On My Mind: Viva Latino Jews

Latino Jews in the United States are minorities twice over, striving for recognition both within the American Jewish community and among US Latinos. This double identity could enable them to advance the already growing ties between Jews and Latinos across the US.

Estimates of the number of Latino Jews in the US range from 200,100, or three percent, to 227,700, or 5%, of the 6.7 million Jews in the US. They are an infinitesimal piece of the Latino population of 55.4 million, which constitutes 17.4% of the total American population.

To better understand this community, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) commissioned Latino Decisions, a leading firm dealing with opinion in the US Latino community, to conduct the first extensive survey of Latino Jews in the US. “Qualitative research on the Jewish or Latino populations rarely incorporates or focuses on the perspectives of Latino Jews in particular,” Latino Decisions notes.

A new AJC and Latino Decisions study, released last week, breaks additional ground, providing a detailed picture of Latino Jews in the US. It is based on a series of 10 focus groups composed of Latino Jews in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York that met in the Fall of 2015. Latino Jews comprise 35% of Miami-Dade County’s Jewish population; one-third of the Bronx County Jewish population; and 14% of Los Angeles County Jewish population.

Latino Jews feel intrinsic connections to the Jewish community, but do not feel that it is reciprocated, primarily due to a lack of knowledge.

“Every time I say ‘I’m a Mexican Jew,’ they say, ‘Oh, so your mom converted,’ because they don’t think we exist,” one Latino Jew observed in a focus group discussion.

Immigrants to the US have always striven to find their place, to assimilate into American society and also into their own ethnic and faith communities made up of others who preceded them in coming to America.

The mass exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union captured the attention of American Jews, the result of a long campaign to gain their freedom from religious persecution. Today, the estimated 750,000 Russian Jews in the US – about half of them living in New York – benefited from the welcoming support of the organized Jewish community.

Latino Jews who came over the years did not gain similar attention. Most did not leave their countries of origin because of religious discrimination or anti-Semitism. Most arrived with the financial means to reestablish themselves, and became involved in communal organizations. However, unlike most American Jews, Latino Jews, based on their experiences in their home countries, generally consider Israel far more central to their Jewish identity than synagogue affiliation.

THE GROWTH of the diverse Latino population across the US and its rising political empowerment, as well as the increasing attention Jewish organizations are paying to Jewish communities in Latin America and their bilateral relations with Israel, provide strong reasons for embracing Latino Jews in the US.

My AJC colleague Dina Siegel Vann, originally from Mexico City, who heads AJC’s Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, has spearheaded efforts to reach out to Latino Jews in the US, and to foster collaborative ties among the US, Latin America and Israel.

Participants in the focus groups came from 10 different countries. They discussed the ways that Latino Jews understand their identity, their engagement with the Jewish and Latino communities in the US and their attachment to Israel and to their Latin American homelands. Indeed, they are well-positioned to help advance relations between Jewish and Latino communities in the US, and also between American Jews and Latin American countries.

Two-thirds of the participants were born in Argentina, Mexico or Venezuela. Though 81% are US citizens and 13% are permanent residents, ties to their native countries are resilient. So enduring, in fact, that most Latino Jews living in the US do not use the term “American” to identify themselves, but instead refer to their countries of origin. Those Latin American countries welcomed their families after the First and Second World Wars.

The survey found that Latino Jews in the US are highly educated and economically successful.

Ninety-two percent hold college degrees and 68% have graduate degrees. Sixty-seven percent earn $100,000 or more a year, as compared to 30% of American Jewish households.

And they bring a unique mixture of Jewish and Latin American historical and cultural experiences.

“Latino Jews are worldly,” says Siegel Vann. “This minority recreates for American Jews what it means to be an immigrant minority, and, conversely, they can learn the exercise of power that is unique to Jews in the United States.”

Deepening our understanding of Latino Jews is important for them and for the wider Jewish community, as they exemplify both the diversity and unity of the Jewish people.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.