Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, October 14, 2009
American Jews Court Hispanic Evangelicals
By Tony Castro
The idea of Francis Siciliano learning Hebrew, studying the Torah and observing Jewish services in a synagogue doesn't seem out of the ordinary on the Westside of Los Angeles.
Except that Siciliano is pastor of a Latino evangelical church in North Hollywood whose lively, born-again Christian services bear a sharp contrast to the ages-old traditions of Judaism.
"To the outsider, it may seem like a case of strange bedfellows," says Siciliano, pastor of Ministerios Fe y Esperanza Church. "Certainly we believe in Christ and what we share is that we believe in the same God they believe in, the maker of heaven and earth.
"That's what the Bible tells us, and we do not believe there is any border separating us and keeping us from being one with the other."
Those are golden words to the American Jewish Committee, the global organization that in recent years has been promoting ties to Hispanic evangelicals and for whom the growing presence and increasing political influence of Latino evangelicals is a treasure trove for securing the future of Israel.
"This is part of our expanding efforts to find common ground, share our cultures and show our love for the state of Israel," said Seth Brysk, Los Angeles regional director of the American Jewish Committee.
As the fastest growing group among an already important political bloc, Latino evangelicals could become a key ally to Israel's cause in Washington, where America's Middle East policy
Advertisement is always a priority for American Jewish organizations.
"Latino evangelicals could well be one of the ways that American Jews help cement a positive U.S. foreign policy position toward Israel in the years to come," says Jorge Garcia, professor of Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge.
On Thursday night, several hundred Latino evangelical ministers and their families waved miniature white and blue Star of David flags in one hand and in the other hand symbols of Sukkot, the eight-day Jewish pilgrimage festival, at Sinai Temple in Westwood.
Earlier, Jewish musicians had serenaded the Latino visitors with songs in Hebrew and Spanish as they feasted on Sukkot foods in the Sukkah, a wooden slat structure built for the holiday.
The Latino evangelicals were there to celebrate the religious event with members of the temple's congregation as part of an ongoing dialogue between both communities.
"We have many things in common," said Tony Solorzano, one of the Los Angeles evangelical ministers at the Sukkot celebration. "(This) program has opened up our community to Jewish culture and people and strengthened our community's commitment to Israel."
Jewish leaders who have organized the dialogue are quick to point out the logic in trying to woo support from Latino evangelicals.
Los Angeles County alone is home to more than 5,500 Latino Pentecostal congregations.
Nationally, at least 8 million Americans identify themselves as Latino evangelicals. Demographic experts estimate that by 2025, Latinos will compose almost 19 percent of the country's population.
A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center also documents a strong allegiance by Latino evangelicals toward Israel.
Some 62 percent of Latino evangelicals support a strong U.S. position in favor of Israel over the Palestinians, the study found, which is almost double the support for Israel among Hispanics generally and even exceeds the support for Israel among non-Hispanic evangelicals.
"Israel was our first home," Aaron Morales, pastor of Christian Adonai Church in Van Nuys, "and it's still our home.
"There is more that unites evangelical Christian and Jews than divides us."
Politically, say experts, Latino evangelicals are a phenomenon of the large missionary work by Protestants in Central America as well as among Hispanics in the U.S. paired with the attention paid all evangelicals during George W. Bush's presidential campaigns.
"They fell in love with this George Bush, man of God defending the family from the allegedly gay agenda, abortion and the additional hook of the faith-based initiatives," said Garcia, the CSUN professor.
"The Jewish community, the Israeli lobby picked up on the fact that here you've got a bloc that they can garner support from, particularly (being) ripe for learning about Judaism because the evangelicals are so scriptural based."
In the last three years, several hundred Latino evangelical pastors have gone through the interfaith, intercultural program that is the brainchild of Randall Brown, director of interreligious and Israel affairs for the American Jewish Committee's Los Angeles chapter.
Brown wanted to bridge the historical gap that has existed between Jews and Hispanics - a gap marked by some degree of anti-Semitism because many Latino immigrants have little exposure to Jews in their native countries.
When he began visiting Latino Pentecostal congregations in Southern California three years ago, Brown said he was surprised by displays of Star-of-David flags, prayers for peace in Israel, and Hebrew in the names of many evangelical churches.
"Many were enamored with Jewish culture," said Brown, a bilingual rabbinical student who began teaching a course in Spanish to Latino evangelical pastors called "Essence of Judaism."
Since that time, Brown has taken three groups of Latino evangelical pastors to Israel and organized Sukkot celebrations between Hispanics and Jews.
Siciliano, among the recent graduates of Brown's program, said he has been passing on what he learned to his congregation and is planning a trip to Israel next year.
"We are pastors who believe in the Bible, of which much is based in Israel, and the God of Israel is our true God as well," says Siciliano. "So we are studying (Judaism) so that we can understand the prophesies, the promises and other important things that we need to know.
"We love Israel because the Bible says that we should love Israel and that we should listen to Israel so that we too can share in its peace."
Tony Castro email@example.com
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