Ernesto and Bely May had a decision to make in 1984. Having come to the United States from Mexico five years earlier, the couple now lived in Washington, where Ernesto May had taken a job at the World Bank. When that job was over, would they return home for good?
The Jewish community in Mexico City was warmer and closer than what the couple found here. But their three U.S.-born children were doing well in school, Ernesto said. The family had friends, a community and a synagogue.
More than 30 years later, the Mays are now longtime Potomac residents.
They are typical of the roughly 200,000 Latin American Jews in the United States, according to a study released April 7 by the American Jewish Committee.
Through focus groups and using a 2013 study of Latino Jews by the Pew Research Center and one from The Steinhardt Social Research Institute’s American Jewish Population Project, AJC found:
• 92 percent of Latino Jews in the United States had a college degree, including 68 percent with a graduate or professional degree.
• Two-thirds of those surveyed made more than $100,000, with 32 percent making more than $200,000.
• This differs significantly from the median household income in the United States, which is $53,046 on average and $39,005 for Latinos, according to the Census Bureau.
• 70 percent of Latino Jews had lived in the United States for less than 20 years, and 87 percent were born outside of the United States.
• The highest percentage of Latino Jews (95 percent) described themselves as “Jewish” first. The next highest was “Latin origin country” (69 percent) and then “Latin American” (51 percent).
Those surveyed included people from ages 22 to 78 who were from 10 countries in Latin and Central America, as well as Jews in the United States who were of Latino descent.
Despite the findings, there is relatively little data on how many Latino Jews are in the country or even how to define a Latino Jew, said Dina Siegel Vann, who headed the study for the AJC.
To determine where this population lived, the AJC convened a series of focus groups consisting of 10 to 12 people in cities with large Latino populations, such as Miami and Houston. (The Washington area was not among them, although it is home to more Latino Jews than all but six states.) They were asked questions about their identity, connection to Latin America and community engagement.
“Two-thirds of the participants were born in Argentina, Mexico or Venezuela,” according to the report. “Though 81 percent are U.S. citizens and 13 percent are permanent residents, ties to their native countries are resilient. So enduring, in fact, that most Latino Jews living in the U.S. do not use the term ‘American’ to identify themselves, but instead refer to their countries of origin.”
“Most Jews came to Latin America after the First World War and a number of societies were taking off after the Mexican Revolution,” she said. “It was a time when the country was rebuilding itself.”
Vann said that in most countries of Latin America, with the exception of Argentina, Jewish communities are small. But historically, they have been part of an intellectual elite class that has always had an “ethics of education.”
“At the same time they were integrating into their own societies they were finding niches where they could be successful,” she said.
Vann fits the profile. Born in Mexico City, she studied at Tel Aviv University and came to the United States in 1996. Since 1999 she has lived in Washington.
“There’s a lot of us because we come to work for the World Bank,” she said. “We come to work for many multilateral organizations.”
Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville has 30 Latino families, said Rabbi Haim Ovadia. The Israeli-born rabbi spent seven years working with the Sephardic community in Bogota, Colombia.
He predicted that the migration of Jews from Latin America to the United States will continue.
“There were times in South America when people moved out because of safety, and now you could say it has to do with anti-Semitism, economic concerns and security,” he said.