by Bryan Edward Stone, Ph.D.
There is a painting in the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., called “Éxodo” (“Exodus”). Produced in Mexico in 1951, it depicts an undulating line of dark, cloaked figures stretching into the distance. Surrounding them is the barrenness of the desert. A turbulent sky roils overhead in dramatic colors and bold, expressionistic brush strokes. In the foreground, at the head of the endless procession, a Mexican couple walks barefoot, struggling into the wind, the hardship of long travel plain on their faces. He wears tattered clothes, a fist pressed anxiously to his forehead. She is wrapped in a flowing blanket, whose folds suggest the form of an infant in her arms beneath it. Her small, pretty face is the very picture of worry.
This image is striking and powerful. By presenting the migration of Latinos in a way so reminiscent of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, the artist identifies their migration with an ancient, universal experience. These aren’t “illegals,” but just another multitude on a desperate flight to freedom...
Rabbi Zielonka resolved that the best course was to encourage the immigrants who arrived in Mexico to settle there permanently. He estimated Mexico’s entire native Jewish population at just 75 families, and the influx could strengthen and diversify that small community, while providing refuge for European Jews unable to gain entry to the United States.
The rabbi enlisted the help of B’nai B’rith, the international fraternal society in which he was an active member, and the organization committed $20,000 to establish a bureau in Mexico City to provide the immigrants with emergency relief, Spanish language instruction, and loans to start businesses and to bring their families to Mexico.
Hollace Ava Weiner, whose book, “Jewish Stars in Texas,” describes Rabbi Zielonka’s Mexican project in depth, summarized the new community’s eventual success. “As Jews became self-sufficient, they repaid B’nai B’rith more than $230,000. They formed their own loan societies, as well as Jewish clubs, Yiddish schools and kosher delicatessens. They spawned a flourishing Jewish community and a network of 20th-century synagogues...more.
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