Seeing the Future, Israel and U.S. Jews Court America’s Hispanics

At a Queens church, evangelical Latinos declare their love for Israel. In the meantime, mainstream groups are cooperating on issues like affordable housing, criminal-justice reform and immigration.

Adriana Alvarez, 28, of Detroit, fires up the crowd on 'A Day Without Immigrants,' February 16, 2017.
Todd McInturf / Detroit News via AP

NEW YORK It was perhaps the unlikeliest setting in which the Chabad anthem “Moshiach, Moshiach” has ever been heard. An eight-piece band and backup singers, accompanied by three ritual dancers, performed the song with a hint of a salsa beat at the King Jesus International Ministries Church in Queens.

It was the recent Night to Celebrate Israel at the Hispanic evangelical church, which sits on a hard-luck stretch of Astoria across from an automotive repair place and down the block from a “gentlemen’s club.”

But for all the quotidian disrepair outside the church’s doors, inside the spirit was high and the energy even higher. Blue and purple lights splashed color onto the walls of the large hall, while church guards whispered into earpieces and Israeli plainclothes guards stood near Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York.

“I come as a Latin brother,” said Dayan, who was born in Argentina and spoke entirely in Spanish, his words translated into English by an interpreter. Dayan, who has publicly described himself as nonreligious, spoke his hosts’ language in more ways than one, threading his speech with references to the prophets.

When Dayan is home in the West Bank settlement Ma’aleh Shomron and looks out over nearby vineyards, “I know it’s the realization of the prophecy of Jeremiah,” he told the crowd. Dayan is a former chairman and representative to foreign governments of the Yesha Council of settlements.

“Every day we realize the prophecies of the prophets of Israel. Unfortunately, in universities and other places, there are those who want to interfere with God’s decree. But I have no doubt who will prevail,” he said to “amens” and applause. The Celebrate Israel night was part of the government’s campaign to build relationships with the American Hispanic community. It is, Dayan told Haaretz, “my number one non-Jewish priority in my mission here.”

Dayan and his government aren’t alone in working to cultivate those relationships. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was a cosponsor of Israel Night, and centrist U.S. Jewish organizations have been increasing their work among Latinos.

Rev. Mario Bramnick at the podium, ritual dancers and the band behind him, at the King Jesus International Ministries Church in Queens, New York, March 2017.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

The shared goal? To create friends and allies for Israel and build mutually supportive relationships in the United States. “Latinos are the fastest-growing community in this country, and in 2060 ... more than 30 percent of the American electorate will be Latino,” Dayan said. “Israel will not be able to maintain the level of support it has in American society if it neglects a third of society.”

The 2000 U.S. census “revealed that Latinos are the fastest-growing minority in this country,” said Dina Siegel Vann, the Mexico City-raised director of the American Jewish Committee’s institute for Latino and Latin American affairs. Before that there was indifference. “As Latinos started becoming more visible politically and people started talking about awakening the sleeping giant with incredible electoral potential, Jewish groups started paying attention,” she said.

As she put it, “We want Latinos to understand what are the issues that are on the Jewish agenda. They are going to be voting, making decisions about things that are important to us. We want to make sure that they are sensitized. We work with diplomatic corps here advocating for a strong trilateral relationship between the U.S., Latin America and Israel.”

Beware the immigration agents

U.S. Jewish groups focus heavily on domestic issues, with the aim of galvanizing Jewish support for Hispanic immigrant communities and harnessing Latino Americans’ rising political power to benefit Jewish concerns in the long term.

Jewish community relations councils are the North American community’s intergroup relations specialists, working with Christians and Muslims, blacks and Hispanics, and other minority communities.

The Boston council, for example, is working on affordable housing, criminal-justice reform and of course immigration issues with the local Latino community, said Nahma Nadich, its associate director.

People dancing and waving Israeli flags while singing Hebrew songs at
the King Jesus International Ministries Church, Queens, New York, March 2017.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

As area churches prepare to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, synagogues are helping with efforts like donating bedding and clothing or driving children to school. Members from about 10 area synagogues were trained last week in rapid response to help undocumented immigrants when immigration agents arrive at the door.

“This network has allowed people to put their Jewish values to work at a time when this country is in a political crisis, on themes that are so familiar to us. It is very powerful,” Nadich said.

The American Jewish Committee recently launched the Latino-Jewish Leadership Council with 35 high-powered members like Henry Cisneros, a former chief of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. They met for the first time on March 1. The focus will be immigration reform, hate crimes and foreign policy with Latin America and Israel, Siegel Vann said. Members plan to meet soon with members of Congress and the Trump administration.

Her department has staff in Washington, Los Angeles, Miami and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Anti-Semitism tops the council’s agenda, said member Alejandra Castillo, who grew up in Queens and the Dominican Republic and headed the Obama administration’s Commerce Department’s minority business development agency.

“We want to make sure there are other voices” beside the Jewish community’s “speaking up about anti-Semitism. Latinos can add to that” in the Spanish-language media, Castillo said, adding that groups like the American Jewish Committee have been key partners in the Hispanic community’s fight to obtain rights for immigrants. “We want to make sure we bring these two communities together,” she said.

Leadership trips to Israel

“The Israelis are looking at the same numbers we are, of large and growing Latino populations across the country,” added Michael Miller, the CEO of the New York Jewish community relations council. About 25 percent of New York City is African-American and 25 percent Hispanic, he noted, while Jews are 12 to 14 percent.

“Hispanics do and will hold positions of influence in the City of New York,” he said. “That reality is much greater today than it was 15 years ago . Our attempts to engage them are only going to get stronger.”

The New York council has stepped up its Hispanic focus with leadership trips to Israel, Miller said. Last year it took seven Latino leaders with New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is Jewish. Because Stringer is involved with investing New York City pension funds in Israel, the delegates got to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Nonprofit leaders within the Latino community had the opportunity to hear from the leader of the country and that has carried forward,” Miller said.

The American Jewish Committee also brings Latinos and many others to Israel through its Project Interchange, as do many other Jewish community relations councils.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. visited Israel on an early January 2015 trip paid for by the New York council and met President Reuven Rivlin, who visited Diaz in the Bronx during his first visit to the United States later that month. Rivlin spoke about Latino-Israeli relations to an audience of 150 leaders and members of the Hispanic community.

“It was the first time a president of Israel has made his way up to the Bronx,” Miller said.

Back at that Hispanic evangelical church in Queens, Rev. Mario Bramnick kept things moving as he preached his love for Israel and danced along with revelers waving Israeli flags and dancing to Hebrew songs.

A Trump supporter and president of the Hispanic Israel Leadership Conference, Bramnick worked on the Republican National Committee platform last year and helped get language inserted about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s united capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

After Dayan spoke at Israel Night, Bramnick added: “We pray for Jerusalem, that out of Zion shall come your word. Release your Holy Spirit.”

His voice cracking with emotion, he said to a chorus of amens: “Israel, Israel is God’s first born. We were grafted on .... The time appointed for Zion is now.”

As he put it: “Moshiach is coming. Are you ready? Are you ready? ... It’s a new day.” And the audience responded, “It’s a new day.”

When the band then played Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, some in the audience wiped tears from their eyes.