Connecticut Latino leaders visit the “real” Israel
By Cindy Mindell
NEW HAVEN – Two Latino leaders from Connecticut were among 22 community leaders from the Los Angeles and New York tri-state areas who set out to experience the “real” Israel last month, as part of the Community Leaders Study Tour to Israel, co-sponsored by the Israeli consulates in Los Angeles and New York, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The week-long trip was designed to introduce Israel to non-Jewish community leaders from both coasts.
The Connecticut participants were Dr. Wilfredo Nieves, president of Middlesex Community College, and Angel Fernandez-Chavero, senior philanthropic officer of the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven.
Nieves was recommended by Robert Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT). The two have served together for nearly a decade on the board of the Community Renewal Team, an anti-poverty agency in greater Hartford. Nieves has served for the last 10 years as president of Middlesex Community College in Middletown, and was recently appointed as president of Capital Community College in Hartford.
Fernandez-Chavero was recommended by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. A longtime community leader involved in local politics and non-profit organization, Fernandez-Chavero serves as co-chair of the JCRC’s immigration committee, working closely with the JCRC on immigration reform, ethnic profiling, human rights, and related issues, says director Lauri Lowell.
“In terms of Jewish community relations, it’s important to recognize that the growing population in the U.S. is Latino,” Fishman says. “I was thrilled to see that the Israeli consulate understands the importance of the Latino community in the U.S. and wants to bring their leaders to Israel. We were delighted that they chose the two Latino leaders from Connecticut and we believe it will help build a connection with those communities.”
Nieves says that what he learned from the journalists, government officials, and scholars who met with the group gave him a different perspective from what U.S. media portray.
“I was struck by how Israelis from diverse backgrounds strive to create a place where people live in harmony,” he says, as expressed by Knesset members Shlomo Neguse Molla, an Ethiopian native, and Nadia Hilou, the first female Christian Arab-Israeli to win a seat.
“It was a tremendous experience in many ways,” Nieves says. “I was able to visit religious sites important to me as a Catholic. It was an opportunity to get a better understanding of the people of Israel and the global Jewish community.”
For Nieves, one of the most moving experiences was upon arrival, when the group spent Friday afternoon in the Old City of Jerusalem and at the Kotel, then came together for a rooftop Shabbat dinner to share their experiences.
“The purpose of the trip was to educate and expose us to the full picture of what Israel is – the good, bad, and ugly – and I give the organizers a lot of credit for that,” Fernandez-Chavero says. “The newspapers and TV can form my thinking; all you see is the one-dimensional clash of sides and perspectives. As usual, the question is more complex than we think. I was surprised, for example, that Likud, Kadima, and Labor are at a consensus and are now willing to trade land for peace. When even Netanyahu is willing to say it publicly, it’s a huge development. The fact that many Israeli Arabs are very loyal to the state, live in peaceful coexistence, and want to work and prosper, says a lot about the fully functioning democracy that Israel is.”
In preparation for the trip, Fernandez-Chavero researched the historical connections between the Jewish and Latino cultures, focusing on Maimonides as the subject of his introduction speech to the group.
“Maimonides was one of the greatest philosophers and doctors of the Middle Ages, but because he was a Spanish Jew, he was also instrumental in forming Spanish culture, along with the other scholars of the time,” Fernandez-Chavero says. “Without him, we wouldn’t have Latino culture. Despite what happened in 1492, there are real links between us that we shouldn’t forget we have.”
Both men were impressed with the diversity of Israeli society.
“We talk about diversity in the U.S. but don’t necessarily see it in the Jewish community here,” says Nieves. “I thought of Israelis as being mostly of European origins, and then I met an Ethiopian Jew and Jews from Arab countries.”
“I was surprised at how much Israel is like much of the rest of the world,” Fernandez-Chavero says. “It’s very European-influenced, and you feel the strength of Hebrew language and culture; I expected to hear more in English. At the same time, the diversity of the country hit me: anyone in Israel might be assumed to be Jewish. What I loved was that when I was alone, everyone spoke Hebrew to me.”
For Fernandez-Chavero, highlights of the trip included “the overwhelming beauty of the country and the depth of history,” he says. “I’m not always patient with the hard core of any faith, and yet the most moving spiritual experience I had was at the Western Wall, watching the Haredi men sing and dance with joy and faith, clearly understanding the presence of the Divine.”
The group left Israel shortly before the flotilla incident.
“I got a sense of why Israelis are so protective, and it’s unfortunate how such an event is portrayed,” Nieves says. “Having just visited Israel, I wanted to hear more, and I am now more conscious before taking a side. I am much more cautious than I may have been before.”
“The trip strengthened my resolve to learn more about other peoples and cultures and be stronger in communicating that knowledge,” Fernandez-Chavero says. “It’s all about sharing the full story of any issue or subject you learn about.”
“I felt very safe and secure, and wasn’t concerned about my well-being,” Nieves says. “There’s a richness of diversity that goes beyond the media. People are living together. Yes, there are tensions and they’re trying to make the best of it and address the challenges.”