Ransom Call Alert

The other day I was in my car with my son when my phone rang. It showed a call coming in from Mexico, which as odd as I don’t know anyone who lives in Mexico, or was there in holiday. I didn’t answer the phone figuring if it was a call for me, they would leave a message. A minute later the phone rang again from the same number, so I answered it. On the other line was a woman who was crying. I was confused at first and simply said hello. The woman was whimpering, and asking me to help her. I put the call on speaker so my son could hear and I asked what to do.

He was also confused and we were unclear what was happening. I said hello and asked who it was, then a man got on the phone and told me if I hung up, or contacted the police, he was going to shoot the woman in the head. My heart was now racing and I was scared. I muted the call and asked my son what was happening. We were in a bit of a panic and I didn’t want to do the wrong thing. The man was screaming at me to talk to him and with a shaking hand I accidently disconnected instead of unmuting. I started to cry and the phone immediately rang again.

The man was now screaming profanities, telling me he was going to kill the woman, and if I thought he was kidding, he would kill me too because he knew where I lived. He told me I needed to give him all the money I had access to or she would die. It was terrifying, and too unbelievable for me to comprehend. I told him I didn’t understand and he told me where to meet him. I was to go to the bank, get money, then trade the money for the woman, who he said I knew. In a moment of sheer panic, I drove to the police station. We had been on the phone for 15 minutes at the point, and it was torturous.

When we got to the police station, my son ran in to get help and I kept the man on the phone, telling him I was going to get him the money. The police officer came out and listened in on the conversation. I muted the call and she told me to hang up. I stared at her in disbelief, telling her the woman would be killed. She looked me in the eye and told me to hang up. I did. She explained that it was a hoax, there was no woman in trouble, and it was a scam that happens many times each day. People were giving money left and right, getting duped by these callers.

She said he would call back and when he did, I was to say I would not give him any money unless I could speak to the woman. He called, I asked to speak to the woman, and he put her on. The woman was pleading for help and the police officer put the call on mute, asking me to listen carefully to the voice because the man demanding the money was the same person pretending to be the woman in trouble. I listened and it was suddenly clear they were the same person. I started to cry again, this time with relief that no one was about to be shot. I almost fainted.

The officer disconnected the call and told me they would call back three or four more times, and I was not to answer it. The first call came in. The officer explained that these people do this and are making a lot of money from innocent people who think they are doing the right thing. People have emptied out their bank accounts to save people, never to see their money again. She said it was good we came to the police and to not worry about the call. Nobody was watching us, or following us, or going to come to our home. We were not in any danger.

It was a shocking and exhausting experience and I share it here as a cautionary tale. Be very careful. It is fascinating what people will do for money. This is an evil scam but as we all know, the world is dark and scary and this happens in real life, to real people, with real consequences all the time. If you get a similar call, try to remain calm, go to the police, and get help. Easier said than done in the moment, but try. I am grateful to my son for being a pillar of strength, and for the LAPD for helping us. We are shaken, but keeping the faith.


Matzo Balls with Mushrooms and Jalapeños in Broth. Photo by Ellen Silverman

PBS cooking host Pati Jinich’s Mexican-Jewish Passover

Celebrity chef Pati Jinich grew up in Mexico City, where she spent Shabbat dinners at her bubbe’s house.

“When we walked into her house,” Jinich fondly recalls of her grandmother, “the first thing she had was a big, gigantic bowl of guacamole, but it was a Yiddish version, because it was a combination of chopped egg salad and guacamole. Next to that, she would have a big bowl of gribenes” — crisp chicken or goose skin — “with fried onions. And then she already had sliced challah. So you would grab a slice of challah, put the chopped egg guacamole mixture on top, and then you top it with gribenes.”

This Mexican-Jewish fusion runs deep in Jinich’s family, as it does for many other Mexican Jews.

“It’s become fashionable to do a Latin theme on Jewish foods, but a lot of people don’t realize that Mexican-Jewish cuisine is really deeply rooted,” says Jinich, who stars in the hit national PBS cooking show “Pati’s Mexican Table.” “It’s not just, ‘Oh, I’m gonna throw a chili in here, or some spices.’ There’s a full Mexican-Jewish vocabulary that has existed for centuries.”

Jinich’s bubbe also made p’tcha (pickled calf foot), but instead of serving it with horseradish, she served her version with pico de gallo.

Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition first came to Mexico more than 500 years ago. Larger waves of Jewish immigrants arrived over the past 150 years, most of them from Eastern Europe, Syria and the former Ottoman Empire. Today, the Jewish population in Mexico  is close to 50,000, most of them living in Mexico City.

So the idea of Mexican-Jewish fusion is not something new for Mexican Jews like Jinich; it was part of life while she was growing up. For example, Jinich points to Gefilte Fish a la Veracruzana, which has a sauce of tomatoes, capers, pickled chilies, olives, cilantro and parsley.

