More Hispanic Jews are Finding a Home in South Florida

For David Saltoff, who has searched for his religious roots across 40 years and two continents, the start of Rosh Hashana at sunset today signifies more than the beginning of a new year, even more than an introduction to the 10-day period of reflection that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

As a child in Ecuador, Saltoff attended Catholic school and sometimes celebrated Christmas with a tree. ”I didn’t even know I was Jewish,” he says. ”No one ever said a word to me.” But now, as he celebrates the Jewish holy days for the first time, his long spiritual journey may end at last.

For Saltoff and other recently arrived Latin American Jews, this year’s High Holy Days will offer something precious: a new religious identity in a new land. And as they welcome the year 5768 with the blast of the shofar, they will help stamp their influence on a religious community sure to become more Hispanic and perhaps more observant because of their presence.

South Florida long has been a natural destination for Latin American Jews fleeing political turmoil and anti-Semitism. Many had once vacationed here; others wanted to be near family members and friends. They’re attracted by the area’s Hispanic culture, to be sure, but they also cherish its religious freedom.

”You can express your Judaism more openly than in Latin America,” says Graciela Chemerinsky, case manager for the Latin American Migration Project (LAMP) of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, an aid program that has helped 1,600 families since 2001.

About 113,300 Jews live in Miami-Dade County, according to a 2004 study by Ira Sheskin, director of the University of Miami’s Jewish Demography Project. Broward has 212,000.

Though Miami-Dade County’s Jewish population has decreased by 18 percent since 1994 as more elderly retirees settle in Broward and Palm Beach, the percentage of Latin Americans inches upward.

”Now you can go to The Chosen,” Sheskin says of a popular Kendall Judaica store, ”and get a Haggadah for Passover in Spanish. You didn’t see that 10, 20 years ago.” Temples offer Sabbath services in Spanish and provide scholarships to Jewish schools.

Although Sheskin lacks population figures for Broward’s Hispanic Jews, he says they tend to reflect the larger Hispanic population: more established and assimilated, second generation.

But, he says, regardless of whether the new arrivals settle in Weston or Kendall, they attend synagogue and enroll their children in Jewish schools more frequently and join Jewish community centers in larger numbers.

They’re younger, too: 33 is the median age for Hispanic Jews, contrasted with 51 for non-Hispanics.

Thirty-one percent of Miami-Dade’s Jews are foreign born, according to Sheskin’s study, the highest proportion among 45 U.S. Jewish communities. About 9,500 — just under 9 percent — identified themselves as Hispanic in 2004, almost double 1994 levels.

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