Mariano Moshe Otero grew up struggling to understand both his faiths.
By Sandra Hernandez
Posted March 11 2005
“We were brought up in a Christian home but knowing we were Cuban Jews,” said Otero, 43, a former Evangelical minister who is now pursuing rabbinical studies in Miami.
“It was very confusing, but now I understand this was part of the experience many Latin Jews have about their faith and their place in the community. It isn’t always easy being a Hispanic Jew,” said Otero.
According to figures released in the mid- to late 1990s, the most recent available, more than 9,500 Latin Jews were living in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami.
A new study, set for release later this month, uses figures that are significantly higher, said Sheskin.
“I can tell you the numbers are up, and I suspect this is being driven by the arrival of Latin American Jews,” said Sheskin, who declined to provide specific data.
Hispanic Jews remain a minority within both their faith and in Latin America, where they have, at times, faced anti-Semitism and ugly reminders of the past. In Buenos Aires, home to the largest Jewish community in Latin America, 29 people were killed when the Israeli embassy was bombed. Two years later, 95 people died in a bombing of a Jewish community center.
Hispanic Jews trace their roots to many countries, but the oldest go back to Spain. In 1492, the Spanish crown ordered them to convert to Catholicism. Those who openly refused were expelled. Others fled to Portugal and later to Latin America.
Many who converted practiced their faith clandestinely and are sometimes referred to as “Crypto Jews.” Those suspected of practicing Judaism were persecuted during the Inquisition, when thousands were killed. Many survivors practiced Christianity publicly, but quietly observed their faith at home.
Latin American Jews who arrive in Florida are putting down roots in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Their presence is another reminder of the demographic changes that are taking place at temples and synagogues across the region.
Last month, the United Jewish Community of Broward County began an outreach program to Latin Jews. It is putting together a database to track Hispanic Jews in the county, according to Anita Lapco, the group’s new Latin relations coordinator.
“This outreach effort really reflects the growth in the number of Jews who have come from places like Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina,” said Lapco, who moved last year from Caracas to Aventura. “Right now we don’t even really know that much about them, just that they are here, so this is the first step in getting a better sense of this community.”
Local temples are adapting services that reflect the new face of Judaism.
“We are trying to set up a Passover Seder in Spanish,” said Otero, who attends the Hollywood Community Synagogue. “This is about creating a comfortable environment, because you feel differently when you are around people who speak your own language, even though this is America and we must learn to speak English.”
Like Otero, the majority of South Florida’s Hispanic Jews are Cubans who settled in Miami during the early 1960s.
He was among those photographed for “Cuban Jews in South Florida: An Intimate View,” an exhibit on display at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The exhibit is expected to travel to the United Jewish Community in Broward. Photographer Randi Sidman-Moore spent more than four years on the project. The exhibit includes more than 30 images, ranging from the ordinary moment when a Cuban Jewish family gathers for a meal of plantains, beans and rice, to the extraordinary instant when an 8-day-old boy is circumcised at a bris.
The show reflects a growing interest in Hispanic Jewish life and the complicated stories told by some like Otero. Like many Jews from throughout Latin America, they shrouded their faith in secrecy, fearing prejudice.
The programs sprouting up in South Florida are helping Hispanic Jews adapt to life here and find a cultural voice.
“Our issues aren’t so much language, because, for example, in Venezuela services are in Hebrew. But we will try and help create a sense of community and put many in touch with the social programs available to them, or even just getting in touch with others who are like them,” Lapco said.
Indeed, older Hispanic Jews insist newcomers face a far different transition, thanks to a strong religious and social network already in place.
“It is very different now for those who arrive,” said Bernardo Benes, who was born in Cuba and helped establish the Cuban Hebrew Congregation after arriving in Miami in 1960. “The local Jewish community didn’t really pay much attention when we arrived and we struggled to find our place. Now there are temples and groups who can help them.”
Moreover, others said these later arrivals are often familiar with life in Florida.
“Many of those coming over are already familiar with Miami or other parts because they have businesses. In some cases, some have second homes here,” said Rafael Kravec, president of the American Friends of Peres Center for Peace Inc., a Miami-based group.