Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Jews of TJ

The Jews of Tijuana

Amid headlines blaring “Mexico Under Siege,” chronicling lurid tales of narco-violence and terror, I headed down the tranquil Pacific coast to Baja California. Off to visit Tijuana, a city seemingly in the throes of a convulsing drug war; heading down south of the border to find what remains an unlikely place to find not one but two Jewish communities. To paraphrase Shakespeare: two communities both alike in dignity, in fair Tijuana where we lay our scene.

They say the Pacific Ocean has no memory— perhaps that was what the Jews who arrived here centuries ago sought: to forget the fiery Inquisition that chased them from the Iberian peninsula and to the New World in search of refuge. For far later waves of Jewish migration to Tijuana that occurred in the 1940s, it was to escape later forms of persecution in Eastern Europe. Many settled near the border after they were denied entry to the United States because of stringent quotas. More recently, Jews have migrated for the bustling business opportunities on the Baja border city from Mexican cities such as Guadalajara and Mexico City, as well as from South America.

In Tijuana, there exists two very different communities shaped by different histories, outlooks and styles; communities led by two very different leaders, both of whom care very deeply for their respective flocks. There is the Centro Social Israelita, a Chabad-led community, under the direction of Rabbi Mendel Polichenco. Meanwhile, across town exists the Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, a community under the aegis of Rabbi Carlos Salas and comprised of conversos, crypto-Jews who have returned to the fold, or are in the process of reconnecting with their Jewish roots and ancestry, as well Mexican Catholics seeking to convert to Judaism. Both rabbis are instrumental in building, maintaining and developing communal institutions for their respective congregations.

Centro Social Israelita
I crossed over the Mexican-American border into a tranquil Friday afternoon. Tijuana stands as the biggest land-border crossing point in the world, with more than 40 million crossings annually. Waiting at Tijuana’s large cable-twanging arch- a Mexican Gateway Arch ala St. Louis, I was met by Ezra Yosef of the Centro Social Israelita, in a large white van bringing a gaggle of kids back from Jewish day school on the San Diego side of the border. The kids babbled in spanglish and snacked on hamentaschens filled with chocolate chips as we made our way to the center.

On our way to the center, I chatted with the kippa-clad, tzitzit-wearing Ezra- a Mexican Jew who had formally converted a year prior. Like everything associated with this tale, his story is fascinating and complex. Ezra was born a Roman Catholic in Ensenada in the Baja Peninsula. He later converted to the Protestant fold and even served as a missionary in Colombia. Yet, he continued his spiritual search and found his way to Judaism. He stated, “I just had a feeling I wanted to get closer to the Jewish people,” and he began studying Judaism in 2001. He began down the observant path, and converted the previous year under an orthodox beit din in Los Angeles. “Since my conversion, I feel a deeper reality, I feel I received a Jewish soul,” Ezra said. Today, Ezra leads a fully observant life today, keeping all the Orthodox traditions including being shomer Shabbat and fully kosher.

We arrived at the Centro Social Israelita, a somewhat dilapidated structure with a ramshackle charm to it. Bars line the front entrance and a menorah sits proudly above. In the main foyer, a mosaic of Jewish images decorates the main wall, with plaques hanging on the wall commemorating the center’s dedication in 1965, while in a glass nook lays twinned Mexican and Israeli flags.

The Mexican Jewish kids ran in the yard behind the center, and chased after the center’s two kaparot-spared chickens that reside in the yard. Soon Rebbetzin Dini arrived, with her 5 kids in tow, four boys and the dainty baby Reizi. The diminutive matriarch, who hails from Milan—the daughter of an Italian rabbi, immediately brought more delicious hamentaschens and good tidings.

Soon after Rabbi Mendel Polichenco arrived to the center, and we were off to complete some last Shabbat errands before the Sabbath commenced. We made a brief stop for a house call, and were welcomed in to a Jewish home whose front window sported sticker judaica and walls inside bore the real thing. The rabbi had come to bring mishloach manot and blessings of health to a community member who recently had surgery. After the Rabbi’s house call and brief stop to bring his wife Sabbath flowers, we returned to the center to get ready to welcome the Sabbath.

