Building Bridges Between Jews and Latinos on Campus


Published in Jewish Journal May 30, 2012

The growth of the Latino population in the United States is not news. Studies have long shown that those whose background lies in one of the many countries south of the Texas border are becoming a larger and therefore more influential share of the American population. According to the 2010 census, they now constitute 16 percent of the total population, accounting for half of America’s population growth in the previous decade.

Many American Jewish organizations have long recognized this population’s growth (and corresponding growing political clout) and made outreach efforts, looking to partner with Latinos and their leaders on issues of consensus. This outreach has also long included bringing Latino leaders to Israel.

Not enough, however, is being done to develop sustained relationships between Jews and Latinos during their formative years on university and college campuses. Creating ties between Jewish and Latino student leaders builds a foundation for lasting partnerships that can also have a positive impact on effective advocacy while these leaders are still on campus.

Such an effort was initiated on a range of campuses this past year by Building Latino-Jewish Bridges on Campus, a first-of-its-kind trip to Israel for young Jewish women and Latinas still in college, organized jointly by The David Project, the National Hispana Leadership Institute and the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

No doubt there are many Israel trips designed for Jewish and non-Jewish students, offered by a range of organizations. None, however, actively seek to bring the groups together in equal partnerships. Many trips also teach Jewish students how to build coalitions with other groups. Building Bridges, however, trained and allowed the Jewish students to be the advocates and build those coalitions themselves while on the trip, answering questions the Latinas had and explaining various aspects of Israel to them. Trip participants also benefited from visiting some of the many historic Christian sites in Israel and learning from their Latina counterparts about their religion and heritage.

As a trip participant, I can say that the program was very effective.

Perhaps the trip’s most memorable day was our visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum. Together, we were able to share the raw feelings the museum evokes. Listening to many of the Jewish girls share stories of their grandparents being in the Holocaust made further impressions on the entire group.

Those moments truly bonded all of us to one another, deepening the Latinas’ appreciation for the many tragedies of Jewish history and the importance of Israel to the Jewish people. That day truly built bridges between us, and we began to believe in the importance of supporting each other’s respective communities.

Back on campus in the fall with these shared experiences to fall back on, finding ways to partner with one another was easy. At my school, University of California, Irvine, the girls decided to host a shared event around food. We prepared and served dishes from both of our cultures for our fellow students, with pictures and information about our trip lining the tables. We also brought two speakers to campus, Rabbi Marc Dworkin, the director of AJC’s Orange County office, and Norma Garcia, a prominent lawyer and alumna of another Israel trip.

The trip also led to positive advocacy at several other schools. Girls from Boston University started a new organization called KenSI (combining “yes” in Hebrew and Spanish). They also brought Jewish and Latino culture more closely together by passing out food as well as mix CDs on campus. At the University of Texas at Austin, trip participants hosted a large dinner for both Jews and Latinos who heard from Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas); AJC’s Anna Popp; and Manuel Rendon, from League of United Latin American Citizens, who spoke about the need to build strong coalitions on campus and on the national level. A dinner hosted by our Brandeis University girls included a “fishbowl” exercise designed to give Jews and Latinos the chance to peek in on the other’s respective culture.

All this focus on our culinary traditions led to the creation of a “Jewtina” cookbook: a collection of recipes from all the girls, combining Jewish and Latino recipes close to our hearts. The book also includes stories of our trip and pictures that relate back to the food.

For me, the Building Bridges trip and everything that came after has proven to be only the beginning. It sparked in me a renewed sense of the importance of advocating for the Jewish state on campus, a passion that led me to accept a job offer from The David Project, a nonprofit dedicated to positively shaping the campus discussion of Israel, that will allow me to teach others how to be advocates themselves by building relationships. I couldn’t be more excited.