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Latino and Jewish Cultures Forge An Alliance
by ADOLFO MENDEZ
July 21, 2000
On the '70s sitcom, "Welcome Back Kotter," one of the comical group of "sweathogs" whose name was a mouthful Juan Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos Epstein identified himself as a Puerto Rican Jew.
It got laughs.
But that was Hollywood then. Today, with a greater recognition of the diversity of Latinos, Jewish Hispanic doesn't seem as odd.
Some believe there are many similarities between the two groups.
"We both have a strong focus on family, a strong focus on education, and a sense of working hard to ensure that future generations have all the opportunities in the world," says Fred Siegman, a community and business consultant in Chicago.
Siegman is one of the leaders of the Chicago-based Alliance of Latinos and Jews, a nonprofit organization established in 1994.
"We dont feed the hungry, we dont clothe the naked, we dont shelter the homeless," says Siegman, co-chair of the Alliance. "What we do do is build relations between people, and those people, in turn, do things."
It was through such networking efforts that Jesse Jimenez, a branch manger for Harris Trust and Savings Bank in Chicago, became aware of the group. Today he serves as co-chair for the Alliance.
"I felt Latinos were starting to gain political clout while the Jewish community had been pretty established for a long period of time. But there wasnt any formal relationships between the two groups," Jimenez says. "No one had tried to organize them until this group."
Their initial mission was to tackle a host of issues such as education, immigration and other social topics. The Alliance -- which consists of volunteers and one part-time paid executive director -- has narrowed its focus to work on economic development and cultural appreciation.
Already, progress has been made toward bringing about a better understanding between Jews and Latinos. "We got a group together and went out and toured Fiesta Del Sol [the largest outdoor street fair]. They were trying out the Latino foods and we were explaining to them about some of the events and activities and what significance they had in the Latino community," Jimenez says.
The Alliance has also organized an outing to the Spertus Museum in Chicago to view the traveling exhibit, "The Nazi Olympics Berlin 1936." The group has also interacted with organizations like the Jewish Federation of Chicago and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In its early days, the Alliance enjoyed the support of Illinois Sen. Miguel del Valle, who served as an honorary board member for a short time. But Jimenez said having high-profile Latino politicians involved in the organization "is not manageable right now."
Still, politics is a large part of what has motivated the two groups to begin a dialogue. Similar exchanges have taken place in other cities including New York, where a Latino-Jewish coalition showed their solidarity in the face of what was perceived to be a growing backlash against minorities in the United States by a mostly Republican congress.
Three years ago, in a New Republic article entitled, "New Bedfellows: The Emerging Coalition Between Latinos and Jews is Re-shaping American Politics," it outlined the efforts of both groups to construct political unity based on their common interests. Research has shown similarities in voting patterns between both groups.
And while no statistics are kept on the number of Hispanic Jews in the United States, many Latinos claim Jewish heritage. Thats because many descendants of Sephardic Jews immigrated to Latin America in an effort to flee the Spanish Inquisition. Others arrived to South America after they fled the Nazi Holocaust, according to historians.