Before welcoming in the Sabbath, the Rabbi and Ezra finished up last tasks, like moving pounds upon pounds of frozen kosher chicken into a freezer unit, to be transferred to Cabo San Lucas. The rabbi noted that the celebrated port of call at the bottom of the Baja Peninsula has a burgeoning Jewish population. For that matter, the whole of the Baja Peninsula has a growing Jewish population. Jewish babyboomers, who have long been visiting Baja, are now retiring there in growing numbers, in places like Rosarito, Ensenada and down the Baja coast. And Rabbi Polichenco is helping to ensure that the Baja communities have the kosher elements needed.

The Centro Social Israelita comes complete with a mikvah, a synagogue for regular use with services on Monday, Thursday, Friday, Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh plus holidays. In addition, there is a larger shul on premise for high holidays, which draws nearly 300 people. There is even a kosher restaurant called “Tante Jane,” (a Yiddish wordplay on the name of the city) on the premises that is open daily; euphemistically termed a “not-for-profit” venture, the restaurant helps provide kosher food for patients visiting Tijuana for medical treatments, as well as kosher products and meals for the community.

Born in Argentina, and educated in Israel and the U.S., Polichenco began his work with the Tijuana Jewish community even before he was fully ordained as a rabbi. While working on a summer Project Talmud camp across the border in San Diego, Polichenco first heard about the Tijuana Jewish community, so he crossed over to find out more. At first the effort proved futile, as he came to a closed Centro Social Israelita, while his calls to the center went unanswered. “I couldn’t find anybody, so I kind of gave up. Maybe there was nothing left,” Polichenco noted. However, the following day he received a phone call that would send him on a path that led down to Baja.

“Next day, I get a phone call from a gentleman in Tijuana, asking ‘are you the visiting Rabbi?’” Polichenco noted— to which he replied that he was a student-rabbi. The community member’s father had passed away in Venezuela, and he was sitting shiva here in Tijuana, and there was no one around to lead the services. “So he asked me if I could come. I came that evening and we had services, and they asked me, since there was no one to lead services the next morning, if I could come back the next morning,” Polichenco said, “And I came back the next morning, and the next afternoon. By the end of the week, everyone knew me at the border crossing. And I had made a bond, a relationship with the community.”

That bond would help lead the way for Rabbi Polichenco to be the first Chabad rabbi posted in Mexico, a position he assumed in 1997. In the years to come, Polichenco would help steer the ship of the enigmatic Tijuana community, through years of community contraction born out of economic difficulties with the decline of the Mexican peso, the present economic downturn and the ongoing border instabilities.

As the daylight faded and members of the community arrived for the evening services, the community convened to welcome the Sabbath bride at the center’s synagogue, which radiated an effulgent glow from the light that poured through the shul’s bright stained glass windows bearing biblical imagery.

Nearly 35 people were on hand for the evening’s service, stemming from a Jewish melting pot of participants. There were Jews from Mexico, from Mexico City and Guadalajara, as well as Jews from various other places including South America, Israel and the neighbor to the north. Polichenco’s community numbers nearly 200 families, which straddles both sides of the border and down the Baja coast. Roughly 150 Jewish businessmen who live in San Diego, but work in Tijuana buoy the numbers of the Jewish community in Tijuana.

After services, the group reconvened for a Sabbath meal and to share fellowship. Rabbi Polichenco commented that the community is very much like a family, and are drawn to the social life extending from the center, especially since so many of the community are not originally from Tijuana, but rather were drawn there for business opportunities. Over a delicious fare of traditional Israeli salads, homemade challah and the Mexican counterparts of nopales- cactus salad and homemade crunchy tostadas, along with fresh fish and roasted chicken, the ongoing situation in Tijuana and the violent image that the city has attained in the media was the main topic of conversation.

