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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Latino Pentecostals, Jews Celebrate Sukkot

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Hundreds of Latino Pentecostal pastors and congregants milled outside Sinai Temple’s sanctuary on Oct. 8, waiting to go inside. They had come from Downey, Cypress Park, Compton and other places far from the Wilshire Corridor, where Sinai Temple is located. They’d also come from cities even farther away: Fresno, San Antonio, Tijuana.

American Jewish Committee (AJC) staff and supporters were there too, and members of Sinai Temple. As they all filtered into the sanctuary, each person was handed a small plastic Israeli flag.

These flags were waved joyously when Sinai Temple’s Cantor Arianne Brown sang “HaTikvah,” waved again as a dozen Latino Evangelicals of all ages went to the bimah and blew shofars, and then waved once more during a rousing rendition — sung by both Latino Pentecostals and Jews — of “Am Israel Chai.”

The Israeli flags were also waved when Manuel Tigerino, Pentecostal pastor and educator, spoke in Spanish about his “enormous respect for the State of Israel.” Tigerino, president and founder of the Inglewood-based Latin University of Theology, said he and his colleagues “not only love Israel, but we would give our lives for it.”

In his discourse, Tigerino touched on another topic close to his heart and those of his congregants. He mentioned that many Latino Pentecostals are undocumented, and he thanked AJC for its support in the struggle for immigration reform.

The speeches, shofar blowing and waving of the Israeli flag were all part of a Sukkot festival, attended by more than 800 people, which took place at Sinai Temple under AJC’s sponsorship. It had all the trappings of two separate communities coming together in mutual celebration: strengthening their bonds by eating and mingling in a sukkah, singing in the sanctuary, then dancing in a social hall at the end of the evening — Latino Pentecostals and Jews holding hands and doing the hora together. (Pentecostalism is a growing movement among Latinos. Aligned with Evangelical Protestantism, it includes, among other aspects, a direct and personal connection to God as well as a literal reading of Scripture and its prophecies.)

At this Sukkot festival there was unquestionably a joyous atmosphere of two very different communities joining hands and celebrating together. But there appeared to be something else going on. It was hard to avoid the feeling that each community expected support from the other: While Latinos looked toward the Jewish community for help in their ongoing efforts toward immigration reform, the Jewish community was clearly aiming to bolster Latino Pentecostal support for the State of Israel.

It was the third year for this event, started by Randy Brown, a 36-year-old rabbinical student from south Florida. Brown works for the AJC in Los Angeles as assistant director for interreligious and intergroup affairs.

“Traditionally, Latinos have been Roman Catholic,” Brown said. “But now 30 percent to 35 percent of them are Pentecostal. They love Israel, but they don’t know why. So we started this outreach three years ago … [when] I began teaching Pentecostal pastors once a month, in Spanish, about Jewish culture, religion and history.”

The course, “Esencia de Judaísmo” (Essence of Judaism), had 50 pastors in attendance the first year, 50 the second, and has 100 this year.

“It’s a graduate-level course on Judaism,” Brown said. Each three-hour session, which is taught in Spanish at the Llamada Final (Last Judgment) Ministry in Downey, also includes instruction in Hebrew. “Then, after the course is over, the pastors come with us, on their own, to Israel.”

Brown said the trip is partly subsidized by AJC.

By traveling to Israel and visiting both Jewish and Christian sites, these Latino pastors are following in the wake of their non-Latino colleagues. Israel has been hosting — some would say courting — Evangelical preachers for a generation.

This effort has fostered backing for Israel among Evangelical Christians; but it’s been an uneasy partnership. Although Evangelicals have been strong advocates of Israeli control of the Holy Land, some have pointed out that in Evangelical prophecies this stage is precursor to Armageddon and the second coming of Christ, as well as the Last Judgment, at which, presumably, Jewish Israelis (and other Jews) would not fare well.

But for the most part, Israel and its friends seem pleased at receiving enthusiastic support from a group whose influence on American politics and society has grown enormously during the last 25 years.

AJC’s impetus for connecting with Latino Pentecostals is not so much about the current political scene as it is about establishing support in the future. Seth Brysk, AJC regional director, said that Pentecostals are the “fastest-growing segment of the Latino population, which is the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. So it’s an increasingly important community to be engaged with [when it comes to] support for Israel.

“This past winter,” Brysk said, “when violence erupted in Gaza, we organized jointly an event to show our support for Israel, and it was held at their church in Downey; 1,500 people were there, simulcast live to Phoenix and Dallas. It also involved a briefing from Israel — in Spanish — about the situation in the south of Israel and Gaza.”

The keynote address at the Sukkot festival was given by Jacob Dayan, Israeli consul for Southwestern United States. As might be expected, support for the State of Israel was his theme. Dayan read his entire discourse in Spanish, which was appreciated warmly by the crowd. Sometimes stumbling over words, he spoke about the challenges ancient Israelites faced in the desert as they wandered toward the Promised Land.

When Dayan recounted the Exodus story, it may well have reminded many Latinos in the audience of their own struggles in coming to the United States from Latin America.

Dayan also talked about the dangers faced by modern Israel.

“What country,” Dayan asked, “has struggled the way Israel has? Wars, rockets, constant attacks…. Nevertheless, Israel advances. Love of life continues. Israel is stronger than the adversities it has faced, but it is a country that needs friends like you.”

Agreeing, the Pentecostal Latinos in the audience applauded and waved their Israeli flags.

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