Alma Hernandez is passionate and strives every day to make a difference. People say her values and actions represent the core of Judaism, which is noteworthy because Hernandez didn’t grow up Jewish. At age 24, she has been active in the Jewish community for several years, even before she completed her conversion to Judaism. She describes herself as a progressive Jewish Latina and has been involved with politics and social action since she was a teenager. The ultimate go-getter, she is currently pursuing a master’s degree, recently became a bat mitzvah, serves as the part-time coordinator of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, and volunteers with several organizations, including the Jewish History Museum.
Hernandez grew up in a family that did not practice any particular religion, but she always felt connected to Judaism, to which she does have family ties, as her maternal grandfather’s family was Jewish. Her mother, Consuelo, is from Mexico and her father, Daniel, is from California.
Hernandez’ interest in Judaism started as a teenager. Her parents let her and her brother and sister explore different religions, and they attended various religious services. When she was 16 she discovered that she felt more comfortable in a synagogue than other places of worship. She converted two years ago after studying with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim, and her bat mitzvah took place on April 8.
When Hernandez met Aaron she immediately felt very welcome at Chaverim. “Judaism never felt scripted or repetitive to me, and Rabbi Aaron’s services and sermons are always enjoyable,” she says. “My experience at Chaverim helped me to decide to convert. I was 18 when I made this decision, and it took on great meaning not only for myself but I also wanted to honor my mother’s family.” Another reason for converting, she says, is that when she has children she wants them to have a Jewish education and lifestyle.
“I have met other people who wanted to convert but did not have support from their families,” Hernandez says. “I am fortunate that my family has always been supportive.” She says her parents always pushed her and her siblings to achieve their goals. She took classes at Chaverim for two years, and describes it as a “fun” process. She found most of the education easy, but learning Hebrew was a challenge because Spanish is her first language. “I still tend to say certain Hebrew words with a Spanish accent,” she says. She took the Hebrew name, Malka, in honor and memory of her great-grandmother Mercedes (her mother’s father’s mother).
“My parents and brother and sister come to Shabbat services at Chaverim and for holidays,” Hernandez says. She sings in the choir and rarely misses services. “Going to services brings peace to my very busy life,” she says, “and the congregation feels like my extended family.”
Hernandez credits her brother, Daniel Jr., 27, with getting her and her sister, Consuelo, 25, involved with the Jewish community, politics and social action. Daniel., who is currently serving as the Arizona State Representative for District Two, is known to many as the intern credited with saving Gabrielle Gifford’s life when she was shot, along with 18 others, on Jan. 8, 2011. He had only been working in Gifford’s office for a week before the shooting. Hernandez says her brother, who has been involved with pro-Israel activities for many years, got her involved with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which works with Democrats and Republicans in Congress and leaders in the executive branch to protect and strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. Her sister was a member of the Jewish Latino Teen Coalition, which is a program of the JCRC and the Office of Rep. Raul Grijalva.
As a University of Arizona undergraduate, Hernandez was president of Wildcats for Israel and trained other students to be pro-Israel activists. When she was 21 she went to Israel with a group of campus leaders from different universities.
Patrice White, a former president of Chaverim, has known Hernandez for five years. White comes from a strong Christian family, but grew up feeling that something was missing, and eventually discovered she felt deeply connected to Judaism. She and Hernandez met during conversion classes at Chaverim.
“I got to know Alma pretty well through our classes, going to services and working with her on social action projects,” White says. “I have watched her go through college, graduate school and her bat mitzvah, and she has such a great determination to make a difference. She exemplifies the values of Judaism in wanting to make the world a better place.”
These days Hernandez continues her busy lifestyle. She is a full-time graduate student in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at University of Arizona and expects to complete her master’s degree in December. She is a teaching assistant in the UA School of Sociology and a program coordinator for Power Source Tucson, which provides resources and support for women with HIV/AIDS. Hernandez and her sister are participants in the Anti-Defamation League’s Glass Leadership Institute program.
As the part-time coordinator for the JCRC, “I get to work with the whole community, not just the Jewish community, helping to improve people’s lives,” Hernandez says. She has worked on immigration reform and refugee issues, coordinated with synagogues and other agencies to help the needy, and helped plan major meetings including the annual JCRC meeting on Feb. 19 and the Local Leaders Forum: Immigration Crisis in Southern Arizona, held April 28 (see related story, page 1).
“Alma’s passion for her work is clear. She has no off switch, and drives me to work harder,” says Richard White (no relation to Patrice), chair of the JCRC. He was the regional CEO for the American Red Cross Southern Arizona Chapter, and prior to that was the vice president of United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona. He also has served on the board of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.
Hernandez “is a remarkable person, especially for her age, and as a convert to Judaism and as a Latina she brings a special perspective to her job,” he says. “She has a good perspective on Tucson’s political climate from working on her brother’s campaign for state representative. I have never seen her stumped no matter what type of event we are organizing.”
Richard White said the annual JCRC meeting is usually a low-key event to honor people for their time and service to the community, but he told Hernandez, “Let’s raise the bar on this event and create something meaningful. I want it to be educational and to help further our mission of connecting the Jewish community with other communities.”
The theme was fighting intolerance and included guest speakers Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “It was a resounding success, and many people who attended came forward and wanted to know how to get involved with the JCRC,” he says. “We helped to create tolerance in an increasingly intolerant world.”
“I feel that we owe it to the next generation to improve things now,” says Hernandez. “I believe we were put on this earth to make a difference by helping others.”
And the journey continues — Hernandez says the next step is medical school.
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.