Spicy Texas Passover at UT-Austin

Mariachi Exodus: Students at UT-Austin’s 2013 Seder enjoy a Haggadah and music.
Mariachi Exodus: Students at UT-Austin’s 2013 Seder enjoy a Haggadah and music.

By Bridget Kevane

Published March 24, 2014.

Passover at the University of Texas at Austin this year will feature matzo with a hint of jalapeño. The Haggadahs will be in Hebrew, English and Spanish. The celebration will feature the sounds of a mariachi band, and the taste of guacamole will replace the more familiar maror and charoset. If past years are any indication, the March 26 seder at Hillel will draw more than two hundred participants.

But the gathering of Jewish and Latino students is more than just a reason to celebrate their respective cultures. Among the guests will be Carlos Spektor, a Jewish attorney in El Paso who founded Mexicanos en Exilio (Mexicans in Exile), a non-profit that provides free legal defense and support to Mexicans seeking political asylum in the U.S., and Harvey Burg, an attorney who fought for civil rights alongside African Americans during the 1960s. Additionally, several undocumented students will share stories about their fragile existence on campus.

Similar scenes of Jews and Latinos coming together are playing out at universities across the nation. UT-Austin, the University of California at Irvine and the University of Pennsylvania are just a few campuses where Latino-Jewish student groups have been formed. In Tucson, Arizona there is even a Jewish-Latino Teen coalition run by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. This is the third year for the Latino-Jewish Freedom Seder, sponsored by the Latino Jewish Student Coalition at UT-Austin.

“Groups that have a similar cause or ideology can act together, because one big voice can help create change,” said Deborah Kolton, a Guatemalan Jew and a member of the coalition.

There is a long history of American Jews and Latinos working together, most visibly during the 1960s, when Jews joined César Chávez in his fight for farmer’s rights. Héctor Calderón, a professor and former director of the César Chávez Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that Chávez’s speechwriter and personal aide was Marc Grossman, and that the first vice president of the United Farm Workers union, which Chávez co-founded, was Irv Hershenbaum. Both were Chávez’s longtime friends.

But, according to Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee and Michael Salberg, director of International Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, a shift occurred in the early 2000s. For Siegel Vann, it occurred when the Census Bureau released figures showing the rapid growth of the Hispanic community. They had grown by more than 50 percent since 1990, from 22.4 million to 35.3 million in 2000. Today they are more than 50 million and represent 16% of the American population.

For Salberg the watershed moment came with the results of their 2002 ADL survey on anti-Semitism in America. The survey, which polled 1,000 adults, showed that 35% of the Hispanic community showed high levels of anti-Semitic beliefs; amongst foreign-born Hispanics the percentage was higher at 44%. “It was at that point,” he says, “that we institutionally made a commitment to treat the outreach to Hispanics as a strategic priority.” Both the ADL and the AJC made it a point to begin more productive partnerships with Latino organizations. For example, the AJC partnered with the National Hispana Leadership Institute to create the Building Latino-Jewish Bridges on Campus Program. The student coalition at UT-Austin is a result of those efforts. The ADL, in turn, has partnered with the League of United Latin American Citizens to strengthen overall Jewish Latino relationships.

Tracy Frydberg, who founded the Latino Jewish Student Coalition at the University of Texas, Austin, said, “I had no real preconceived notions of the Latino community before starting the coalition, but now I have developed a strong appreciation for the community’s rich culture and history, and am now invested in advocating for issues on the Latino agenda.”

Today the coalition, with close to fifty active members (20 percent of them Latino Jews), meets twice a month to discuss both domestic and international events including the role of Hillel, free speech and Israel, and the human rights abuses of the Venezuelan dictatorship. They watch movies like Reportero, the 2013 documentary about the risks of being a journalist in Mexico (more than 50 journalists have been murdered by drug cartels since 2006). And they do quite a bit of baking. For Purim, the group will make empanadas and hamantaschen while sharing bagels, lox and mimosas. Even when they are not meeting officially as a club, they get together to cook, according to Frydberg. “We’ll have an untraditional Shabbat with challah and tortillas, baba ghanoush and salsa,” she said.

But the informality often gives way to discussion of more pressing issues. Last fall, the Young Conservatives of Texas advertised “Catch an Illegal Immigrant,” a game where members of the club walked around campus wearing t-shirts labeling them as an “illegal immigrant.” Any student who caught the “illegal” student and brought them to the club’s table would be rewarded with a $25 gift certificate. Bill Powers, the President of UT-Austin, condemned the activity and the Young Conservatives called it off saying they were afraid of retaliation. Members of the Latino Jewish student coalition responded by joining forces with the Latino Leadership Council and University Leadership Initiative. A counter-protest was organized where those students who wanted to show solidarity were encouraged to wear white T-shirts with the label “undocumented” written on the shirt and they participated in a training session on how to respond to such situations in the future.

