New coalition aims to benefit both Latinos and Jews

NEW YORK — Rabbi Marc Schneier felt snubbed last summer when the Congressional Black Caucus held a retreat with the Asian American and Latino caucuses, and didn't invite Jewish members of Congress.

"Why should the Jews just sit by and be left out?" Schneier asked, "We're a minority," too.

That's why the organization Schneier heads, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding — which has 13 years of experience fostering inter-group ties — is trying to expand its operations, especially in the field of Latino-Jewish relations.

So, too, is the Latino-Jewish Leadership Council, which was created at the first-ever Latino-Jewish Summit in March 2001.

As the number of U.S. Latinos grows, members of the council say it makes sense to link Jewish political experience with Latino demographic influence.

"Hispanics and Jews have been working together for many years, but only in an informal way," says Dina Siegel Vann, director of United Nations and Latin American affairs at B'nai B'rith International. B'nai B'rith is one of the leading forces on the council, which is headed by 15 board members.

Five spots on the board will be held by representatives from national Latino organizations. Five are held by national Jewish organizations — B'nai B'rith International, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and most likely Hillel and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The remaining five seats will be reserved for individual leaders.

Council members agreed at the summit to establish committees in four major policy areas: education, economic development and philanthropy, foreign affairs and immigration and media images.

With the council's official launch not scheduled until February 2003, many of the campaigns are still in the planning stages.

The AJCommittee has suggested an organizing model similar to that used by the Polish American-Jewish American Council, which connects local groups across the country via regular conference calls and e-mail. The council's member organizations are headquartered in different locations, some in Washington, New York or Los Angeles.

The Leadership Council will be able to dictate policy initiatives from the top down to its national membership bases.

The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding plans to open a Washington office by next summer to focus primarily on Capitol Hill, working directly with legislators in the Hispanic and black caucuses.

Working together on a leadership level will allow Latinos and Jews to mutually support each other on foreign policy concerns: Latino leaders say they are willing to support Israel in exchange for Jewish support for economic development aid to Latin America.

Now is a critical time for strategic political alliances between two groups that have not interacted much in the past. Jewish intergroup relation efforts usually have focused on the black community, Vann said.

But in the "last decade, we have seen a demographic explosion" of the Hispanic population — they currently are the largest minority in the United States, numbering over 35.5 million, according to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute — and now "is an adequate time to reach out," Vann said.