The largest Hispanic faith-based nonprofit in the country isn’t based in Miami’s Little Havana or New York’s Spanish Harlem, but right here in North Philadelphia.
And the Rev. Luis Cortés, the president of Esperanza, Spanish for hope, is on a mission to bolster ties between 15 million Hispanic evangelicals nationwide and the state of Israel.
He’s even got Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on board with the plan. Cortés, 55, made his 10th trip to the Jewish state last month and met with Netanyahu — his third time meeting with a sitting Israeli premier.
Cortés has now rolled out Esperanza Para Israel, a pro-Israel campaign targeting Hispanics, particularly evangelicals. The initiative will involve the production of pro-Israel programs on Enlace, a Spanish-language Christian television network. Filming began on Cortés’ latest trip and the first installment should be ready by March, he said.
The plan also entails organized tours of the Jewish state — with the hope of getting plenty of celebrities to sign on — and a joint project with the Jewish National Fund focusing on sustainability and agriculture.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to get more Hispanics visiting Israel, buying Israeli products and supporting Israel in the court of world opinion.
“What we are talking about with Benjamin Netanyahu is genuine. How do we as a people begin to create a genuine relationship with Israelis? That is the project,” Cortés said during an interview at the headquarters of Esperanza, which has more than 200 employees and an annual budget of $22 million.
American Jewish groups and Israeli officials have, for some time, recognized the need to deepen relations with American Hispanics, the fastest growing minority group in this country. The U.S. Census estimates that by 2040, Latinos will comprise just over 26 percent of the population.
The interest among Jewish leaders in the Hispanic world increased further in the wake of the 2012 election, in which Hispanics accounted for one in 10 voters and helped President Barack Obama win a second term in the White House.
With the Jewish population remaining stagnant and an increasing number of American Jews feeling detached from the Jewish state, Israel and its supporters have been looking outside the Jewish community for allies.
The pro-Israel alliance between Jews and the larger evangelical community has at times been an uneasy one, with the two camps at odds over certain social issues and with some Jews remaining suspicious about the motives of Christian Zionists. In recent years, those tensions have decreased somewhat and many mainstream groups are more open to working with Christian Zionists than in the past.
Cortés contends that Hispanic evangelicals make more natural allies for Jews than evangelicals as a whole because Hispanics tend to be more liberal on both social and political topics. Also, there are clear issues on which the two groups can work together, such as immigration reform.
Cortés, the son of Puerto Rican parents who grew up in Spanish Harlem, spoke from Esperanza’s headquarters, a block-sized building in the heart of Fairhill, an area east of Broad Street in North Philadelphia that is home to many of the city’s roughly 185,000 Hispanics.
Founded in 1987 to combat poverty in the Hispanic community, Esperanza runs a junior college, a charter high school, a cyber-charter school, immigration legal services, community development initiatives and a host of other programs locally, nationally and even internationally in parts of Latin America.
The gregarious, grey-haired pastor held court in a conference room lined with framed photos of him posing with Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Next to the pictures rests an artifact donated by the state of Israel: a stone from the pool of Siloam, an ancient site just outside Jerusalem’s Old City.
The grandfather of four, who got married at 19, took courses in Jewish studies while an undergraduate at City College in Manhattan because he was interested in the origins of Christianity. Later, pursuing his ordination from Union Theological Seminary, he crossed Broadway to study Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He came to Philadelphia in 1981.
Evangelical support for Israel, he said, comes from a literal interpretation of the Bible and God’s promise of the land to the Jews.
“It’s theological for us,” he said.
The pro-Israel orientation, he said, also stems from the reality that Israel has a stronger record than its neighbors in protecting Christian citizens. In parts of the Middle East and Africa, he said, there are Christian martyrs, people being killed solely because of their faith.
Burt Siegel, the former director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Philadelphia who traveled to Israel with Cortés in 2005 and considers him a good friend, said the reverend’s interest in Israel is authentic.
“He really has a religious understanding of what Israel means,” said Siegel, who retired in 2008. “He is an evangelical; he is not a Christian fundamentalist. He certainly is not interested in converting the Jewish community. He has always felt close to the Jewish community.”
Cortés has long been a player on the national stage. In 2005, Time listed him as one of the 25 most influential evangelical leaders in America.
