- has grown to 400 families.

It is a committed group that includes families from Orange County - people willing to brave nasty traffic while some Israelis won't drive from Tarzana, Jeser said.

"There is a vibrant community. What LAJA has done is create a place for people to go to that hadn't really existed," said Steve Gitlin, 39, of Woodland Hills, who heads the young professionals network and regularly frequents the JCC with his wife and three sons.

Though there are about a half-million Latino Jews in the diaspora, they remain a small minority in the United States. An estimated 100,000 strong, they account for less than 2percent of U.S. Jewry.

"Immigrants are surprised to see a white one who talks Spanish, is a rabbi and is like them," said Rabbi Aaron Katz, an Argentinian who leads Spanish-language Sabbath services at Beth Shalom in Whittier.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was apparently surprised too when he spoke recently at The New JCC at Milken, and a few audience members cheered in Spanish.

"I didn't know there were Spanish-speaking Jews," Jeser recalled the mayor saying.

While not faced with an identity crisis, Spanish-speaking Jews in the United States often feel doubly removed from the mainstream: first because they are Latino immigrants and second because they are a minority even among Jews.

"Most (Jews) think of (Latinos) as maids, the gardeners, people at the market," said Jenny Kopelioff, an Argentinian Jew who teaches Spanish at Milken Community High School and for 10 years has run an exchange program with a school in Mexico City. "I decided to show my students not everything is that way. It is just another community in the Jewish diaspora."

There are two histories of Jews arriving in Latin America. The first wave came ashore after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. The second followed in the 1800s and 1900s, consisting mainly of Jews from Eastern Europe. The largest communities are in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.

Rosie Milstein's parents fit the latter group. Her Russian father and Polish mother were both taken by their parents to Argentina as toddlers.

"I was born in Argentina, and I lived in Israel. I don't know how to define myself," said Milstein, a 52-year-old Reseda bookkeeper. "Speaking Spanish, people in Israel didn't understand me."

In their native countries, Latino Jews tend to be affluent, except Argentina, which has more of a middle-class Jewish community. And when they immigrated to the United States in the past, it was often done in response to a job offer or a business opportunity.

"The families that come from Mexico are very well-educated, and they already have a plan as to how they are going to make their living. But basically they need to be integrated to the Jewish community here," said Nadine Gerson, a Westside Jew who grew up in Mexico City and first came to the States to study at Yale University.

Since returning to the United States 22 years ago for work, Gerson has aided many families trying to adjust like she did.

"It is a pretty fast process," said Gerson, whose mother used to make gefilte fish Vera Cruz style. "Once you start making Shabbat dinners and having your kids in Hebrew school learning the curriculum, it's much easier for them to integrate into American society."

Until 2003, the flow of Latino Jews was rather weak. Then Argentina's economic crisis hit, and about 25 percent of the nation's 220,000 Jews left for the United States and Israel, with many settling in L.A., which has the nation's highest concentration of Latino Jews.

Zayat came then. Now 40 and living in North Hollywood, Zayat has light skin, curly hair and a reddish-brown mustache. He appears indistinguishable from a European Jew - until he speaks broken English with a thick accent.

A trained psychotherapist, Zayat was director of a Jewish children's camp and worked at a Buenos Aires JCC for 20 years. He works in a cramped office with a handmade calendar posted on the wall. He is LAJA's staff. "It was operating on Omar's energy and fumes of a budget," Jeser said.

Israeli dancing, which Zayat launched in January, is a snapshot of the bridge-building LAJA is doing at The New JCC at Milken. Tuesday, about 20 Jews from Argentina, Canada, Chile, China, England, France, Germany, Israel, Iran, Russia and South Africa interacted.

They began the weekly hourlong session with a beat-thumping song that implored them to "pump it up" - clearly not Israeli music. The next track was salsa music. And the third was in Hebrew.

Argentina-native Susana Ezon, 53, of Woodland Hills said, "Omar gave us such energy that we absolutely have to come and dance and have fun."