Ariela Ronay-Jinich
Ariela Ronay-Jinich (Credit: Laura Turbow)

Jewish and Latino? This Bay Area educator has a new group for you.

Ariela Ronay-Jinich was born into a Jewish family that has lived in Mexico for the past 100 years. Many of her ancestors were Russians and Hungarians who had escaped the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s.

Now Ronay-Jinich is a community educator in the Bay Area, where she finds that many Jews, even in such a diverse area, are generally unaware of the robust history of Jews in Mexico and how those Latin-Jewish lives have been shaped, she said.

“Being both Mexican and Jewish is a highly misunderstood identity in the United States,” Ronay-Jinich said in an interview. “People don’t understand how they go together, or include Latinx identities as part of Jewish expressions in our organizations. My experience here has always been: ‘You can be one or the other.’ There just aren’t places that integrate both [identities].”

Ronay-Jinich, 37, is out to change that with a pioneering family engagement program she created. It’s called Olamim, the Hebrew word for “worlds.”  Through activities revolving around nature, culture, service and community-building, Olamim aims to facilitate a means by which families can express, sustain and share the cultural dimensions that are often as much a part of their identities as their Jewishness.

Olamim kicked off in the spring with a farm-based, Spanish-language playgroup “for littles,” followed by a year-round havurah (family group) over the summer. Community programs open to the larger Latino Jewish and Jews of color communities are ongoing.

“There is such a need,” Ronay-Jinich said. “Families like ours — we all feel so alone. I have never, ever seen a single event that brings us together as Latino Jews.”

Ronay-Jinich came to the United States from Mexico City when she was 12. She is married to Oakland-based Dr. David Doostan, a Spanish-speaking Persian Jew who performs with the Bay Area children’s entertainment group Octopretzel. About a year after they had their daughter Alma in 2019, the coronavirus pandemic began wiping out in-person socializing and Jewish celebrations. That’s just about when Ronay-Jinich decided to create Olamim and put out a call for Latino Jewish families.

Ariela Ronay-Jinich and her daughter Alma
Ariela Ronay-Jinich and her daughter Alma

A second havurah for families with children is being formed; the first was limited to six families because of Covid (and had a waitlist). For information on that and other upcoming programs, contact Ronay-Jinich at [email protected].

Gabriela Kipnis, one the first parents involved, describes Olamim on the group’s welcome page as “a niche offering which we haven’t found elsewhere in the Bay Area Jewish community.”

Asked about Be’chol Lashon, the S.F.-based nonprofit that’s a leader in support and programming for Jews of color, Ronay-Jinich said it’s a great organization but didn’t meet her needs.

“I love Be’chol Lashon and have attended their activities. But they have little that is in-person, in the East Bay, and designed for very small children,” she said. What’s more, Ronay-Jinich wants to create “an affinity space” where the flavors of Latino culture can be nurtured in the context of Jewish life.

“We’d love to partner with Be’chol Lashon in the future, and are totally mission-aligned,” she said appreciatively.

The families that participate in monthly Olamim meetings make the call on various issues, such as: Do they want to speak primarily in Spanish? And what forms of cultural expression should be explored?

“This makes the vision and content of our time together a collective endeavor,” said Ronay-Jinich, who expects the havurah to be celebrating holidays, engaging in community service and holding intergenerational retreats in the near future.

“In Mexico, mostly all our activities were intergenerational, and I missed that so much when we moved to California,” she said. “I was always very close to my grandmother.”

There are some 58,800 Jews in Mexico, according to the latest Mexican census, and the Jewish community is considered one of the most active in the world. That still represents a tiny minority (.045 percent) of Mexico’s total population of 130 million.

In Ronay-Jinich’s experience, both Mexicans in Mexico and Mexican immigrants in the United States have never been knowledgeable about the Jewish faith — while Americans often are not aware of the diversity of Mexico itself.

For example, when Ronay-Jinich moved to San Diego with her mother and older sister at age 12, her schoolmates could not make sense of her ethnicity. Petite, fair-skinned, with somewhat light hair and eyes, she was often told that she could not be Mexican because she “didn’t look like one.” Some told her that, all right, if she was Mexican, then she couldn’t be Jewish.

“I felt invisible and impossible, a living contradiction. I was told that I could not be what I was,” she said.

Ronay-Jinich and her sister responded differently to this immigration experience. As they became adults, her sister chose to emphasize her Latin heritage.

In contrast,  Ronay-Jinich said she “went the Jewish route,” eventually becoming a Jewish professional. As an undergraduate student at Brown University, where she earned a degree in education policy and history, she made her first Jewish friends in America.

“My Hillel group was all white, Ashkenazi and East Coast,” she recalled. “They didn’t even realize how narrow their idea of being Jewish was.”

After college, she worked at Camp Tawonga, chiefly in the garden, exploring the connections between Judaism and the natural world. This focus was to become her educational specialty. “When you think about it, most of the major spiritual revelations [in the Torah] came to an individual who was alone, outdoors, in nature,” she said.

After a year of study in Israel, Ronay-Jinich returned to the U.S. and, since 2005, has been creating and directing nature-centric programs for kids and families at Urban Adamah, the Jewish educational farm in Berkeley; Wilderness Torah, an earth-based program in the East Bay where she developed the nature program B’Hootz for K-5 children; and Edah, a Jewish after-school program in Berkeley. She also developed Jewish Outside, a program that has trained more than 70 Bay Area preschool teachers in nature-based Jewish learning, and is on the board of Jewtina y Co., an organization that aims to build Latin-Jewish community and celebrate Latin-Jewish heritage.

Currently, Ronay-Jinich serves as program manager for Project Shamash, a Bay Area–based racial justice initiative of Bend the Arc focused on supporting Jews of color via leadership and racial equity work among Jewish organizations.

In addition to all this — plus motherhood and the as-yet unpaid work of Olamim — her formal education continues: She is working on an M.A. in educational leadership from Mills College in Oakland.

Moreover, her work earned her a $10,000 Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education in 2015.

For Sukkot this year, Olamim partnered with Urban Adamah on a multicultural community experience connecting the Jewish practice of ushpizin — welcoming guests or ancestors into the sukkah — with the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead. Attendees at the event, which was titled “Gathering Ancestral Sparks: A Creative Workshop for Jews of Color and Friends,” could honor a deceased relative by making a nicho, a decorated box altar from the Mexican tradition.

“Day of the Dead [Nov. 1-2] marks a seasonal transition, from summer to fall, and a time of community gathering around the harvest, heading into winter, and honors those who have crossed over from this world,” Ronay-Jinich explained. ”Sukkot is also a harvest festival, in which we come to terms with the impermanence of living things and acknowledge the world of spirit, the invisible as well as the visible. To me, these two traditions have always seemed so similar.”

The poster for the Urban Adamah event included a photo of two women engulfed in glowing orange marigolds, which are a big part of Day of the Dead; the flowers’ intense, spicy scent is imagined to attract the souls of the departed, and their brightness is said to light a path for the dead to return for a visit.

In creating the event, Ronay-Jinich said she was excited for people of all stripes to bring their family lineages, “whether Jewish or not,” into the sukkah.

“These are holidays of inclusion,” she said of Sukkot and Día de los Muertos, “and acts of radical hospitality are encouraged.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.