Latina Jew is tapped for a national leadership award

Working in battered women's shelters came naturally for Maria Ramos of Kentfield — after all, she grew up in one.

Ramos' mother — a waitress in a New Jersey jazz club raising three children on her own after the untimely death of her Cuban emigre husband — had a habit of providing a bed for anyone who needed a place to stay. Before too long, battered women from all over the state began arriving at the front door. After several years, Sandra Ramos' shelter became formally incorporated, and her Strengthen Our Sisters program is still going strong.

"One of the important things Judaism espouses is the importance of action, helping and reaching out to others," said the younger Ramos, whose own work helping and reaching out to others recently resulted in her being awarded a 2001 National Hispanic Leadership Institute fellowship. She was one of 20 Latina women nationwide — and one of two Latina Jews — to be so honored. Her mother "is my role model when I think of the principles of Judaism."

Ramos' adulation of her mother as an exemplar of Jewish virtues is more than a little ironic — Sandra Ramos converted to Catholicism in order to marry her husband, Magin.

As a youngster, Ramos did spend a great deal of time with her maternal grandmother, Faye Blumberg, a Soviet expatriate. While proud and aware of her Jewish identity, growing up in an orphanage during the early years of Soviet communism took its toll on Blumberg.

"As a Jew under those circumstances, she was taught that religion is the opiate of the people," said Ramos. "She brought that with her to this country. She had a strong sense of being Jewish, but a weak sense of religion."

With this past, Ramos' road back to Judaism has been a long, winding and, most definitely, unconventional one.

The journey began in the early 1980s, when Ramos enrolled at U.C. Berkeley. As a freshman, she was coincidentally housed in the heavily Jewish Davidson Hall — aka "The Star of David." For the first time in her life, Ramos was surrounded by Jewish friends.

"There was so much they had gone through — bar and bat mitzvahs, celebrating Passover, learning Hebrew — that was not a part of my life. I started to realize there was a lot I was missing," she recalled. "My grandmother had very, very strongly emphasized that I was Jewish. I knew I was, and I knew it meant a lot to her, but I didn't know what it meant to be Jewish."

Ramos took Rabbi Ted Alexander's Introduction to Judaism course at the local Jewish Community Center and enrolled in U.C. Berkeley Hebrew classes.

Recently, in anticipation of her upcoming marriage to her Jewish fiancé, she studied personally with Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Conservative Beth Sholom, reaffirming her Judaism before a beit din (rabbinical court) consisting of Lew and Congregation Kol Shofar rabbis Lavey Derby and Daniel Kohn in February.

"For me, being Jewish is a big part of my identity, but it's only one part," said Ramos, who attends services at both Beth Sholom and Tiburon's Kol Shofar. "I speak Spanish fluently, have lived in Spain, been to Cuba and traveled throughout Mexico. Because of my name, people look at me and perceive me as Latina. Which I am, but only half of me."

While Ramos graduated from the University of Pennsylvania law school and practiced copyright law for a year, her interests took her back home, so to speak, to work in a battered women's shelter.

For the past six years she has served as a consultant to nonprofit agencies, specializing in the areas of conflict resolution, sexual-harassment prevention and multiculturalism. Combining her expertise of multiculturalism and domestic violence, she recently penned a resource book for American judges, called "Cultural Considerations in Domestic Violence Cases."

As a National Hispanic Leadership Institute fellow, Ramos has already traveled to intensive weeklong sessions in San Juan Bautista (near Gilroy), and, in April, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Out of town for Passover, Ramos and fellow Cuban Jew Stephanie Maya of Atlanta attended seders in Boston.

"One of my challenges is integrating who I am into one person and carrying it equally," said Ramos. "Being part of the NHLI is great. There is another woman in there who's Jewish, but if it wasn't for her, it'd be somewhat isolating."

As part of her fellowship, Ramos plans to travel to the San Diego Center for Creative Leadership, head to Washington, D.C. to lobby California leaders, and institute a program aimed at Latina women.

"My goal is to develop a 10-week series giving 25 young Latina girls and women the opportunity to use writing as a medium for leadership and social change," she said. "I'm hoping to have women in the group who are Latina and Jewish so I can offer them the benefits of my experiences and also learn from them and become a subculture of the Jewish community."

Where, however, does one find Latina Jews?

"I have no idea," said Ramos with a chuckle. "Hopefully through this article."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.