Statistics related to border violence paint a terrifying picture of “Baghdad on the border” in the frontier region between Mexico and the U.S., with more than 6,000 estimated deaths in 2008- numbers on par with the death toll in Iraq. In talking to the Tijuana Jewish community, a different picture on the situation is painted rather than what is portrayed in the mainstream media. Vivian, a Jew from Uruguay now living in Tijuana, scoffed at the portrait painted of Tijuana as being dangerous. That the violence was something between the narco-traffickers and didn’t filter down to people’s daily lives was a sentiment expressed by Miguel, a Jew from Chile who also now resides in the area.

In discussing the security situation in Tijuana, Rabbi Polichenco was rather composed. He noted that during the 1990s, when kidnappings started becoming an issue in Mexico City, there were fears that it would happen in Tijuana as well. “The main concern people have here is kidnapping,” stated the rabbi, “and thank G-d we haven’t had any problems with that.” With that said, the rabbi noted that the situation has gotten worse over the last couple years. There have been incidents of community members falling victim to robberies or hold-ups, but these incidents have been isolated occurrences. In short, the community members go on about their daily lives and their businesses.

Regarding the security situation, it is important to offer a little perspective. There has been much written of the ongoing insecurity on the Mexican border, and the climate of fear. Yet to address the question of whether Tijuana is dangerous, it is important to ponder whether Israel is dangerous. Like Israel, the only news that ever emanates from Tijuana in the mainstream press is usually related to violence; meanwhile most go about living their daily lives. Not to be overly pollyanish but in a city whose population runs between 1.5 to 3 million depending on estimates, the tales of lurid violence that suffice for news from Tijuana don’t portray the whole story of a city that boasts one of Mexico’s largest middle class communities.

An issue that Rabbi Polichenco seemed far more preoccupied with than the security situation was the alternative therapy medical tourism. The rabbi noted that Tijuana has many “alternative medical clinics” that cater to those with advanced stages of cancer. These clinics offer “miracle cures,” and people come from Israel, Europe and the US for these alternative medical treatments. He stated that the clinics are, “looking for people with cancer, and they promise they’ll cure them. They give them fruit smoothies and coffee enemas. Or light treatments. People shouldn’t come to Tijuana for that.” Polichenco continued, “We have so many people from Israel. We had a gentleman that was transferred yesterday to Cedar Sinai in LA in a coma, and he came fine. It’s very sad. It happens too often, every couple weeks we get someone like that. Sometimes it’s 4 or 5 people at the hospital.”

For Polichenco, having a strong Jewish community in the area is vital and necessary for the burgeoning community in the Baja peninsula, as well those Jewish visitors to the region who require support and assistance.

Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California
On the following Shabbat morning, our tale resumes at the Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, the shul of Rabbi Carlos Salas. I was ferried across town by Benjamin Camacho-Mora, and his son Abraham, a member of Rabbi Salas’ congregation. On the way, Benjamin’s discussed his own roots in Judaism. Benjamin’s family arrived in Mexico from Spain and Portugal, and settled in Chihuahua in Northern Mexico. He mentioned that his grandparents would light candles on Friday nights. He also said that his family would never eat pork, he noted, “They would cook pork for show and then feed it to the dogs.”

The Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California is a compound marked with a large blue menorah, located in a residential neighborhood that is far from the border glitz that draws tourists to Tijuana. Presiding over the congregation is the enigmatic Rabbi Carlos Salas, a dapper gentleman with black hair slicked back, a pencil-thin mustache that graces his upper lip and a penchant for dark suits. Words like “charismatic” are often bandied about Rabbi Salas.

Born in Fresnillo in the northern Mexican state of Zacatecas to an outwardly practicing Roman Catholic family, Rabbi Salas noted that his great-grandmother, who came from Spain, left the family two candle holders made from brass and a Star of David fashioned from a bluish-green stone. He said that the matriarch would prepare Shabbat in secret, and left talit and tfillin hidden in their house. Yet as a child, his mother wouldn’t discuss the items, and discouraged his curiosities.

