November 20, 2018

Hispanic Jewish Women’s Alliance celebrates 20 years of friendship

The Hispanic Jewish Women’s Alliance (HJWA) celebrated its 20th anniversary on Aug. 4 with an all-day gathering at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino. The event drew more than 30 women, about two-thirds of them Jewish and the rest Hispanic.

Barbara Creme, one of the Alliance founders, told the gathering that 20 years earlier, at the first exploratory meeting between Jewish and Hispanic women, when they were considering projects to undertake, one of the Jewish women suggested that they could “mentor” young Latinas. At that moment, Creme recalled, a Hispanic woman angrily pointed out that there already were a number of programs where Hispanic women mentored young Latinas and there was no need for Jewish women to be mentors.

Creme told her current audience that the woman’s objection was a wake-up moment: She realized that the aim of the alliance should be for Hispanic and Jewish women to learn from one another.

And it was not the only wake-up call on Jewish-Latino relations, Creme said. Around the same time, in 1998, the San Fernando Valley was roiled by a contentious California Senate primary race between Democrats Richard Katz, an established Jewish candidate, and Richard Alarcon, an underdog Latino politician, who were competing for a seat to represent much of the Valley. The campaign degenerated into nasty racial divisiveness, with not-so-subtle appeals to the electorate to vote based on ethnic identity.

When Alarcon eked out a 29-vote victory from nearly 100,000 votes cast, charges of voter intimidation and demands for a recount erupted. A Los Angeles Times story after the election said, “there was little sign that the bad feelings [between Jews and Latinos] had abated.”

Given the toxic atmosphere, Creme, then director of the Valley Jewish Community Relations Committee, met with two Hispanic women: Margaret Pontius, community services coordinator of the Guadalupe Center in Canoga Park, a Catholic Charities nonprofit; and Virginia Rafelson, a former Mexico cultural attaché to L.A. who  launched a program to increase literacy among Latinos known as BASE, for Basic Adult Spanish Education.

Creme, Pontius and Rafelson forged a strong bond, decided to see what they could do to improve relations among Jews and Hispanics, and founded the Hispanic Jewish Women’s Alliance.

Much of the overt strife between Jewish and Latino politicians is in the past, but the Alliance is still around, and on its 20th anniversary, as at all its gatherings, there were talks and activities meant to inform Hispanic and Jewish women about each other’s culture and history.

Alliance member Betty Rodriguez Goldstein, a Hispanic woman married to a Jewish man, told the Journal that she grew up in Monterey Park and Montebello, which was “totally middle class but ethnically diverse. On our block were professors, a Jewish doctor … I went to bar mitzvahs when I was in junior high.” She later attended Cal State Los Angeles, where she met her husband when both were undergrads.

Although Goldstein is Hispanic, she admitted that before she became part of the Alliance she had little awareness of Hispanic culture. And since her husband is a non-practicing Jew, she did not have much knowledge of Jewish culture, either.

“I’ve learned so much,” she said. “For me, this group has been a portal into both worlds.”

“In this group,” Creme said, “we exchange info on all levels: what our holidays are like, what they mean, what the rituals are about. Over the years, we’ve realized that there are more similarities than differences, and we’ve integrated into each other’s activities, attending bar mitzvahs or Communions.”

Creme said the Alliance might have started with the noble ideal of changing L.A., but what the members have done is change themselves by becoming close friends with people from different backgrounds. Sometimes what they’ve learned has been comical, life-changing or both.

At one of the group’s first holiday gatherings, when members brought objects that were part of Christmas or Chanukah celebrations, Pontius brought a crèche — and a dreidel, which came with an interesting story.

Pontius was born in Silver City, N.M. After college and graduate school, she and her husband, an engineer, moved to L.A.

“After my dad died,” she said, “my mother came from New Mexico to live with us, and she brought some of her stuff with her, including a wooden dreidel, not with Hebrew letters, but with Roman numerals.”

Pontius said she is Catholic and traces her roots to French and Spanish forebears, but she wonders if her mother was descended from Conversos, Spanish Jews who hid their Judaism but continued to practice it secretly.

“I know that a lot of [Conversos] escaped the Inquisition and came to New Mexico,” Pontius said. “My mother’s family comes from Spain and were staunch, staunch Catholics … so, really, I don’t know what it means that my mother had a dreidel.”

Pontius said that when she, Creme and Rafelson started the group, it was because the three of them “had seen what was happening in the community and didn’t like it.

“So when that election between Katz and Alarcon took place 20 years ago, there was anger between Jews and Hispanics, and it gave us an opportunity to do some work to try to heal that rift.

“What the three of us did, and when the others joined us, is we talked about what we share, what we have in common. … I’ve been to Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, and some of the prayers are the same, so why should there be strife?”

How does Pontius envision the Alliance’s future?

“I’d like to see this group grow,” she said, “and I would like to see us widen our scope, because since we started the ground has widened. We now have the Arabic world, so I’d like to see Muslims folded into this group as well, so we can understand even more deeply how we can work and live together.”