On a Shabbat afternoon in February, state Sen. Alex Padilla spoke on a panel at Young Israel of Century City (YICC), a large Modern Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson. The event was co-organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Padilla knew what message he was expected to deliver. The panel’s trilingual title — “Israel at lo levad! Israel ¡No estas solo! Israel, you are not alone!” — made that clear.
Padilla, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley in California’s state Senate, talked mostly about his two trips to Israel. He first traveled there in 2003 when he was president of the Los Angeles City Council on a trip sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. His went again on an AIPAC trip for Latino leaders in December 2009.
When it came time for questions, a white-haired man in a gray suit raised his hand. “How can we make sure that Latino youth don’t get incorrect information about Israel?” the man asked. A second man wanted to know why Israel isn’t more widely recognized — in all communities — as a democratic society that upholds liberal values.
Responses to these questions came from all over the room, not just from those on the podium. Even YICC Rabbi Elazar Muskin, from his seat in the front row, mentioned a program aimed at improving Israel education among the city’s Latino youth.
Among the 100 or so people in the sanctuary — most of them men, most of them in suits — Karra Greenberg stood out, and not only for her shoulder-length blond hair and her stylish yet modest green patterned dress. Unlike those who wanted to hear Padilla express his unequivocal support for Israel, Greenberg, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UCLA, asked what motivates the panelist’s friends and family.
Her question was simple: What can the Jewish community do to build an alliance with Latinos?
BRIDGE-BUILDING GAINS MOMENTUM
As the Latino population and its political influence have grown, the number of Jewish groups across the country working to build and strengthen Latino-Jewish ties has increased as well. The New York office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) held a meeting last week for Latino and Jewish leaders, and AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute is planning a national Latino-Jewish leadership summit for 2012. In addition, in San Antonio, Texas, former mayor Henry Cisneros and local Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg are organizing a strategic dialogue between about 80 Latino and Jewish leaders later this month.
Since last December, leaders from some of Los Angeles’ most influential Jewish organizations have been meeting, coming together on two separate occasions with their Latino community counterparts. The exact outcome of this organizing effort is still to be seen, but it could lay the groundwork for an unprecedented level of Latino-Jewish cooperation.
In Los Angeles, Latino-Jewish relationships are not new. The communities’ leaders often point to the election of Ed Roybal, Los Angeles’ first Latino city councilman, supported in large part by Jewish and Latino voters in 1949, as the first great victory of the Latino-Jewish alliance. Some even credit the intercommunity connections with staving off a wider explosion of tensions in 1998, after the state Senate primary between Richard Katz and Richard Alarcon got particularly nasty.
Even so, the number of efforts by Jewish organizations in Los Angeles to “reach out,” to “build bridges” or to otherwise connect with Latinos has soared in recent years. There are projects that create curricula about Israel for teachers in the city’s Catholic schools, whose students are predominantly Latino. There are Spanish-language courses about Judaism for Latino Pentecostal pastors. For years, film producer and civil rights activist Moctesuma Esparza has worked with Jews on various projects, including his effort to increase and improve the representations of Latinos in film and TV. Bilingual pro-Israel programs regularly take place in Latino-dominated Evangelical churches, and dozens of Latino leaders from the L.A. area have taken part in leadership delegations to Israel.
In just the past two years, Los Angeles’ most prominent Jewish groups have led the effort:
In October 2010, the AJC’s six-year-old Latino and Latin American Institute presented the third annual Gesher Award to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Gesher is Hebrew for bridge; the award honors Latino leaders who work to build bridges between the Jewish and Latino communities.
The Latino-Jewish roundtable, an initiative of the local office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), was founded in 1992. The roundtable has held 13 separate events in the past two years, including a 2009 seder focusing on immigrant experiences and a celebration of Sukkot and other autumnal festivals in 2010. Most recently, in January 2011, 25 members of the roundtable participated in a daylong trip to the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2009, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Consulate General of Israel co-sponsored Fiesta Shalom, a celebration of the 61st anniversary of Israeli independence in the formerly very Jewish — and now overwhelmingly Latino — neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
High-level representatives from each of these groups — ADL, AJC, Federation, AIPAC and the Israeli Consulate — have been involved in the latest round of meetings between the Jewish and Latino leaders.
No agenda for these meetings has been made public, or perhaps even agreed upon internally. There have been talks about the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral election and about this year’s redistricting process, but the primary focus of the meetings has been to plan a citywide Latino-Jewish leadership summit in Los Angeles this fall.
“It’s going to be a convening of leaders and organizations,” said David Ayón, senior fellow at The Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. Ayón, who has been the most active Latino advocate for the Latino-Jewish summit, hopes that it will encourage leaders from both communities to “[get] to know each other’s agendas and for the purposes of discussing what we want from the next mayor of Los Angeles.”
Those on the Jewish side of the table were, without exception, reluctant to speak about these discussions on the record.
“We want to have meetings of substance, meetings where we can talk about the issues openly and honestly. We all agreed that the best way to do that was to have these meetings held in private in one another’s confidence,” said AJC Los Angeles Regional Director Seth Brysk.
Brysk is working with ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind to set the course for future meetings. Susskind emphasized just how undefined the agenda is. “It’s been a really ad hoc, really organic thing that’s been developing,” Susskind said. “It is so inchoate right now.”
WHAT ABOUT ISRAEL?
Since its founding in 1982, more than 5,000 people from around the world have taken part in an AJC Project Interchange seminar, including a group of prominent journalists from across Latin America, seen here in the Old City of Jaffa in February 2010. Each participant costs AJC $4,500 to $5,000.
Perhaps most unclear is the degree to which these conversations are about Israel.
ADL, AJC and Federation have multifaceted missions that include both Israel advocacy and Jewish intercommunity relations in Los Angeles. The Israeli Consulate and AIPAC, on the other hand, are much more specifically focused on maintaining one international relationship — the one between the United States and Israel.
“AIPAC is a 501(c)(4) corporation,” said Steven F. Windmueller, a professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who served as executive director of the Community Relations Committee of Federation from 1985 to 1995. He was referring to AIPAC’s status as a tax-exempt nonprofit that can actively lobby government. “They’re not in the traditional community relations business,” he said.
Windmueller has written extensively about Latino-Jewish relations in Los Angeles but was neither aware of nor involved in the current talks. “If they [AIPAC] and the Israeli Consulate are seated at these meetings, then Israel must be the agenda,” Windmueller said.
The Latino leaders, many of whom have traveled on leadership delegations to Israel sponsored by one or more of the five Jewish organizations involved, disagreed.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and a veteran of Latino-Jewish dialogue, hoped that the agenda for these talks would center on the prospects for a city on the West Coast rather than on the future of a certain country in the Middle East. “What can Latino and Jewish leaders in Los Angeles agree on in terms of the future of our city?” Vargas asked. “And what can we do together to improve life in Los Angeles?”
Catherine Schneider, Federation’s senior vice president for community engagement, has also been involved in these meetings. Federation, Schneider, said, has “a strong commitment to the Jewish community and the Jewish future, a strong commitment to the State of Israel, and a strong commitment to the City of Los Angeles.” No single issue trumped the others, Schneider said, but neither could any one issue be left out of the conversation.
“If the story runs, ‘Jewish Community Engages Latino Community Just on Support for Israel,’ ” Schneider said, imagining a possible headline. “It’s not true, and it could be damaging.”