As a young man, Salas helped his family tend sheep- imagery still with Salas today as his office contains paintings of a young Salas tending his flock. As he got older, he learned about and became involved in the gold and silver industries that were prominent in Fresnillo, something that would prove advantageous in his later career.

Salas moved to the U.S. to join his brother living in Buffalo, New York. After a stint in the U.S. military during the Korean War, Salas returned to Buffalo, where he began his path down a winding religious journey with his entrance to a Methodist seminary. Although he eventually became an ordained Methodist minister, Salas states that he attended the seminary because there was no yeshiva in Buffalo at that time, and had always planned to become a rabbi. “I was interested in studying Torah, the prophets and scripture, but the Methodist seminary was the only thing available,” Salas noted.

In 1960, Salas moved to Los Angeles, where he would launch a career investing in jewelry shops and other businesses. Meanwhile, in 1962, he began attending the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Salas studied for five years at the University of Judaism, leaving the Methodist fold and fully converting to Judaism. Salas noted that he was converted by a board of five rabbis, who were extra keen to examine his commitment to the faith given his previous status as a Methodist minister, yet after hours of questioning the beit din was satisfied with his earnest commitment to Judaism.

In 1967, the same year as his conversion, Salas opened his congregation in Tijuana. With his own funds, Salas constructed the synagogue that now houses his congregation. Opened in 1970, the low-ceilinged sanctuary is complete with pink marble imported from Valencia, Spain. On the bimah¸ there resides an elaborate ark that is home to four Torah scrolls. The ark, designed with two intricate menorah motifs, was fashioned from Mexican cedar and carved in Queretaro, Mexico. Two columns flank the bimah, and the Mexican and Israeli flags stand on either end; on the right side of the bimah, an empty chair covered in a talit waits for Elijah. Various Magen Davids and carved wooden menorahs and other Judaic objects decorate the room.

Known to his followers as Maestro, meaning “teacher” in Spanish, Salas has been conducting his spiritual outreach to Mexicans of Jewish ancestry, crypto-Jews still practicing in secret, as well as to Mexican Catholics interested in learning about Judaism. According to Salas, 90 percent of the congregation are descendents of conversos, while another 10 percent are Mexican Catholics interested in conversion. A gentleman named “Nir,” who was in the process of studying for conversion stated, “Things I saw my family doing were actually Jewish traditions without knowing them to be so. Once you see what the traditions are, you gain momentum.”

Despite the nontraditional background of the congregation, Salas was firm in grounding his followers in traditional Jewish ritual and customs, including eating kosher food, and circumcisions for male converts.

In December 1984, the congregation held its first major conversion, with a group of three American rabbis interviewing 24 of Salas’ students. When the beit din was sufficiently convinced of the group’s Judaic convictions, the group then went off to Rosarito Beach and the converts waded into the chilly Pacific waters that was serving as the mikvah. Seven years later, another group of Salas’ flock held a conversion, but this time they traveled to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and were examined by the Conservative movement’s beit din there, as well as using their mikvah rather than the frigid Pacific. Since then, half a dozen groups of converts made the trek to Los Angeles to meet with the beit din and carry out conversions. On the issue of conversion, Rabbi Salas states, “we hold classes for teaching about torah, that lasts 3 to 4 years. Only after we are convinced that they are ready. Some people have continued their studies for as long as 14 years before they converted. We have brought hundreds back to the fold. We stopped counting after 200.”

Nearly 100 people were on hand that Sabbath morning to take part in the services. Although there is no mehitzah, men clad in kippahs and talits sat on one side of the synagogue, while women sat on the other. The service weaved along a Conservative style. The congregants followed a Conservative Spanish-Hebrew prayer book, going methodically prayer by prayer. Many prayers were recited aloud in Hebrew, while others were read or sung in Spanish, with Rafael “Gamaliel” Hernandez serving as the cantor and leading along in a rich baritone voice.

