LOS ANGELES -- On a Shabbat afternoon in February, state Sen. Alex Padilla spoke on a panel at Young Israel of Century City (YICC), the largest Modern Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson. The event was co-organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Padilla knew what message he was expected to deliver. The panel’s trilingual title — “Israel at lo levad! Israel ¡No estás solo! Israel, you are not alone!” — made that clear.
Padilla, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley in California’s state Senate, talked mostly about his two trips to Israel. He first traveled there in 2003 when he was president of the Los Angeles City Council on a trip sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. His went again on an AIPAC trip for Latino leaders in December 2009.
Among the 100 or so people in the sanctuary — most of them men, most of them in suits — Karra Greenberg stood out, and not only for her shoulder-length blond hair and her stylish yet modest green patterned dress. Unlike those who wanted to hear Padilla express his unequivocal support for Israel, Greenberg, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UCLA, asked what motivates the panelist’s friends and family.
Her question was simple: What can the Jewish community do to build an alliance with Latinos?
Bridge-Building Gains Momentum
As the Latino population and its political influence have grown, the number of Jewish groups across the country working to build and strengthen Latino-Jewish ties has increased as well. The New York office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) held a meeting last week for Latino and Jewish leaders, and AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute is planning a national Latino-Jewish leadership summit for 2012. In addition, in San Antonio, Texas, former mayor Henry Cisneros and local Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg are organizing a strategic dialogue between about 80 Latino and Jewish leaders later this month.
Since last December, leaders from some of Los Angeles’ most influential Jewish organizations have been meeting, coming together on two separate occasions with their Latino community counterparts. The exact outcome of this organizing effort is still to be seen, but it could lay the groundwork for an unprecedented level of Latino-Jewish cooperation.
In Los Angeles, Latino-Jewish relationships are not new. The communities’ leaders often point to the election of Ed Roybal, Los Angeles’ first Latino city councilman, supported in large part by Jewish and Latino voters in 1949, as the first great victory of the Latino-Jewish alliance. Some even credit the intercommunity connections with staving off a wider explosion of tensions in 1998, after the state Senate primary between Richard Katz and Richard Alarcon got particularly nasty.
Even so, the number of efforts by Jewish organizations in Los Angeles to “reach out,” to “build bridges” or to otherwise connect with Latinos has soared in recent years. There are projects that create curricula about Israel for teachers in the city’s Catholic schools, whose students are predominantly Latino. There are Spanish-language courses about Judaism for Latino Pentecostal pastors. For years, film producer and civil rights activist Moctesuma Esparza has worked with Jews on various projects, including his effort to increase and improve the representations of Latinos in film and TV. Bilingual pro-Israel programs regularly take place in Latino-dominated Evangelical churches, and dozens of Latino leaders from the L.A. area have taken part in leadership delegations to Israel.
In just the past two years, Los Angeles’ most prominent Jewish groups have led the effort: In October 2010, the AJC’s six-year-old Latino and Latin American Institute presented the third annual Gesher Award to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Gesher is Hebrew for bridge; the award honors Latino leaders who work to build bridges between the Jewish and Latino communities.
The Latino-Jewish roundtable, an initiative of the local office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), was founded in 1992. The roundtable has held 13 separate events in the past two years, including a 2009 seder focusing on immigrant experiences and a celebration of Sukkot and other autumnal festivals in 2010. Most recently, in January 2011, 25 members of the roundtable participated in a daylong trip to the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2009, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Consulate General of Israel co-sponsored Fiesta Shalom, a celebration of the 61st anniversary of Israeli independence in the formerly very Jewish — and now overwhelmingly Latino — neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
High-level representatives from each of these groups — ADL, AJC, Federation, AIPAC and the Israeli Consulate — have been involved in the latest round of meetings between the Jewish and Latino leaders.
No agenda for these meetings has been made public, or perhaps even agreed upon internally. There have been talks about the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral election and about this year’s redistricting process, but the primary focus of the meetings has been to plan a citywide Latino-Jewish leadership summit in Los Angeles this fall.
“It’s going to be a convening of leaders and organizations,” said David Ayón, senior fellow at The Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. Ayón, who has been the most active Latino advocate for the Latino-Jewish summit, hopes that it will encourage leaders from both communities to “[get] to know each other’s agendas and for the purposes of discussing what we want from the next mayor of Los Angeles.”
Those on the Jewish side of the table were, without exception, reluctant to speak about these discussions on the record.
“We want to have meetings of substance, meetings where we can talk about the issues openly and honestly. We all agreed that the best way to do that was to have these meetings held in private in one another’s confidence,” said AJC Los Angeles Regional Director Seth Brysk.
Brysk is working with ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind to set the course for future meetings. Susskind emphasized just how undefined the agenda is. “It’s been a really ad hoc, really organic thing that’s been developing,” Susskind said. “It is so inchoate right now.”
Roots of the Revival
This organizing effort was inspired by a speech that Ayón gave at the AJC’s Gesher Award ceremony last October, which in turn brought about a lunch between Ayón and Israeli Deputy Consul General Gil Artzyeli. But the specific events that brought these meetings about are less important than the context in which they are taking place.
The results of the 2010 census are still being released — California’s results came out this week — but every organization with a political agenda has long been aware of the growth of the country’s Latino population and the political ascendancy that trend portends.
“There are 25 Latino members of U.S. House of Representatives,” AIPAC Press Secretary Jennifer Cannata said, “and if you look ahead five, 10, 20 years into the future, you can expect that those numbers are going to expand.”
