Latinos y Judios Unidos
By Erick Cohen, The George Washington University
“Wait, you’re Hispanic? I thought you were Jewish.” …
I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, grew up in Miami, FL (#305), and my last name is Cohen. So yes, it is possible to be both. I am a Jewish Latino. I’ve never been asked questions like this before leaving Miami to study in the George Washington University in DC. Miami and Buenos Aires are full of people like me. As far as I was concerned, everyone else was weird. Everyone was from New Jersey. As I met more people in Washington, I kept getting strange looks when people asked about my background (a Jew from Argentina with Syrian and Polish decent). I found myself in a peculiar situation. My Jewish community didn’t understand many of my Latino customs, and my Latino community didn’t understand my Jewish ones.
The weekend of March 9th – 11th I participated in the David Project’s Latinos y Judíos Unidos (LyJ) conference in Miami, FL. If there was ever a conference made specifically for me, this was as close as I was going to get.
Although I didn’t solve all my existential crises at LJU, I gained incredibly valuable insight that “experts” like me didn’t know before. Even better, I got to see other people from both of my communities finally begin to understand my other half. Jews began to care about Latino struggles like identity, language, and immigration, and Latinos began to care about Jewish struggles like identity, language, and immigration.
I am an immigrant. And many times, my Jewish brothers and sisters find it hard to connect to issues of immigration that affect many Latinos (Including myself). At LJU, we spoke with an immigration lawyer who works in Miami. She explained the processes, difficulties, and myths about immigration and getting a green card in the United States. People were shocked to find out how difficult it really is. I encourage you to look it up. See if you would receive one. We also heard from a DACA recipient and the hardships he goes through in his everyday life. Through no fault of his own, his parents left Peru for a better life in the United States. He grew up here; Miami is his home. Though I can’t force others to empathize, his story struck me. I have many friends that are DACA recipients (and if you were wondering, yes, there are Jewish DACA recipients too), but I never knew that before DACA, these individuals were essentially immobile. They could not drive, and if they could not drive, they could not work, if they could not work, they could not pay for school, if they could not pay for school, they could not advance… I can go on, but I think you get the point. Many Latino immigrants are professionals seeking a better life. Some, like my parents, left everything behind, their career, friends, family, language…. I think about it every day. It could have easily been me sitting in that chair, or worse.
I am a Jew, and many times I feel out of place in the Latino community. I don’t seem to fit the mold of your average Latino. I don’t speak with an accent in English (at least I think I don’t) or even look Latino. In fact, if you saw me, you would think I was from New Jersey too. I celebrate Shabbat and speak Hebrew. But I speak Spanish and have my Argentine customs too. Somehow, I am a different type of Latino. I struggle with the same issues, but I find myself gravitating to the Jewish community for help. Thankfully, I don’t have to choose. I was ecstatic that Latinos in the conference were understanding of the importance of Israel for the Jewish people, and how we are immigrants too. Fellow Latino students participated in a Shabbat service, and Kiddush with us.
One of my favorite parts of the conference was something called “the fish bowl.” There were two concentric circles. One inner circle, and another circle in around it. First, Latinos sat in the inner circle and we talked about life as Latinos while the Jews sat in the outside circle listening. Then the Jewish students sat in the inner circle and the Latino students sat in the outer circle. There were two or three other students like me, who were never on the outside. Initially, it was cool that I was part of both conversations, I was never on the outside listening. After processing, I felt that I was on the outside because I was never on the outside circle. I didn’t have a chance to just listen and that made me and the other Jewish Latino students different. It forced us to participate in different ways. I could bring in things from both communities into both conversations. I might even say there should have been another circle in the middle for Jewish Latino students.
As a student who falls into both groups, it was incredibly rewarding to meet other Jewish students who never really interacted with Latinos, and Latino students who never really knew about Jewish life or customs. Both groups found relatable issues. Some Latino students who couldn’t speak fluent Spanish found themselves bonding with Jewish students who couldn’t speak fluent Hebrew, and how that makes it hard for them to feel part of their communities. The Latinos y Judios Unidos conference should be the beginning, not the end of the conversation. I hope others get a chance to attend the conference and that Latinos and Jews continue to meet and learn about each other. We have more in common than we think.