A “revolutionary” UH student project

Dr. Lucy Graubard recently welcomed two University of Houston students into her home with a surprise.

“She made us bourekas, which was pretty amazing!” said one of the students, Miranda Ruzinsky, of the baked pastry that is very popular in Sephardic Jewish cuisine. She added that Graubard’s food offering couldn’t have been more effective in breaking the ice for the very purpose that brought them home.

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Ruzinsky and her classmate Carla Peterson Mora were among a group of 16 University of Houston students participating in the “Sefardic Latinx Oral History Project” documenting the history of Latinos of Jewish descent in conjunction with the Holocaust Museum Houston , which on Monday launched a public display of the project.

The project, led by Mark Goldberg, a university history professor and director of UH’s Jewish Studies program, aimed to shed light on often overlooked communities at the intersection of Latinos and Jews, two legacies that many people don’t associate, he said.

“It’s a typical American story in that it’s a migration story,” Goldberg said. “It’s about preserving culture after migration and its complex dynamics, and I think that would speak to everyone, not just Latinos, or Jews, or Jewish Latinos.”

Bill Orlin listens during a Yom HaShoah ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day Sunday, April 24, 2022, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. Orlin is a Holocaust survivor and American veteran who served as an occupier in Germany after World War II. He said he wanted to make sure people knew the Holocaust happened.


Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer
Bill Orlin talks about his time in the military, as he touches a patch from an infantry unit he trained with, after a Yom HaShoah ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday April 24, 2022, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston.  Orlin is a Holocaust survivor and American veteran who served as an occupier in Germany after World War II.  He said he wanted to make sure people knew the Holocaust happened.

Bill Orlin talks about his time in the military, as he touches a patch from an infantry unit he trained with, after a Yom HaShoah ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday April 24, 2022, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. Orlin is a Holocaust survivor and American veteran who served as an occupier in Germany after World War II. He said he wanted to make sure people knew the Holocaust happened.


Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

Bill Orlin listens during a Yom HaShoah ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day Sunday, April 24, 2022, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston.

Goldberg said these cultural interconnections have rarely been studied in the United States, and it was especially important to do so in Houston.

“Being in Houston, which is a global and diverse (city), I thought it was important to show the different ways of being Latino, and also the different ways of being Jewish,” Goldberg said.

The professor said the number of Latino Sephardic Jews in Houston is unknown because there are few studies of Hispanic Jews. But he added that an American Jewish Committee survey published in 2015 identified between 130,000 and 227,000 Latino Jews in the United States, although it did not identify whether they were Sephardim, Ashkenazi or D. other Jewish diversities.

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The project focused on Sephardic Jews who generally descended from 13th-century Jewish populations that resided in the Iberian Peninsula prior to their expulsion by Spanish and Portuguese royalty. Likewise, many Latinos in Houston and the United States share ancestral roots in this region.

During the project, students learned about the history and customs of Jewish communities and how they settled in Latin America before migrating to the United States. They followed 16 Sephardic Jews in Houston who immigrated from Latin America for the project and documented their stories in oral history videos.

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Ruzinsky and Peterson Mora documented the story of Graubard, a pediatrician practicing in northwest Houston. She is Sephardic Jewish but also has Ashkenazi heritage from one of her parents.

Ruzinsky said she realized during the interview that bourekas and Jewish and Hispanic heritage food were important to Graubard to keep her traditions alive.

“I think it was something that meant so much to her; the way her face lit up when she talked about it,” the student said. “I think (food) was his family’s way of expressing his Jewishness and his Latin heritage; an expression of love and community in their social interactions.

David Streusand, center-left, and his sister Charlotte Goldberg light a candle for their mother, a Holocaust survivor who lost many of her loved ones, during a Yom HaShoah ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday, April 24, 2022, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston.

David Streusand, center-left, and his sister Charlotte Goldberg light a candle for their mother, a Holocaust survivor who lost many of her loved ones, during a Yom HaShoah ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday, April 24, 2022, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. “I feel like the lit candle symbolizes the lost souls and memories that died because of hate,” Streusand said.

Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

For the Holocaust Museum, this project is part of its Latino Initiative program created six years ago, which has presented exhibitions such as “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program” in 2017 and “Withstand: Latinx Art in Times of Conflict” last year, among other programs.

This project “is particularly important for the museum because Latin history and Jewish history are interconnected,” said Laurie Garcia, senior associate director of education at the Holocaust Museum. “We are delighted to be able to host this (…) to show how these stories intertwine.”

Garcia said after launching the project Monday at the museum, the institution will use its growing Latin American archive to house bilingual school programs, student and teacher workshops and other initiatives. She said the museum hopes teachers will identify this oral history project as a potential educational resource to incorporate into their classrooms. The project, including its many oral history videos, is hosted at hmh.org/SephardicLatinx.

For University of Houston students in Goldberg’s history class, the project provided a unique experience.

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“Sitting with a person, asking questions and listening to their stories is essential for historians,” Goldberg said.I thought it would be an exceptional experience for our students.

Student Ruzinsky said the Latino-Jewish intersection was not new to her.

“I’m Jewish!…and I’m Latina” too. “I grew up in a religious school, I had my Bar Mitzvah (and) I am part of the group Jewish Houston Young Professionals.”

Benjamin Kass holds his son Zev, 5, during a Yom HaShoah ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day Sunday, April 24, 2022, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston.  Kass said his grandparents survived, but the rest of his family was killed.

Benjamin Kass holds his son Zev, 5, during a Yom HaShoah ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day Sunday, April 24, 2022, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. Kass said his grandparents survived, but the rest of his family was killed. “We are the real victory,” he said of his family and children.

Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

Ruzinsky said she was born in Houston to a Hispanic Catholic mother who converted to Judaism when she married her Ashkenazi father. “I learned a lot about the history of Judaism beyond the Ashkenazi traditions.”

However, something was new for Ruzinsky.

“I learned a lot about the procedure of doing oral history in a mindful and compassionate way, and about the open-mindedness one needs to have when dealing with human subjects,” Ruzinsky said. “We’ve learned that people are often socially conditioned to believe that their stories aren’t special enough or that they aren’t really part of the story. But for people to tell about their lives or the lives of their families… brings some achievements of uniqueness and particularity that I thought were important.

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Ruzinsky said she appreciated the project’s focus on these heritage intersections and found the opportunity to participate in an educational initiative organized by the museum exceptional.

“I thought this experience was pretty groundbreaking,” she said.

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