Gabriel Seidner has an inherent interest in Jewish-Hispanic relations. The 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate grew up in the Jewish community of Bogotá, Colombia.
Seidner was one of 18 young professionals, both Jewish and Hispanic, who gathered in a Center City office recently to plan a series of networking events they are calling “Salsa and Kugel.” The gatherings will fall under the rubric of the American Jewish Committee’s year-old Latino-Jewish Coalition, which has been organizing cultural events and helping leaders from both communities get to know one another.
Socializing and face-to-face meetings, Seidner said, will build Jewish-Hispanic bonds and lead to alliances on political issues, such as how to make comprehensive immigration reform happen.
“The relationship between the communities will be as strong as the relationship between its members,” said Seidner, who works as a health care consultant.
The Latino-Jewish Coalition began in late 2012 but really took off earlier this year when immigration reform moved to the political front burner. With Republicans in Washington expressing a new willingness to consider changes that had previously been considered out of bounds, there was hope that the time was ripe for major legislation.
Immigration reform advocates got halfway to their goal. Jewish groups like HIAS lobbied hard for the June passage by the U.S. Senate of a major overhaul of the immigration system. That legislation would, among other things, create a path to citizenship for the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But so far, the bill has gotten nowhere in the House. It was put on the back burner amid one crisis after another, including revelations about the extent of the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping program, the prospect of a military strike on Syria, the 16-day government shutdown in October and the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
Nationally, Jewish groups, particularly the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, worked through the fall to revive momentum for the bill and call attention to the issue. But with New Year’s approaching and Congress out of session, Jewish lobbying has become relatively quiet. Some groups, like the AJC, are now focusing lobbying efforts on a new round of Iran sanctions.
Philippe Weisz, managing attorney at HIAS and coordinator of the Greater Philadelphia Jewish Coalition on Immigration, which works with a broader coalition on immigration, said the group plans to meet early next year to devise its strategy. In addition to federal legislation, he said, the coalition will be pushing hard for the passage of the Pennsylvania DREAM Act, which would offer all high school graduates access to in-state college tuition regardless of their immigration status.The measure is currently stuck in the State Senate education committee.
Advocates on this side of the Delaware River are taking heart from the passage earlier this week of a similar law in New Jersey.
Marcia Bronstein, director of the local AJC chapter, said immigration reform was a major topic of discussion every time the Latino-Jewish coalition met. But, she said, the group has been focused as much on building relationships and cultural understanding as it has been on politics. For example, back in October, the group organized a screening at the National Museum of American Jewish History of the film, Sosúa: Make a Better World, a documentary of a musical about Jews in the Dominican Republic.
AJC also showed the film at the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, said Bronstein. In April, the coalition is planning to host a symposium looking at diaspora-homeland ties through both a Jewish and Hispanic lens.
Rev. Luis C. Cortés, an evangelical pastor and leader of the nonprofit Esperanza in North Philadelphia, which works to bolster relations between the Hispanic community and Israel, said he supports such local efforts and has sent a representative to several meetings, but his focus is more global.
“We’re at another place,” he said. “We are national, international. They are talking about doing stuff in this area that is small. But we support it.”
Hernán Guaracao, publisher of the Spanish-language tabloid Al Dia, said that so far, the work of the Latino-Jewish Coalition hasn’t resonated in Philadelphia’s Hispanic community.
Bronstein said that when it comes to strengthening Jewish-Hispanic ties, “all the work that is being done is complementary. It all builds on each other.”