By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – “Dialogue is a very good way to reduce misunderstanding and prejudice,” says Carol Goodman Kaufman, describing the basic premise of the Latino-Jewish Roundtable of Central Massachusetts.
“Our focus has been on getting to know one another.”
The small group, which began in 2011 and meets several times a year, consists of local leaders from both the Latino and the Jewish communities in Worcester.
“We started out not knowing each other, and we’ve been figuring out common ground,” says Hilda Ramirez, assistant director of the Latino Education Institute at Worcester State University and a recently elected member of the Worcester School Committee.
“There has been a lot of discussion about how we individually view our identities and cultures,” she says. “We’re very different, and all of us are shaped by how we grow up.”
Based on the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) model that exists in several areas across the country, including New England, New York and the Pacific Southwest, the Central Massachusetts group “was initiated to build bridges between the Latino and Jewish communities,” notes the website of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.
The original impetus came from Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, chaired by Kaufman, a writer who has not only been active in the local Jewish community but also serves on the national board of Hadassah. The Council recognized that “it was important to forge relationships with the Latino community,” says Federation Executive Director Howard Borer.
“I had heard a report on NPR that included the statistic that the Latino community of Massachusetts has grown 400% over the past ten years,” says Kaufman. “The Jewish community is among the smallest. It is to our benefit to talk to our neighbors.”
At roughly the same time, Hilda Ramirez and Juan Gomez, the president and CEO of Centro Las Americas, had traveled to Israel with the Latino-Jewish Roundtable of Boston, to which Ramirez belonged. The experience was “phenomenal,” says Ramirez, and they were eager to learn more. Not long after their return, the two found themselves sitting with Kaufman at a breakfast talk in Worcester by an ADL staffer. Conversation turned to greater collaboration between their respective communities, and the ADL staffer ultimately served as a facilitator as they took steps to create a Roundtable in this area.
There are 10 current members, an equal complement from both communities. Matilde Castiel is a physician at UMass Memorial Healthcare, the executive director of Latin American Healthcare Alliance as well as the executive director of Hector Reyes House. Born in Cuba, she defines herself as both Latina and Jewish. Her husband, Aaron Mendel, is also a physician at UMass. Worcester City Councilor Sarai Rivera is a clinical therapist and co-senior pastor at the Christian Community Church.
Margot Barnet is a chiropractor who has been active in local politics, social justice and the Jewish community for two decades. Robert Honig is a physician with Reliant Health Care who volunteers with Doctors without Borders and is a past president of Federation. Howard Borer serves as the staff representative from Federation. Although Federation does not include the Roundtable in its budget allocations, it does provide organizational and administrative support.
Most of the group’s connection to date has been informal, sharing traditions and foods in one another’s homes.
“We have had some very good dinners!” says Kaufman, describing the potpourri of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Middle Eastern and Ashkenazi foods, among others, that has accompanied a deeper understanding of their different backgrounds. Learning about cultural nuances is at the heart of the Latino-Jewish Roundtable’s purpose.
So is comprehending each other’s disparate concerns. In the Jewish community, shifting demographics has led to a concern about invigorating new leadership from Jews in their 20s and 30s. Latinos, in contrast, are working to develop teen leaders who can address their community’s needs as they grow into adulthood.
Ramirez believes that the more established immigrant community has lessons for her own.
In particular, she highlights the Jewish ability to assimilate while retaining its traditions and rituals. “This is so important for the Latino community,” she says. “We need to retain language, culture, family and food while achieving success. I’ve always looked at the Jewish community as a community that does it well.”
On Oct. 7, the Latino-Jewish Roundtable held its first event, “Fulfilling the Dream!” a forum on immigration stories that took place at Clark University and was co-sponsored with Clark Hillel. Moderated by Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), a panel of immigrants, two Jewish and two Latina, presented their personal experiences.
The topic of immigration was an ideal starting point for the Roundtable. Ramirez stresses the universality of the immigrant experience, noting that “there is a common thread, no matter where you come from: it’s about overcoming a lot and finding a way to overcome, assimilate and achieve.”
At the same time, the personal experience of these four panelists revealed different dynamics. Both Jewish women, one from Russia and the other from Iran, emphasized the help they had received from American Jewish organizations, from providing a fully stocked apartment to support in finding jobs.
Such support was not the case for the Latino panelists, who described a more solitary experience, and Mattie Castiel suggests that helping to redress such an imbalance might be an area in which the Jewish community could offer support.
“It brought out how united the Jews are, how they help one another,” she says. “If you don’t see the same in the Latino community, how do we change these things?”
In the meantime, continued conversation is essential as this small group of leaders works to “end negative stereotypes that people have about different cultures” by sharing their own stories, says Castiel.
“I truly believe in educating others about who we are and about our culture.”
As the group continues to reflect upon its own purpose and scope, it plans a community Seder for the spring and encourages involvement from others in both communities who are equally committed.
“We’re launching a great opportunity for young people to get involved,” says Hilda Ramirez. “People are willing to talk and give a little bit of themselves. It’s an exciting stage – and it helps us become stronger.”