As they’ve become a closer and developed closer friendships, they have started to discuss once forbidden topics such as stereotypes they may attribute to each other and their communities. Maria Renteria, the new co-president (along with Evan Berkowitz), comes from a very traditional Catholic Mexican home. “My parents,” she says, “never talked about Jews. I asked my mom if she knew of any Jews in Mexico City, since it has one of the largest Jewish populations in Latin America. She did not know of any, and the only thing she knew about Jews was what her mother told her, ‘No son Católicos y no creen en la Virgen María’” (“They are not Catholics and they do not believe in Virgin Mary.”).

Renteria worried that Jews had similar stereotypes about her community, like “Latinas getting pregnant young or that all Mexicans were illegal.” With aggressive laws in states like Arizona, where police officers are allowed to ask about immigration status during stops, and at a campus with many undocumented students, these issues hit close to home. “Through the coalition,” Frydberg explained, “I have had the opportunity to learn first-hand about the struggles undocumented students and families have had to face.”

The meeting of the two communities has proved eye-opening for both sides. “I have found that the majority of Latinos, especially on my campus, have very little knowledge or connection with the Jewish community,” says Berkowitz. And what they see in the news is not all positive. He says, “On Israel, they know what they see in the news. But many of them have never had the opportunity to interact with Jews.”

Renteria says she supports Israel. “I understand that Jews have a history of being persecuted,” she said, though she is troubled by issues associated with what she calls the “occupation,” such as the separation barrier on the West Bank and travel restrictions for Palestinians. The issues resonate given the immigration debate in the U.S. and the wall going up on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Immigration and Israel are the causes that Frydberg, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor on one side of her family, is the most passionate about. Her grandmother was born in Mexico after being denied entry to the United States. For these reasons, Frydberg sees comprehensive immigration reform as an issue Jews should rally behind. “This is an issue that the Jewish community ought to identify with as we are also an immigrant community who came to this country fleeing from persecution and in search of a better life for our families.”

And yet, though it seems like the dots can or should be easily connected between the two communities’ common causes — immigration, persecution, prejudice — Berkowitz, the other co-president of the coalition, says that he still gets the “raised-eyebrow” look from fellow students who can’t figure out what Latinos and Jews have in common nor why they would ever join forces. There is still a lot to be done. Evan is not only the co-president of the LJSC, but, as he says, the only “white person” on the Latino Leadership Council at UT-Austin.

It is perhaps fitting that this collaboration should be taking place at the Schusterman Center at UT-Austin. As Robert Azbug, the director, noted, the center has close ties to Latin America, and houses one of the most important Latin American archives in the nation. “When we founded the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies in 2007,” he says, “one of the great contributions I thought we could make would be to be pioneers in the comparative study of Jews and Jewish life in the Western Hemisphere, where today more Jews reside than in Israel, and interact with a variety of dominant cultures. We could do this especially well for Latin America, where the university’s resources are second to none. Communities in the Americas are, along with Israel, shaping the future of Jewish life.”

The center has approached this goal through teaching, public programming, research, and student activities, while supporting and encouraging student projects such as the Latino Jewish Student Coalition. Latinos are taking notice as well. Renteria confesses that the first time she went to the Jewish Center, she remembers wishing that there was a Latino center on campus with similar resources to what Hillel provides. “I remember thinking of all the typical stereotypes that I have heard about Jews but I only felt admiration that they were a successful minority who had been able to preserve their cultural identity.”

Despite the show of goodwill on several campuses, there are sobering facts to consider. The 2011 Foundation for Ethnic Understanding survey showed that Latinos overall believe that the U.S. is “too supportive” towards Israel and both the FFEU and the 2013 ADL poll found that anti-Semitism, though declining, persists within Latino communities, especially among foreign born Hispanics. There are also plenty of Jews that do not believe in immigration reform, such as Steven Steinlight, once the National Affairs Director for the AJC and who is now a Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Immigration Reform. Steinlight, in a 2011 blog post, candidly says that he broke the Jewish establishment’s “informal code of silence” by publicly stating that American Jewish political power would be completely eliminated by what he calls “massive illegal immigration.”

Still similar political alliances have been sparked on other campuses. Jonathan Ludin, who founded the Alianza (alliance) coalition at University of Pennsylvania in 2003, hosted discussions on immigration reform, Israel, voting politics and healthcare issues. But the group’s ultimate goal, like UT-Austin, was “to build relationships amongst both communities and address common concerns,” he said. Mexican-style Shabbats with velitas and enchiladas, museum trips, community outreach and just simple get-togethers were the building blocks for these relationships. Johnny Irizarry, who is the director of Casa Latina at U Penn said the coalition disbanded because it lacked a special student leader or group of students to keep it going. But he feels that the time is right to revive the Alianza group. “We have Panamanian Jews and Peruvian Jews,” says Irizarry, “and they can bring a lot to our Latino students.”

The alliances have generated friendships and understanding, even marriage. (Ludin married a Latina he met from his student days in Alianza). “Bringing two people together to learn about one another over music and food and stories is also really fun,” said Frydberg. “It has been very exciting for me to see these two communities grow in our understanding and appreciation for each another in the last couple years and I’m looking forward to finding new ways to deepen and expand this relationship to other campuses.”



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