En route to Yom Kippur services last year, Yeshiva University senior Ayol Samuels walked through Washington Heights sporting a pair of flip-flops, with a group of sandal-clad shul-goers strolling ahead. On his way, he passed a group of Dominican children congregated together on a nearby stoop.
“Happy Flip-Flop Day!” he remembers them saluting as he strolled by. The Jewish students were not trying to make a fashion statement — rather, they were avoiding leather out of respect for the Jewish Day of Atonement. But this little misunderstanding made Samuels realize just how embarrassingly isolated two communities could be within one shared space.
“When you have such distinct cultures side-by-side, it’s very easy for misunderstandings to come, and after misunderstandings come ill will and a serious divide,” Samuels said. “I think a very easy solution for that is dialogue.”
Yeshiva University has made the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights its home since 1927, training young Jewish men in both religious and secular fields. In recent years, however, the neighborhood has also become home to a huge population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. The YU students and Dominicans occupy apartments on the same streets and shop at the same stores and pharmacies. Yet according to representatives from both communities, the two communities have thus far remained entirely isolated.
“Even though they live one next to each other, they still seem like they’re not,” said Chaira Mejia, a sophomore at City College and employee of Alianza Dominicana, the Washington Heights Dominican community organization. “They just look at each other and that’s it.”
But through a unique partnership and a Dominican-Jewish visit to a museum exhibit, such dialogue is exactly what began this spring.
Under the guidance of Professors Gabriel Cwilich and Freddy Zypman, both from the physics department at Yeshiva College, a small group of Yeshiva honors students took a bus trip with local high school students to an exhibit called “Sosúa: A Refuge for Jews in the Dominican Republic,” which was housed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park through early August. The exhibit chronicled how the Dominican Republic opened its doors to Jews during the Holocaust.
Though both professors are Jewish, Cwilich is originally from Argentina and Zypman is from Uruguay, and their own Hispanic backgrounds made them even more interested in forging a connection with the local community. After visiting the exhibit himself, Cwilich approached Alianza Dominicana and discussed the idea of an integrated venture between Jewish and Dominican students, who would get to know each other by riding a bus and experiencing the museum exhibit together.
In May, 10 students convened for the trip, accompanied by the two professors, as well as Mejia, who represented Alianza and helped translate English to Spanish for some of the high school students.
The exhibit told the story of the unique community of Sosúa, where European Jews settled during World War II. In 1938, then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt prompted the Evian conference, an international assembly that met to discuss how to handle the now homeless European Jewish refugees. Following the conference, the Dominican Republic, ruled by dictator Rafael Trujillo, was one of the only countries to accept the Jewish immigrants, letting in 100,000 refugees. (Trujillo was said to be looking to soften his hard-line image.) Within the community, Jews learned farming and tropical trade techniques from their new Dominican neighbors and could not have been successful without them, said Ilona Moradof, the curator of the exhibit. Though the settlers quickly adapted to their new careers and opened farms and factories, they were able to maintain their Jewish culture and German language, according to Moradof.
“It made us happy to be able to tell a story of people saved in a country where people tell us they never faced anti-Semitism, which is very rare to hear form Jews, even today,” she said. “The Dominicans we spoke to also felt that Sosúa was something special.”
In addition to viewing photographs, the visitors were able to see an original telephone switchboard from the Dominican Republic Settlement Association, a large wooden Chanukah menorah, a cheese mold from the Jewish dairy industry there and many other artifacts, Moradof said. Trade flourished in Sosúa, but most of the Jews emigrated following the war, leaving only a small Jewish community in the town today.
“I think students in particular were surprised about the community in the Dominican Republican — the fact that such a community existed at all,” Zypman said, noting that Jews in South American countries often blend so well into their respective communities that the local population doesn’t necessarily notice or care that they are Jewish. “So when people become aware that there are Jewish communities they are surprised.”
Zypman and Cwilich were happy with the results of the trip and hope that this event serves as a springboard for inter-community mixers in the future. Cwilich already oversees a student-run tutoring program, through which Yeshiva undergraduates tutor local high school students and in this way have become limitedly involved with their neighborhood community.
“These are two communities that share the same neighborhood, the same physical space, and many times they don’t interact with each other as they should,” Cwilich said. “I would like to foster communication between them”
Overall, the Yeshiva participants found real benefit from the trip but felt there should have been more follow-up after the trip, to nourish the budding relationship between the two communities.
“In future events, I would hope to see some sort of follow-up discussion in which students from Yeshiva and the Dominican students can share their thoughts on the issues and try to connect with each other on certain points,” said Samuels, 22, now a Yeshiva alumnus and a medical student in Israel. “I think there’s a lot to learn from each other. For me, one of the things in Yeshiva that was somewhat missing was the lack of interaction with other cultures.”
“I don’t see them coming together on their own, but if some movement goes on to bring both of the cultures together, then it would happen,” Mejia added, explaining that a broader effort by YU and Alianza Dominicana would be more beneficial than one-on-one interactions.
But ultimately, both she and Samuels believe that a partnership between the two groups, both steeped in the immigrant experience, is feasible.
“The story in the exhibit set a great example for Yeshiva University and its relationship with the Dominican community and what it could be — what it should be — the possibility for avenues of dialogue, the possibility of the two distinct cultures benefiting from each other,” Samuels said.