Siegel noted that the annual National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast that the reverend organizes in Washington each year draws business leaders from around the country. Bush and Obama have each addressed the breakfast, as have a number of Israeli officials. And Cortés was invited to give the invocation at the congressional luncheon following Obama’s second inauguration.
“The Israeli government has been courting him for some time,” said Siegel. “He is not only well connected in the Latino community but in the evangelical community.”
One Jewish official quipped that Cortés has better contacts in Israel than all but a few American Jewish leaders.
The pastor said his group’s political muscle comes from its numbers: It is seen as representing an estimated 13,000 Hispanic evangelical churches and 500 nonprofits in this country.
“We have access, we have had access and I project we should continue to have access to decision-makers all around this country and in Latin America,” said Cortés. “It’s not because people like us and we’re nice guys.”
Jewish groups, he added, have also been able to use leverage for maximum effect.
“Why do people deal with the Jewish community?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s a small group, but it is well-organized. They know how to use their assets and they use them for the way they need to use them. I’m hoping that we create these partnerships that become genuine, really genuine, as opposed to the stuff that’s been going on for years now.”
Hernán Guaracao, publisher of Al Dia, the city’s free, weekly Spanish-language tabloid, said he has known Cortés for more than 20 years, and watched him grow Esperanza from a nonprofit with one employee to a major national institution.
“He is one of the few people who is able to conceive of a vision and see it through,” said Guaracao, a native of Colombia.
Guaracao cautioned, however, that with the many issues facing the Hispanic community and its tremendous diversity, it will be a challenge to generate widespread interest in Israel. But if anyone can make an impact, he said, it’s Cortés.
Cortés first made what he termed a pilgrimage to Israel in 1993 and met Shimon Peres, then foreign minister, in a follow-up visit later that year. Among his 10 trips was the 2005 Hispanic clergy mission organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, led by Siegel.
Around that same time, he was invited to Israel at the government’s expense for a meeting with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The ex-general had a question for the preacher: At the height of the second intifada, when tourism had all but stopped, why were faith-based Hispanics still coming?
In addition to religious reasons, Cortés gave an answer that he said elicited a chuckle from the steely Sharon. “It’s safer.”
Even with a wave of terrorist attacks, Cortés explained, Israel was safer than most American cities, particularly the parts where many Hispanics tend to live.
“Most people don’t know the violence of Hispanic communities and what we live through,” he said.
Sharon quipped that the tourism ministry should adopt the slogan: “Come to Israel, it’s safer,” Cortés recalled.
Through two meetings, they made big plans about organizing Hispanic celebrity and leadership tours to Israel and even building a chapel in Philadelphia made from Jerusalem stone to literally concretize the bond between Hispanics here and Israel.
“He said to me, ‘Reverend, for the future of Israel, my grandchildren need to know your grandchildren,’ ” Cortés said. “Israeli leaders, they don’t dance around as much as when I meet with U.S. politicians. It is a more direct conversation, and I appreciate that, because you wonder less what’s going on.”
But Sharon suffered a stroke in 2006 and remains comatose to this day. The projects essentially stopped in their tracks.
In the years since, Cortés said, he has continued visiting the country, organizing tours and sending seniors at the Esperanza Charter School to the Jewish state. But now, it seems that Netanyahu is interested in picking up where Sharon left off.
Elad Strohmayer, deputy consul general in Philadelphia, said, “The fact that the prime minister met with Rev. Cortés demonstrates the importance Israel gives to these relations. We look forward to working together with Rev. Cortés and Esperanza and their new program Esperanza Para Israel.”
In addition, Cortés said, he’s been in talks with JNF chairman, Efi Stenzler, and plans are in the works for Esperanza and JNF to team up on a major sustainable agriculture initiative in Latin America. They have also discussed building an Esperanza garden near the shores of the Dead Sea.
It connects Israel “to our folks in real and tangible ways,” he said. “The JNF will be helping some of our folks in the Americas with agriculture — because nobody does it better.”
As JNF is a nonprofit group, it can assist Esperanza, another nonprofit group, to alleviate poverty around the world, he said. JNF officials did not respond to calls requesting comment.
The reverend said he hopes that the Hispanic-Israel connection spreads far and wide and takes hold at the grass-roots level.
“We are setting up a system by which anyone who wants to lead a group can lead a group, but they will have everything they need in Spanish,” he said.
The goal for Esperanza, he said, is to create “a better understanding of Israel, with its needs and positions, with the Hispanic evangelical community in the United States.”