Baja community begins where the land ends
Waves rush over a pebbled beach as the tensions of city life melt away. The Mexican sun hangs languidly overhead, bleaching colorful kayaks stacked along the shoreline. Hovering far off in the deep blue skies, parasailors are dwarfed by the arriving Carnival cruise ship that will soon drop anchor off the rocky coast.
It’s easy to understand why celebrities like John Wayne, Desi Arnaz and Bing Crosby were drawn here — yet kept it a secret for nearly 20 years after the 1956 opening of The Palmilla, the area’s first resort catering to sportfishing enthusiasts.
Located at the tip of Baja California, Cabo San Lucas is at the western end of what has become a 20-mile corridor of hotels and gated communities known collectively as Los Cabos, bookended in the east by the airport-adjacent town of San José del Cabo. The tiny fishing village has given way to beaches lined with luxury hotels and a notorious nightlife, but the laid-back seaside attitude still hangs in region’s salty air.
World-class golf courses, sportfishing, scuba diving, horseback riding, hiking and desert tours are all popular draws, as Cabo enjoys 350 days of sun annually. From December to April, gray whales migrate here to calve their young, and this year’s addition of the Cabo Dolphins center to the Cabo San Lucas marina adds the opportunity for visitors to swim with Pacific bottlenose dolphins (reservations are required).
Since tourism continues to boom here, drawing upward of 1 million guests each year, construction projects are part of the backdrop along the corridor, much like the Vegas Strip.
Many of the 100,000 permanent residents are retirees from north of the border, so this decidedly Mexican resort destination has an increasingly American sensibility. A plethora of U.S. retail chains and restaurants — including Johnny Rockets and Hard Rock Cafe — have set up shop in area malls and shopping centers, and even lox is now readily available at the local Costco.
Once the secret of Cabo was out, it seemed that there were few surprises left. But in the last year a very visible and increasingly vibrant Jewish community is taking shape where the land meets the sea.
While the exact number of Jews living here is not known, a communitywide Passover seder earlier this year at the Villa Del Palmar attracted more than 100 guests, and Shabbat services on the last weekend of each month routinely draws between 30 to 50 people to a donated third-floor space in the contemporary Puerto Paraiso shopping center.
Los Cabos is such a boomtown it has few natives. Jews attending community events hail from all over — America, Israel, Argentina, South Africa and other Mexican states. But the diversity has led to some communication problems.
“Israelis here don’t speak Spanish, and some Argentineans don’t speak English. So there’s no one language [that we have] in common,” said Rabbi Mendel Polichenco, who has conducted religious services in Cabo San Lucas over the last year. “When I give a dvar Torah, I don’t know what language to use. I do half English and half Spanish usually.”
Polichenco, director of Chula Vista-based Chabad Without Borders, says U.S., Israeli and Argentinean employees at Diamonds International have been spreading word about the religious services, as well as Adriana Kenlan, an English news broadcaster on Cabo Mil Radio.
But the person he credits with being at the forefront of Jewish organizing in Los Cabos is David Greenberg of Senor Greenberg’s Mexicatessen.
Greenberg, a 37-year-old L.A. native who grew up in the Conservative movement, came to Los Cabos in January 1992 to consider whether he would attend law school and never left. He knocked around in construction and restaurant management jobs and spent three years as a consular agent for the U.S. State Department. But after meeting Jim Sutter, the two became business partners and decided to open an upscale New York-style deli together in Cabo San Lucas. After getting pointers from Art Ginsburg of Art’s Deli in Studio City, the pair opened the first Senor Greenberg’s in the Plaza Nautica in October 1997, followed by a second location at Puerto Paraiso in September 2004.
“Next thing I know, I’ve got another restaurant, I’m married, I have a son,” said Greenberg, whose Mazatlan-born wife, Karla, converted through the University of Judaism.
As if his life wasn’t busy enough already with 11-month-old Joshua and a third Senor Greenberg’s scheduled to open this month in Plaza Gali near Cabo Dolphins, Greenberg is working hard to establish a Jewish presence in Cabo.
Real estate developer José Galicot, who is based out of San Diego and Tijuana, has provided the funds for Polichenco’s visits, he said. But that money was only intended as a stopgap and will dry up at the end of this year.
“It’s going to be up to us to see it through to 2007,” said Greenberg, who added that he expects developing a self-sufficient community here will be challenging.
Securing a permanent space at Puerto Paraiso for the Baja Jewish Community Center is the next step, he said. Hebrew classes, as well as Spanish lessons for Israelis, will be offered there, in addition to religious services. As far as future spiritual leadership, Greenberg hopes to track down a retired rabbi who would want to spend Jewish holidays in Cabo. And then there’s the matter of finding a Torah that would be stored at the center.
A Torah scroll already exists in Los Cabos, at the five-star Marquis Los Cabos, some 20 minutes east of Cabo San Lucas, where Mexico City-based proprietor Jose Kalach has set up a prayer room in his hotel, complete with a small ark. But the Torah is intended primarily for the Kalach family’s personal use. Hotel guests and wedding parties can use it, but a written request must be filed with the hotel at least one month prior. Since the sanctuary is attached to a conference room, scheduling conflicts can make availability less certain.
Opened in 2003, this Condé Nast gold list hotel was designed by Jewish Mexican architect Jacobo Micha, who modeled the hotel’s open-air arch entrance after El Arco, or the Arch of Poseidon, a famous 200-foot natural passageway at the tip of the Baja peninsula that travelers can walk through at low tide. Statues of winged angels stand at the ready in the hotel’s entrance and throughout the property (photo below).