When the Torah was taken from the ark, Rabbi Salas carried the holy scrolls on a slow procession through synagogue. The procession descended down the male side of the congregation, with congregants wrapping their fingers in their talits and touching the shawls to the Torah, while bowing their heads and closing their eyes for quiet contemplation before the scrolls. The procession passed up through the female section, with the women congregants carrying out similar prayers before the scrolls.

After the procession, the weekly Torah portion was read by alternating congregants from a chumash in Spanish translation, who followed the text with a shared yad. The congregation would rise as men were called up for the various aliyot. Eight men were called up to read from the week’s portion, and began and ended their portion by reading the blessings over the Torah in Hebrew.

Meanwhile as the service progressed, the children were excused for their own lesson, only to return at the end of the service to offer a children’s choir rendition of the final prayers. The three-hour service concluded with a woman named Alejandra singing “haTikvah” and the congregants filtered out into the afternoon, dutifully touching the mezuzah on their exit.

The service felt like a traditional Conservative affair, although there were a few non-traditional elements that were present. Throughout the service, children would bring donations up to the bimah, pray over the offerings, and leave envelopes in a brass bowl on the ground. Rabbi Salas noted there are no monthly dues for congregants, and that the donations were used for members in the community that were struggling, and were used to help provide families with food staples in the form of food stamps from the congregation to families that had unmet needs.

Another more nontraditional aspect is the role of the Masonic movement in the synagogue’s affairs. Rabbi Salas was proud of his high level role in the Masons, and noted that a Masonic lodge is connected to the synagogue, and many of the male congregants are members of the order. According to Salas, during the period of the Inquisition in Mexico, the Masons were the only institution that would offer protection to Jews.

Rabbi Salas was quick to point out the numerous plans that he has for the community. He noted that there is a rabbinical school under construction in Rosarito beach, which he plans to use to educate future rabbis of the community. He also plans to open synagogues throughout Mexico, with the goal to host synagogues aimed at conversos in every Mexican state for the many Mexicans with Jewish ancestry. Salas mentioned that the congregation has already opened another synagogue in Durango, which is host to some 40 families. Salas also mentioned various plans such as plans for a Jewish old-age home, and to create a Jewish cemetery in Tijuana, which currently does not have one.

On the security situation, Salas was more circumspect, noting that a house just three doors down from the synagogue had been sprayed by bullets just a few days prior. “I’m not pretending it’s sunny and safe, it can be dangerous here. There are executions that take place and we don’t want to expose people to danger,” he noted. Salas stated that when a family comes down from the U.S. for a tourist visit to his synagogue, the congregation ferries visitors from the border to the synagogue.

The two communities reside in an uneasy cordiality. Relations had previously been strained, but today remain calm and cordial, if somewhat distant. But the Rabbis have a dialogue and remain civil; while I was there, Rabbi Polichenco invited Rabbi Salas to come address his congregation the following week. Part of the strain comes down to the fundamental quandary of what it means to be a Jew and the religious minefield of defining what constitutes Judaism. To put the chasm between the two communities in perspective, you must first look at the divisions in Judaism. If you accept that Reform and Conservative Judaism are full-fledged, legitimate strands of Judaism, then Rabbi Salas is simply the leader of a more exotic strand. If you have a more orthodox perspective that questions the legality of non-Orthodox conversions, then misgivings arise simply from the notion of more mainstream Conservative conversions, and from the existence of a community like Salas’ even more so.


Tracing the Tribe said...

Excellent, Paul.

Schelly Talalay Dardashti
Tracing the Tribe: The Jewish Genealogy Blog

Anonymous said...

What a great Blog.. The reality painted by the press of TJ is quite different than for those living there.. Tijuana is inspite of the press a vibrant place.. not the wild west..

Most of the Jews I know from Tijuana and Mexico are deeply committed to their faith, and maintaining their ties.. My children attended the Chabad School in Tijuana for a few years and now have a tight bond with the kids from the community.. Which opened the door to an even larger community in San Diego.. the KEN
I cant say enough about how positive the experience has been.. I am grateful to the Jews in Tijuana..

Paul Rockower said...

Thanks for the warm words. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. I really admire the TJ community, and its leadership.