Shades of gray: a conservative Cuban rabbitakes on race issues that could have powerful mplications for Jews and Latinos.(Rigoberto Emmanuel Vinas)
His knitted skullcap tells the world he is a religious Jew. His name, Rigoberto Emmanuel Vinas, tells the world he is Latino.
For as long as he can remember, Rabbi Vinas has answered a battery of questions about his identity. Sometimes, the answers have become a bit cut and dry. His parents emigrated from Cuba, he went to religious schools and received rabbinical ordination. He votes like a Cuban in Southern Florida and leads a racially-mixed synagogue in Yonkers, New York. All of it is true, but the cursory answer just leads to more questions.
As a traditional Jew with conservative politics, Rabbi Vinas is not the most likely candidate for strong racial critiques. And yet, he sits in a chair in his synagogue and gives a searing criticism of the mainstream Jewish community’s approach to people of color. Generally, he says, Jews encourage the mistaken notion that the community is homogenous. And white.
“There are a lot of people who have still not come to grips that we are a diverse community,” he says. “Jews in this country have worked very hard to become white. Anything that could change that is perceived as a threat.”
Quietly but steadily, Rabbi Vinas is working on outreach that could have powerful implications for the Jewish world and turn the Latino religious scene on its head.
Recovering Jewish History
For years, the rabbi would meet Latino Jews who spoke of loneliness and confusion. They felt isolated in their community, if they were a part of any community at all. He began teaching classes in Torah and Jewish law in Spanish out of his New York City apartment. When there were too many students who crammed into his living room, he moved the courses to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a large Modern Orthodox synagogue he then belonged to. The classes began to form a loose cadre of people, and the rabbi named it “El Centro de Estudios Judios Torat Emet.”
Most of Rabbi Vinas’ students were born and raised Jewish, some in the United States and some in Latin America. Others were trying to explore an unexplainable connection to Jewish traditions. They had grown up as Catholics, but saw their mothers and grandmothers keep traditions they never quite understood, like lighting candles in closets on Friday nights, abstaining from pork and praying to El Dios, never using the name Jesus Cristo.
These people were anusim, a Hebrew term that refers to those with hidden Jewish roots, many of whom converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition or under other pressure from Christian conquerors. They are often referred to, somewhat derisively, as Crypto-Jews or Marranos, the latter meanings pig in Spanish. (Ironically, in parts of the Philippines the same Spanish word is used to describe Muslims).
Today, Latino Jews comprise a small number of those in attendance at synagogues. Meanwhile, every year, dozens of Jewish organizations spend millions of dollars on out-reach programs, bemoaning the increasing number of Jews who do not belong to any major Jewish institution such as a synagogue or community center. In population surveys, these people are often referred to as the “unaffiliated.” Forty-four percent of all Jews are unaffiliated in population surveys. But in such surveys, there is no category for anusim. Most mainstream Jewish organizations seem oblivious, doubtful or even hostile to their existence, Rabbi Vinas says.
“They are okay with David and Rachel, but when Fonseca shows up, they get nervous,” he says. ‘How can that be?’ they’ll ask, ‘We don’t know anybody like that.'”
After years of explanations, Rabbi Vinas has grown tired of such comments. Yes, he patiently explains, Latino Jews exist, and we must reach out to them.
Two years ago, with his classes thriving, Rabbi Vinas got a call from officials at the Lincoln Park Jewish Center. They were looking for a new rabbi, they explained. Would he be interested in taking the job?
The synagogue is small; compared to its counterparts in New York City or the wealthier suburbs, Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers might even be described as run down. Until a year ago, membership was shrinking. Whites had begun moving out of the neighborhood decades ago when the Yonkers school district was desegregated. The flight took much of the synagogue’s membership with it.
Then Rabbi Vinas moved in. About 35 new families have come with him. Half are Latino.
El Centro’s classes now take place every Sunday at the Yonkers synagogue. The older white members of the synagogue are generally happy to have the new lifeblood, Rabbi Vinas says. They know about his passion for aggressive outreach and widespread popularity in the Latino community. But what most of those congregants, and many other people Rabbi Vinas works with, don’t know is that issues of race and religion and of being anusim are deeply personal for the rabbi.
When his parents fled Cuba in the 1960s, they left behind a traditional close family clan, where children were only allowed to marry from a handful of select families. It might not have been unusual in the island country, where status is as closely guarded as family secrets.
After the family had lived in Miami for several years, Rabbi Vinas’ five-year-old sister was diagnosed with leukemia. One afternoon, his father wandered into a synagogue, where he prayed by himself until a rabbi approached him.
After talking for several minutes and learning about the family’s story, the rabbi told Vinas’ father that they were almost certainly descended from a Jewish family. Many of the customs had been passed down, but without the explanation of their Jewish meaning.
Slowly, it became clear that getting rid of bread and pastries during Holy Week was really the Jewish ritual of cleaning the house of leavened products for Passover; soaking the meat in salt wasn’t a culinary decision, it was to comply with Jewish law. And standing at the side of a corpse, a tradition carried out for generations, followed the practice of a chevre kadisha, a venerated Jewish practice of never leaving the body of the dead alone until it is buried.
“It was incredible,” Rabbi Vinas says, his eyes sparkling with pride and excitement. “They kept it secret. It was never something that was talked about, it was just something that was done. All these things began to make sense.”
His family began attending synagogue, and eventually Rabbi Vinas chose his life’s work. His family’s story is familiar to many of the families the rabbi now brings to synagogue. He delights in retelling countless serendipitous discoveries and stories of bringing Dominicans, Guatemalans and other Cubans into the Jewish fold.
Longing for Community
Where the growing popularity of charismatic and evangelical churches in the Latino community is a threat to progressives, for Rabbi Vinas it is an opportunity. These churches rely heavily on Hebrew scripture, he says, using images of the prophets and stories of the forefathers to illustrate religious values. It awakens something deep in people, he says, bringing out dormant yearnings for a Jewish community and relationship with God.
Even messianic groups such as Jews for Jesus, which often prompts a frenetic anti-proselytizing campaign, do not worry Rabbi Vinas.
“If we have nothing to offer them that’s positive, then why should they come?” he asks. “I have more faith in Judaism than that. I know what we have is good.”
For all his excitement and work, Rabbi Vinas is largely going at it alone. While Jewish Reform synagogues maintain efforts with interfaith families, many of whom are racially mixed, there is little being done in the more traditional Jewish circles he travels in. Like the larger society still learning how to deal with mixed-race, the Jewish world has created these false boxes that increasingly don’t seem to fit. With a growing synagogue in Yonkers, Rabbi Vinas hopes to bring more working- and middle-class Jews to the area and create a synagogue that is racially and economically integrated.
“People don’t want to talk about socioeconomic issues, but I don’t like the assumption that every Jew is a Rosenberg with privileges,” he says. “We have to create more shades of gray, create more doubt and create a paradigm that is not hard and fast.”
Even as he talks of the racism that pervades many Jewish circles, Rabbi Vinas is eager to keep other politics out of the interview. Yet when pressed, he is blunt. He voted Republican last November–but not because of Israel. It was mostly for his thoughts on Cuba. He quickly adds that he refuses to talk politics from the pulpit.
“I want to work on a holy level,” he says, “and politics is a very dirty business.”
Jennifer Medina is a metro reporter for the New York Times.