hen 14 Boston-area Latinos began their journey to the Holy Land, they didn’t know what to expect. Few knew the history of the 65-year-old country, and some even pictured it as a war zone.
But after a week of walking in Jesus’ footsteps in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Nazareth and meeting with Israelis and Palestinians, many are now looking at the country’s fast growth as a model that could be replicated in the Greater Boston Latino community.
Far from the hardscrabble streets of home, where she serves as executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, Gladys Vega said she immediately felt a close bond with Israeli Jews, who came from dozens of countries beginning in 1948 to help build Israel.
“I think what struck me most was the resilience of the people and the eagerness to work together and empower themselves,” she said. “They aimed for the prize of unity and building a community of Jews and they got it done. We can replicate it.”
Since 2009, the Anti-Defamation League of New England has sponsored trips to Israel for Latino leaders from around the United States, but the recent tour marked the first ADL visit by local neighborhood representatives.
“We really wanted to bring together people who live and work in the same community and give them an opportunity to travel together to Israel for a week and to come back and interact with one another,” said Robert Trestan, ADL New England regional director, who led the trip and also is part of the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, an ADL work group that helps build dialogue between the two ethnic groups.
“A lot of this is about coming together and realizing that we have common goals and if we work together, and if we work in partnership, the potential for progress is tremendous,” said Trestan.
In addition to Vega, local representatives included Nivia Piña-Medina of Woburn and Diana Ubinas and Anthony Guerriero, both of Lynnfield. The trip also included Felix Arroyo, a Boston city councilor; Gorka Brabo, executive director of the Boston-based El Planeta newspaper; Renata Teodoro, Student Immigration Movement lead coordinator; and Gerardo Villacrés, a journalist who also serves as board president of the roundtable.
One of the first places the group visited was the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, which was the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary “Strangers No More.” The K-12 school, where children of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish migrants and refugees from more than 40 countries use Hebrew as a common language, has been awarded Israel’s National Education Prize.
Piña-Medina, who teaches chemistry at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston and also owns two restaurants, said she could relate to the school and its students.
“It’s a safe haven for the undocumented,” said Piña-Medina, who was born in Puerto Rico.
As the group traveled from Tel Aviv to the Sea of Galilee and later to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Ubinas said, the visitors were moved spiritually by the holy sites and by Israelis, many of whom were once part of the Jewish Diaspora. The group visited the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; met with soldiers along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights; visited an Arab-Jewish Community Center in Jaffa; and walked along the sacred Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City before praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and visiting the Western Wall.
The group also met with Palestinian journalist Elias Zananiri, prayed at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and visited Manger Square.
As they traveled, many of the participants had similar reflections and ideas about bringing the New England Latino community closer. “What I felt [in Israel] was a resiliency and an entrepreneurial spirit,” said Ubinas, who grew up in Dorchester and works as a marketing manager for Comcast.
Ubinas has been part of the Latino-Jewish Roundtable for the last three years, participating in discussions about immigration reform. As she toured the holy sites and met with Israelis and Palestinians, she began to dream about creating a closer-knit Latino community back in Massachusetts. One of her goals is to see grass-roots neighborhood groups — which have worked on issues ranging from immigration to jobs programs for Latinos — flourish with proper funding.
“I would like to help all these different [Latino] organizations be self-sufficient. At the end of the day I think we all want to give back to the Hispanic community,” she said.
Since returning, the group has met for dinner and discussed a bill pending on Beacon Hill that would allow undocumented immigrants to receive Massachusetts driver’s licenses.
For Vega, the trip to Israel helped her refocus on building community in Chelsea. She said she could better relate to Jews after the trip to Israel, where she witnessed a people that built a country in a region where they had to fight to survive.
“They’re in a country where they were not wanted and had a lot of challenges,” said Vega, who said the trip inspired her to help recruit a Latino to run for the Chelsea City Council.
“Sometimes you need to go somewhere and see what people are doing and compare your community and see how you can get it done,” she said.
In addition to creating a new awareness about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trestan said the trip also helped foster new relationships that will strengthen Latino-Jewish ties.
“We want to work with the Latino community,” said the Anti-Defamation League regional director.
“A lot of this is about coming together and realizing that we have common goals, and if we work together in partnership, the potential for progress is tremendous.”
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