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A Project of Faith Travels Well,

June 16, 2005 By:
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Let it shine in Beit Shein: Gathered in Israel on an Esperanza-Jewish Community Relations Council venture (from left) are José Luis Rodriguez, international recording artist; Tammy Hertzbach of JCRC; Luis Medina, film director; Burt Siegel, JCRC director; Bart Hertzbach, past president, JCRC; and Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., president, Esperanza USA.
Livin’ la vida … Judaica? Ricky Martin could learn a thing or two from the Rev. Luis Cortés Jr.

As president of Esperanza USA, the nation’s leading — and locally based — Latino-faith association, Cortés has created an unusually fulfilling accord with the Jewish community.

In concert with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and its Jewish Community Relations Council, the charismatic Cortés and his group, a subsidiary of Nueva Esperanza Inc., which he founded in 1987, have given hope to enhanced Latino-Jewish relations.

To that end, Cortés has connected with Israel, traveling there often, meeting with leading government officials (he just returned from a one-on-one with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon). The project has traveled well; Cortés often brings diverse members of the Latino community, including leading entertainment celebrities, along for the experience.

It is a road trip of emotions; Cortés’ cord extends from North Philadelphia to Jerusalem.

And one thing he has discovered, says the cleric called one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals” by Time magazine, is that milk and honey goes well with beans and rice.

But … why Israel? Hispanics and Haifa — perfect together?

“As Protestant Christians, we believe Israel is the Holy Land, that the Jewish people are the Chosen People,” and that Esperanza has made the right choice in its loving linkage to the land of antiquity.

After all, says Cortés, there’s nothing new in the association: “Our Lord our Savior is Jewish. It is important that there be peace, and that the people of Israel be supported.”

Serving as a support organization is nothing new to Esperanza: Its Hispanic Capacity Project offers a variety of assistance, including grants and technical aid, to Hispanic agencies of faith.

Keep the faith — keep Israel standing, says Cortés. “We’re keeping up a dialogue that leads to mutual support.”

Building Blocks of Success
But these aren’t mere bilingual bifurcated bromides. Esperanza’s support is significant, says Burt Siegel, director of the JCRC, who cites the “rapid growth of Protestant Christians in the Hispanic community, especially those who are more politically active.”

JCRC and Esperanza have been active for decades, working together “around immigration issues, funding of social services — we are exploring the possibility of Jewish and Hispanic teens getting to know each other better.”

Break open the piñata of the two peoples, and be showered with hope and encouragement. In an ironic way, their biggest success at communication may come from stone-walling: “It’s called the Jerusalem Stone Project,” explains Cortés of the plan to bring the famous Israeli building blocks to Esperanza’s new Centro Shalom, “a peace center to be built on our school campus in the next three to four years.”

Fundamentally, Israel and Hispanics share much. “Israel has many new Hispanic immigrants — Peruvian Jews, Guatemalan Jews. And then there is, of course, the Sephardic foundation which we share,” says the cleric of the link between Latino/Ladino.

Indeed, Hispanics have a bigger stake in Israel these days, according to Cortés, citing the enhanced Argentine presence there reflected in “the growing number of steakhouses.”

Cortés’ acclaim grows daily, too. Haim Golan-Gutin, Israel’s consul for tourism in North America, recently awarded the reverend a special honor for his work on behalf of the Israeli government.

Sitting on varied boards and committees, Cortés has a standing invitation to speak and work with many groups. Raised in Spanish Harlem, he is also a founder of United Bank, listed as the premiere African-American owned commercial bank in the city.

But then, the reverend banks on a united Hispanic-Jewish front as well. With its saga of two persecuted peoples joining in a show of strength and support, such a union would seem excellent fodder for Hollywood. No need; Cortés has trumped them at their own game: His trips to Israel and his organization’s work there are being filmed for a planned documentary.

And, maybe one day, all the Miguels and Michaels; Arlenes and Arlenas will be able to dish about their similarities over plates of paella and prachas prior to a screening of the film.

That notion rings true for Cortés.

“All I want,” he says of the faith he has in an Hispanic-Jewish future, “is for your granddaughter to know my granddaughter.” u

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