“For the Jews, it’s very clear,” Dina Siegel Vann, director of AJC’s Latino and Latin America Institute, said. “We’ve always known that we’re not about numbers. We’ve always been about relationships and coalition-building to advance our agenda.”
In 2009, according to the Census Bureau, there were 48.4 million Latinos in the United States, representing 15.9 percent of the total population. By comparison, Leonard Saxe of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute recently estimated that there are 6.5 million Jews in America today — about 2 percent of the U.S. population.
In the city of Los Angeles, which was 48.5 percent Latino in 2010, Jews make up just 6 percent of the population. But because Jews regularly cast between 16 and 18 percent of the votes, politicians pay attention.
Villaraigosa, whose second (and final) term as mayor of Los Angeles will end in 2013, has made a point of connecting with Jews. The city’s first Latino mayor since 1872, Villaraigosa is comfortable wearing yarmulkes and seamlessly weaves words like “mitzvah” into his speeches.
Although the Jewish vote went narrowly against Villaraigosa in his unsuccessful 2001 bid for mayor, he carried the city’s Jews in his successful 2005 campaign. He had strong Latino support in both of those elections, and any candidate interested in Villaraigosa’s job will have to consider the political influence of these two communities.
And it is the upcoming mayoral race, in part, that inspired Ayón to push for the current Latino-Jewish leadership meetings. The perception among Latino leaders, Ayón said, was that Jewish leaders had a personal relationship with Villaraigosa but that the connection didn’t extend to the Latino community more broadly.
Ayón is hoping that these meetings might broaden and deepen the relationships between the leaderships of these two communities — beyond Villaraigosa. “While he’s still mayor,” Ayón said, “we can take advantage of the fact that he’s the crowning achievement of the Latino-Jewish coalition that goes back to Ed Roybal.”
Villaraigosa’s model for pulling together support from Jewish and Latino voters, Ayón said, was the highly successful black-Jewish alliance that swept Tom Bradley into the mayor’s office in 1973.
Political scientist Raphael J. Sonenshein, who has written extensively about the politics of the Bradley era in Los Angeles, pointed out that building coalitions is slow work, but that the potential political payoff can be lasting.
“The Bradley coalition was built in 10 or 15 years and lasted for 20,” Sonenshein said. “Now, with term limits, who’s got the time? But organizations, not candidates, do have the time.”
A second major political shift could present a hurdle to Latino-Jewish cooperation. This year, a new Citizens Redistricting Commission will redraw the lines that divide the state into districts for state Senate, state Assembly and (thanks to the passage by voters of Proposition 20 in 2010) Congress. The new districts will be drawn according to data from the 2010 census, and the process could dramatically alter the political landscape.
In 2001, the last time these lines were redrawn, it was done by Michael Berman, a Democratic consultant and brother of Rep. Howard Berman, who is Jewish. The lines generally protected incumbents, were accepted by the Democratic-controlled state Legislature and approved by then-Gov. Gray Davis.
Shortly thereafter, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed suit in federal court, claiming that a few districts had been drawn in a way that, they alleged, illegally diluted the impact of Latino votes. The districts included those represented — then and now — by Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). A federal panel of judges ultimately dismissed the lawsuit.
There is no telling how California’s newly named Redistricting Commission will affect Jewish or Latino elected officials, but the topic did come up in at least one of the recent meetings between Latino and Jewish leaders. (Nancy Ramirez, who heads MALDEF’s Western regional office, and Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and a veteran of Latino-Jewish dialogue, are both central to this organizing effort.)
Above All, Connect
In his answer to Karra Greenberg’s question at YICC, the first thing Padilla said — before he spoke about the need for Jews to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level — was that the issues that matter to Latinos are the same ones that matter to other Angelenos. Latinos, Padilla said, want quality public education, safe streets, good job opportunities — just like Jews do. “There’s not a special set of issues,” he said.
Neither the Latino nor the Jewish community is monolithic, but it seems easier for these communities’ leaders to support one another’s unique political priorities than it is for them to identify the priorities that their communities share. Many Latino leaders have traveled to Israel and talked positively about the experience; many Jewish groups have made statements in support of comprehensive immigration reform — still, finding a shared set of goals is proving challenging.
“I don’t think there are competing interests,” said Vargas of NALEO. As far as the Latino-Jewish leadership meetings, Vargas said, “I think that one of the things that we are struggling for is identifying what our mutual interests are.”
And that’s not the only challenge to building a Latino-Jewish coalition; establishing the criteria to demonstrate success is also difficult.
“It’s hard to actually assess the success of these efforts,” said David Lehrer, who founded the Latino-Jewish Roundtable when he was ADL regional director. “The only way to do it is to poll people, which is expensive and time consuming. So you just have to assume that more connections are better than fewer connections.”
And that’s essentially the message Padilla conveyed at YICC last month — except that he was talking about all Latino-Jewish connections, not just at the leadership level. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Padilla said, he hadn’t experienced the “Eastside-Westside” divide between Jews and Latinos that he sees in the city.
Padilla emphasized the power of informal connections to foster mutual understanding. He recounted an experience from his childhood in a San Fernando Valley public school. He offered a friend half of his sandwich, but the friend, who was Jewish, said he could not accept. That’s how Padilla learned about keeping kosher.
Then again, Padilla added, “The first seder I got invited to was when I got into office.”
His meaning was clear: Padilla may have learned about what Jews don’t eat in public school, but it wasn’t until he was elected to city council that someone invited him over to find out what Jews do eat.