WHEN THE TERM Jewish travel is mentioned one automatically thinks of Israel. And indeed, Israel is not only our homeland, but a land of many wonders and experiences. One can travel there multiple times, and each trip can be a different experience.
Yet Jewish travel does involve more than Israel. The expulsion of Jews from Israel resulted in the diaspora, which has led Jews to settle all over the world and leave our mark on some of the great and small cities of the world. Trips to Jewish Spain, Eastern Europe, and South America are also very popular. But what about something a little closer to home? Mexico.
A few years ago, my synagogue had a day trip to Jewish Tijuana. For many of us, the realization that Jews lived there as well, was a bit of a revelation. But Jews have been present in Mexico since 1521. “When Herman Cortez’ first conquered Mexico for Spain in 1521, he did so with a number of secret Jews amongst his men. Judaism was banned at the time in Spain, and soon many secret Jews departed for “Nueve España” in the New World to try and live a more Jewish life.” The Spanish Inquisition, which forbade any Jewish practice, spread to Mexico in 1571. Many of the new territory’s Jews fled to neighboring Peru. Jews who chose to remain faced torture and execution if it was discovered that they continued to practice their faith.
The inquisition ended in 1821 with religous freedom arriving in Mexico only in the second half of the 19th century. It was during that time that Jews began migrating to Mexico from Europe and the Ottoman Empire and continued into the 20th century. Many Jews who were denied entry into the U.S. settled in Tijuana. The majority of Jews in Mexico today are descendants of that immigration.
Today, Mexico has the fourteenth largest Jewish community in the world. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, it is a strong and active community of approximately 39,200. Most live in of Mexico City, “where there are 23 synagogues, several kosher restaurants and at least 12 Jewish schools. Ninety-five percent of Jewish families belong to a synagogue, and eighty to ninety percent of Jewish children in Mexico City attend a Jewish school.” There is also far less intermarriage with Mexico having one of the lowest rates in the world.
Smaller Jewish communities are sprinkled throughout Mexico like Guadalajara, Monterrey, Cancun, San Miguel and as previously noted, Tijuana. While there is a thriving Jewish community in Mexico City, the Tijuana community is much smaller by comparison with approximately 2,000 members.
There are two synagogues in Tijuana. There is the Centro Social Israelita, a Chabad-led community with a membership of about fifty families. And across town is the Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, a community mainly comprised of conversos, who are seeking to reconnect with their Jewish roots and ancestry, as well as Mexican Catholics seeking to convert to Judaism.
To learn even more about Jewish life in Mexico, a visit to Mexico City is a must. Monica Unikel-Fasja, author of Sinagogas de Mexico (Synagogues of Mexico), has been giving Jewish historical tours in Mexico City for many years. In a tourist video, she can be seen standing in front of an innocuous building with a Jewish star on its facade that is actually a synagogue’s outer entrance. A few steps past the building’s main entrance is the structure’s true facade –“whitewashed walls with blue and white colored stained-glass windows.”
The sanctuary on the second floor is a magnificent structure, “very much constructed with the Eastern European design in mind,” points out Unikel- Fasja. The synagogue was built in 1941, and is called Nidje Israel. It was the first Ashkenazi synagogue in the city, and is a replica of one that is standing in Lithuania. Because of security reasons, it is also the only Jewish building open to the public, and has come to represent Jews’ historical presence in the city. While the holy texts have been removed, and the building is more of museum than place of worship, occasionally special services are held there.
On her tours, Unikel-Fasja guides groups through streets where Jewish immigrants found their first homes- and all the places where they began their lives in Mexico. While her tours primarily focus on the positive aspects of Jewish life, it is impossible to ignore the anti-Semitism that also existed, especially when she points to the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, and explains that “Jews were executed there during the Inquisition. Centuries later, anti-Semitic demonstrators marched there, demanding that the government expel Jews from Mexico.”
In spite of everything, “Mexico generally was a good place for Jews,” says Unikel-Fasja. “At times when other countries — including the United States — shut their doors to Jewish immigrants, Mexico opened their doors to Jews, and gave them the freedom to set up their lives,” she adds. “Gracias, Mexico.”
Rabbi Florence L. Dann is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.