The Sotomayor Effect


Ever since President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor for a seat on the Supreme Court, Jewish leaders have been speculating about how the appointment of this Bronx-raised Hispanic woman will affect the relationship between the Jewish and Hispanic communities.

In recent years, Latino and Jewish communities around the county have made strides to connect with and learn from each other, in part due to their shared immigrant histories. Sotomayor herself has been on two trips to Israel — in 1986 and 1996 — through the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. That program has brought over 4,500 American leaders and politicians to Israel since 1982, to partake in seminars involving politics, security and health care, according to Ann Schaffer, director of AJC’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism.

By her second trip, Sotomayor was already a federal judge and she was eager to return to the country she found so beautiful.

“This is a woman who was raised by a widowed mother in a Bronx housing project — that is a quintessential immigration success story,” said Josh Norek, cofounder of the Latino-Jewish band called Hip Hop Hoodios and founder of Vota Latino, an organization that encourages young Latino Americans to become politically active.

“[Sotomayor’s story] is very remindful of the people from a few generations before when the Jewish people rose in the Lower East Side,” agreed Gabriel Cwilich, professor of physics and director of Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva College, who is Jewish and Hispanic himself.

To both Cwilich and Norek, Sotomayor’s story speaks to the two communities’ shared immigrant pasts, and they say that the two groups have much to learn from each other.

“Many Latinos are aware of the Jewish immigration experience and how Jews didn’t necessarily arrive to their place in the country overnight,” Norek said. “So you see a lot of the Latino organizations talk to groups like AJC to learn about community building.”

Along with the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the AJC established the National Latino-Jewish Leadership Council in 2003, which serves as a vehicle for communication and collaboration between smaller Jewish and Latino groups, Schaffer said. In light of the small Jewish community in America, it is important for American Jews to form bonds of mutual respect with the Latino communities, which are continually growing and have become a significant percentage of the nation’s population, according to Diane Steinman, director of the New York chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

“Relations between the two communities are good, I think maybe better than ever,” said Moises Perez, president and CEO of the local community group Allianza Dominicana. “There’s been more of an effort in the last few years from both of our communities to come together. When you look at the tri-state area, the size of the Jewish community and the size of the Latino community are pretty comparable. So I think it creates opportunities for taking things to another level.”

In April 2008, the AJC jointly sponsored a trip with Allianza Dominicana to the Dominican Republic town of Sosùa, a community that welcomed Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Europe and helped them adapt to the tropical culture and climate. Though most of these refugees’ descendants have immigrated to the United States by this point, the group was able to meet members from the remaining small Jewish community, as well as Dominican officials and the children of some wartime Sosùans.

“This trip happened in the context of a relationship that AJC had in New York with Dominican leaders, so there was a context for it,” Steinman said. “The partnerships that formed, the collaboration, the sense of neighbor helping neighbor, are one of the great stories beyond Sosùa.”

Since their return last year, leaders from both communities have been pushing to integrate the story of Sosùa into local public school curriculums. At A. Philip Randolph High School in Harlem, one teacher immediately put together a lesson on this historic partnership, and through a project funded by State Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan/Bronx), students conducted research projects.

Such teaching initiatives can help bridge gaps between different cultures, many of which might be caused by lack of awareness, experts agree. While the huge New York Dominican and Miami Cuban communities may now be reasonably familiar with Jewish culture, other groups, such as the small but growing El Salvadorian community in Los Angeles, might be less aware, according to Norek.

And this type of ignorance is certainly a two-way street.

“A lot of the Jewish community’s experience with Latinos might be that my housekeeper or housecleaner or my nanny is Latino,” Norek said, explaining that Jews must try to get to know Hispanic community members beyond the relationship of employee and employer.

At Yeshiva College in Washington Heights, Cwilich is similarly working to connect his Jewish students with the local, predominantly Dominican neighborhood. Last year he pioneered a trip with his students and local high school students to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which was showing an exhibit about Sosùa at the time.

“We are certainly planning to do more activities and reaching out to the community,” Cwilich said. He said he has invited a Latin American scholar — Mariela Dreyfus, who teaches in the master of fine arts in creative writing in Spanish program at New York University — to teach a course this spring at Yeshiva.

Despite growing ties between the Jewish and Hispanic communities here, the relationship has had its tensions, particularly over the issue of low-cost housing in south Brooklyn, home to many chasidic Jews and Hispanics.

One recent problem cited is the immigration case involving the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant case in Postville, Iowa, where former manager Sholom Rubashkin faces 71 counts of harboring and profiting from illegal workers — most from Guatemala or Mexico.

But Norek believes the relationship between the communities is strong enough to overcome such dustups.

And Sotomayor’s appointment — though perhaps not directly affecting the Jewish community in the immediate future — has the power to reinforce bonds of multiculturalism in America’s continued evolution, according to Steinman.

“This outstanding American who is a Latina has an opportunity to have an important impact on the future of our country,” she said. “It’s our obligation as leaders of America’s diverse communities to do our part to ensure that American pluralism — the belief that all communities have a part in American life — is a strength in our country.”