Jews reach out to Latino evangelicals seeking allies
By Lilly Fowler, Religion News Service, September 11, 2009
LOS ANGELES—Early on a weekday morning, dozens of Latino evangelical leaders stream into a large church on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Greeting one another in Spanish, they sip coffee and share pastries until they are informed that class is about to begin.
The first course of the day? Hebrew.
They are here as part of a program sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, a global organization that supports Jewish life and promotes pluralism, to teach Latino evangelical leaders about Judaism.
“We started this course three years ago to tear down this wall and construct a bridge,” said Randall Brown, director of interreligious and Israel affairs for the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles chapter, as a group of professionally dressed Latino leaders applauded.
“Who wants to go to the Holy Land?” Brown asked the room full of students. The majority raised their hands.
Brown says his course—“The Essence of Judaism”—breaks down misconceptions evangelical Latinos may have about Jews and builds ties between the two communities. Although the Los Angeles chapter is the only one to offer such a program so far, the organization hopes to expand the course to other places, including New York, Miami and Atlanta.
“They are thirsty for more knowledge of the Hebraic roots of their faith so that they can become better religious leaders,” Brown said.
While Jews have made inroads among evangelicals on Israel, their outreach to Latinos is part of a new push on a rapidly growing group.
Teaching Latino evangelicals about Jewish history may be a key to securing Israel’s political future, according to demographic trends.
Evangelicals are the second largest religious group among Latinos, after Catholics, comprising nearly 15 percent of the population, and even many Latino Catholics are converting to evangelicalism, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center.
As of 2007, there were more than 45 million Hispanics in the U.S. and by 2050, they will comprise 29 percent of the U.S. population, Pew predicts.
And many Latinos view world politics through the lens of their faith.
Hispanic evangelical leaders gather to learn about Judaism at a class in Los Angeles hosted by the American Jewish Committee. Scholars say the rising numbers of Latino evangelicals and their views on Israel are destined to become a factor in Midddle East politics. (PHOTO/RNS/Lilly Fowler)
“The roles Latinos play in U.S. politics and public affairs are deeply influenced by the distinctive characteristics of their religious faith,” the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life wrote in a 2007 reporton Latinos and American religion. “Most Latinos see religion as a moral compass to guide their own political thinking, and they expect the same of their political leaders.”
Brown expects more than 100 Latino evangelicals to participate in the program this year, meeting every month to learn Hebrew, study Jewish history and learn about its culture. For some, the nearly yearlong course will culminate in a trip to Israel.
For others, the highlight of the program will come in a few weeks when they gather with local Jews to celebrate Sukkot, a Jewish holiday that celebrates the biblical account of Israelites wandering through the desert for 40 years and dwelling in huts.
Although for many Latinos the Sukkot celebration will mark the first time they step into a Jewish temple, Brown said he knows firsthand Latino evangelicals’ zeal for the Holy Land.
Brown says he first noticed the connection Latino evangelicals had to Israel when he visited their churches. Many hung Israeli flags outside of their buildings and incorporated Hebrew in the names of their congregations.
Evangelical Latinos, Brown said, are “enamored with Jewish culture.”
Gaston Espinosa, a professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College, said the affinity Latino evangelicals feel for Israel can be explained by their reverence of the Bible and its prescription for the apocalypse.
“It’s just part of their spirituality,” Espinosa said. “The Jewish people are part of God’s economy.”
Many evangelicals—including Latinos—view the Jews’ habitation of Israel as the fulfillment of a plan God outlined in the Bible and a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus.
Combining biblical prophecy with practical politics, in recent years American evangelicals have become some of Israel’s staunchest supporters and a group to be reckoned with. Scholars say Latino evangelicals’ role in Middle East politics is likely to grow for some time to come given their growing numbers and religious zeal.
Espinosa sees the American Jewish Committee’s program as a way to reach out to two powerful voting blocs—evangelicals and Latinos.