Jewish-Latinx students find home to celebrate dual identity



December 4, 2020

Princeton University senior Abraham Waserstein remembers going to buy pasta when he was growing up and speaking with shop owners in Spanish. His family Shabbat dinners were filled with conversations in Spanish along with matzo ball soup and plátanitos.

He may be a first-generation American after his parents immigrated to the United States, but he has always felt at home in his South Florida community surrounded by those of similar Latin backgrounds.

As he got older Waserstein embraced his intersecting identities. But often, people don’t recognize that a Jewish and Latinx identity can coexist, he said.

“I think coming to campus, one of my goals was to say, ‘I don’t have to have this identity in different parts of my being, and I could find the space to be able to celebrate intersectionality with other students who share it,’” he said.

Waserstein, 21, reached out to the Princeton Hillel: Center for Jewish Life in fall 2018 for help locating others with these dual identities and to find a way to bridge the two communities.

When he first set out on this mission, he said he wasn’t sure how many students he would be able to find, but he began with a list he received from Hillel of potential leaders and members. Soon enough, he formed and became the first president of the J-Lats, a Jewish-Latinx student organization at Princeton, which has about 30 active members.

J-Lats is one of several Hillel-affiliated organizations across the country that provide space for students who identify as Jewish and Latinx to connect with others who share their dual identity and to spread awareness.

“To be Jewish means so many things and to be Latinx means so many things, so you can imagine what it means to be a J-Lat,” Waserstein said. “It’s just so many different variations and experiences and connections.”

Sophia Goldberg, 19, a junior serving as one of J-Lats’ co-presidents, said she felt more accepted into the Jewish community than the Latinx community during high school because of her skin color. But she said she was sure to check the “Latinx” and “Jewish” boxes when applying for college.

“People didn’t really understand. They were like ‘But you don’t look Mexican. How are you Hispanic?’” she said.

Goldberg, who has descendants from Argentina, said she had a frank discussion with her parents about not letting her skin color stop her from exploring this part of her culture. She added that one of the topics J-Lats has worked to tackle through its “identity panels” is understanding the difference between race and ethnicity and that not everyone will match a “stereotype” of what their skin color should look like because of their ethnicity.

Meanwhile, at the University of Pennsylvania, students have relaunched the Jewish Latinos at Penn group, kicking off events at the start of this calendar year.

Sophomore Andrea Lang-Goldgewicht, 19, the co-president of JELP, said she views the Jewish culture outside the U.S. as different than American Jewish culture, and she wanted to connect with others who had differing experiences when restarting the club. But she said the group is not exclusive to just those who are Jewish and Latinx.

“We’re very welcoming to everyone and anyone who really identifies with it,” she said. “We’ve tried to push that with our club. When we invited everyone, we were like ‘Jewish, Latinos and everyone in between.’ That’s how we phrase it.”

Lang-Goldgewicht said the organization is currently regrouping because of  virtual instruction during the pandemic and finding ways to conduct programs online. She said leaders have discussed starting a mentorship program and getting involved in community service by working with immigrants or low-income Spanish-speaking communities once students can return to campus.

She feels her dual identity brings a uniqueness to her Judaism, and because her local community in Costa Rica is small at about 6,000 people, she has an even stronger connection to her identities.

“I feel like that’s the feeling that a lot of Jewish Latinos have,” she said.

Orit Gugenheim Katz, 22, said she saw a gap to be filled in Columbia University’s Jewish community in representing international Jewish students on campus. Working with Hillel staff, she formed the International Jewish Community to address the needs and experiences of those students.

“In terms of international, we get questions about what that means because if you go back far enough, everyone will be international, so that’s why this is based on self-identifying,” Katz said.

Although it is open to anyone who identifies as an international student, she said the majority of the group’s membership comes from students of Latinx descent. Katz said she was interested in creating the group because she believes her two identities not only can coexist but should interact with each other.

“I could have, and I did, join groups that were just Jewish and just Latino, but I wanted to make them interact because there’s a lot of fruitful connections to be made there,” she said.

Junior Tali Bers, 20, said she has “always” been interested in creating a group for Jewish-Latinx students at Brown University, but the push for her to create one came when she received an email from Princeton’s J-Lats this fall about creating a similar organization. She said she has been working with J-Lats’ leaders as she works to form a group at Brown.

Bers began with a meeting in which prospective members  discussed what types of events they would be interested in. Potential future events include Spanish-speaking practices, discussions about family lineages leading to the United States and guest speakers on the cross-identity.

She and the Princeton group are hoping to form a larger cohort of Latinx-Jewish students because while there may not be many who have both identities at a single university, there are many across the country.

“Having more big, community events is exciting,” she said. “The whole point of this group is to really share our identities and our connections.”