When Soraya Gonzalez went to Israel in ‘005, she represented more than just Bergen County’s Latino community. She represented the renewed cooperation between the Latino community and UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Holocaust survivor Sima Preiser told her story in Spanish last month to a group of Hispanic students at Hackensack High School. Photo courtesy of UJA-NNJ
Last month, Gonzalez, a Spanish teacher at Hackensack High School, thought her students, mostly Spanish speakers whose parents were born in Latin America, should know more about the Holocaust. On Jan. 18, she brought Sima Preiser, a survivor who speaks Spanish, to talk to the class in Spanish about the Holocaust.
"It was an eye-opening episode for us in the Jewish community," said Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein, chair of the Intergroup Relations Committee (IRC), part of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and the group that sponsored Gonzalez’s trip.
"We’ve heard that story," Finkelstein said, "and it still sends chills to us but it’s not as shocking because we’ve heard it all before," he said. "For this community, it’s something they’ve never heard."
After the talk, Gonzalez told The Jewish Standard, students "believed what they had read in the past when they listened to her story. They were very interested and impressed by her willingness to answer their questions and share that part of her life and they learned what Jewish people and others went through."
To springboard from the success of Gonzalez’s trip and continued involvement with the Jewish community, the IRC met last week with members of the Latino community to plan more cooperation between the two groups.
The Latino community is "growing in our county and throughout the country," said Finkelstein. "We should reach out to them."
According to Humberto Goez, director of the Bergen County Office of Multicultural Community Affairs, 10 percent or roughly 90,000 people in the county are of Hispanic origin.
The meeting at the federation’s River Edge headquarters brought together ” Jewish leaders and almost 30 Latino leaders. It was one of the best meetings the IRC had ever had, said Joy Kurland, director of the JCRC.
"It was truly a watershed event for us," she said. "Everybody came away with a great high."
The two communities have cooperated before, Kurland said. In ‘000, after the Colombian earthquake, the federation collected school supplies and toiletries for the victims, beginning a relationship with the area’s Latinos leading to several events in ‘001. Federation members attended Hispanic Heritage Day in Hackensack, and Latinos came to a Chanukah event in Teaneck and a model seder in River Edge. But as the leadership changed, the relationship waned, Kurland said.
"When we sent Soraya Gonzalez to Israel two years ago, this was an opportunity to re-engage the Latino community," she said. "We felt we had much in common on many issues. We truly wanted to see how we could envision different initiatives that would be beneficial to both communities."
Although he has done so on his own and not as a representative of his office, Goez has worked closely with the federation to foster this cooperation. There is much the Jewish and Latino groups can learn from each other, he said.
"The Jewish community has already been here a very long time," he said. "It’s well represented and we are still in the process. We can benefit a lot from that because we have a lot to learn from the Jewish community in terms of organization, religious values, family values even though we have our own values we are very proud of."
The group decided to focus mainly on education and immigration. The Latino community has a high rate of high school dropouts, Goez said, and that affects not only them but the entire community. Adult education is another concern, especially for immigrants.
Latino immigrants have their own tales of adapting to American society, just as Jewish immigrants did after World War II, Finkelstein said.
"Their story’s not much different from our story, just a different generation," he added. "We’ve been there, to a certain extent. We hope to share our experiences with them and enlighten them let them know they’re not alone."
Gonzalez also sees a commonality in the histories of America’s Jewish and Latino communities.
"Many people from Latin American countries come to the U.S. escaping dangerous situations. As we [Latinos] arrive to the U.S. we have needs that the Jewish community had when they arrived and we should learn how to overcome them," she said.
By the end of last week’s session, the two groups had decided to set up committees and to continue to work together.
"I see the willingness from the Jewish community to help because they have the opportunity to do so," Goez said. "And we appreciate that. There is a lot we can get from any community that is willing to help us. We welcome these offers. We can learn from each other; it’s a two-way process where each side can benefit."
The IRC, which does outreach to other ethnic and faith communities as well, looks to create a network for the Jewish community to communicate with, so that if a crisis should arise, Jewish leaders know whom to call, Finkelstein said. The Brotherhood/Sisterhood initiative, which meets monthly, brings together members of eight faith groups, including the Jewish community. The IRC is also working specifically on reaching out to the Muslim and African-American communities.
"This is the organized Jewish response to other communities, so we can know who our neighbors are and help show our neighbors who we are," Finkelstein said.