“The Jewish community thought of using it for fish patties — gefilte fish,” she said. “So that’s a standard — a must — in many Jewish Ashkenazi homes. Instead of eating the gefilte fish cold with aspic, which you need an acquired taste to love, Mexican-style gefilte fish is served warm, in that thick, spicy tomato broth. And it’s really irresistible.”

Jinich, 44, traces her roots to Poland and central Europe — her grandparents fled pogroms and immigrated to Mexico City in the early 20th century. As a young adult, she became an immigrant herself, following her Mexican-Jewish husband to the United States 20 years ago. Jinich, now a mother of three boys, lives in Washington, D.C., where her television show, currently in its fifth season, originates in her home kitchen.

Although Jinich is a natural in the kitchen and on camera, she began her career as a policy analyst, focused on Latin American politics. But her passion for food — and especially the cuisine of Mexico — brought her to culinary school in 2005. Before becoming a chef, she taught Mexican cooking to friends and neighbors while living in Dallas in the late 1990s and served as a production assistant on another PBS food series, “New Tastes From Texas,” a show that featured guest hosts such as Mexican food pioneers Diana Kennedy and Patricia Quintana.

Jinich has published two cookbooks, “Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking” (2013) and “Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchens” (2016). And her television show, which screens all over the world, has been nominated for two Emmys and two James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food world. 

Pati Jinich. Photo by Michael Ventura

Pati Jinich. Photo by Michael Ventura

In short, Jinich has become a 21st-century ambassador to Mexican cuisine in the United States. But she brings a modern sensibility to the foods of her native country, which are being rediscovered with renowned chefs such as Denmark’s René Redzepi of Noma, who is opening a satellite of his famed restaurant in Mexico, and Enrique Olvera, who has been featured on Netflix’s popular series “Chef’s Table.”

Jinich sees the culinary world’s recent attention to Mexico as inspiring.

“For a long time, everyone took Mexican food for granted,” she explains. “It took this new cadre of chefs looking at Mexican cuisine and taking all the traditional elements and presenting them in a more sexy, modern way. Not only for the outside to recognize the richness and sophistication of Mexican cuisine, but also for Mexicans. Mexicans are so excited about their own cuisine. Now, it’s going back to the roots — sometimes to the extreme — and really highlighting what makes Mexican food so unique. And I think Mexican cuisine is having a very big moment. There’s so much to explore.”

With recipes such as Asparagus, Mushroom and Goat Cheese Enchiladas with Pine Nut Mole Sauce or Mexican Thanksgiving Turkey, Jinich has an approach that is more accessible than many of the chefs currently helming the Mexican dining scene. She lives by the credo that any home cook can bring the warmth and color of Mexico into the kitchen.

And although Jinich is Jewish, her recipes are, for the most part, Mexican. She did not grow up attending Jewish schools or eating kosher food. At the same time, following in the footsteps of her bubbe, as well as an Austrian grandmother who taught her how to make matzo ball soup (recipe below), she treasures the dishes of her Mexican-Jewish repertoire

“What happened with Ashkenazi food, which is sort of bland, is that it got blessed with all the warmth and colors and flavors of Mexico. It was like a gift to Ashkenazi cuisine.”

“Blessed” is how Jinich also describes her own multifaceted identity. Despite feeling “shaken” by the current political climate in the U.S., she sees herself as simultaneously Mexican, Jewish and American.

“I used to tell my children as Mexican Americans, you’ve been doubly blessed, but you’re doubly responsible,” she says. “You have to be proud about being Mexican, and you have to make Mexico proud, and you have to make your Mexican family proud. And at the same time, you have to be grateful to America and responsible as an American citizen. And one cannot forget the third element, which is about being a Jew and the Jewish values.”

It’s a recipe for life Jinich clearly embraces.


From “Mexican Today: New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchens” by Pati Jinich (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

– 1 cup (2 2-ounce packages) matzo ball mix
– 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
– 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
– 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
– 4 large eggs
– 1/2 cup canola or safflower oil, divided
– 2 tablespoons sesame oil
– 1 tablespoon sparkling water (optional)
– 1/2 cup white onion, finely chopped
– 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
– 2 jalapeño chilies, seeded if desired and finely chopped, more or less to taste
– 1/2 pound white and/or baby bella (cremini) mushrooms, cleaned,  dried, part of the stem removed, thinly sliced
– 8 cups chicken broth, homemade or store-bought

In a large mixing bowl, combine the matzo ball mix, parsley, nutmeg and 3/4 teaspoon salt.

In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with 6 tablespoons of vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons of sesame oil. Fold the beaten eggs into the matzo ball mixture with a spatula. Add the sparkling water if you want the matzo balls to be fluffy, and mix until well combined. Cover the mixture and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

In a large soup pot, bring about 3 quarts salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Bring heat down to medium and keep at a steady simmer. With wet hands, shape the matzo ball mix into 1- to 1 1/2-inch balls and gently drop them into the water.  Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until matzo balls are completely cooked and have puffed up.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat in a soup pot. Add the onion, garlic and chilies and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, until they have softened a bit. Stir in the sliced mushrooms, add 3/4 teaspoon salt, stir and cover the pan. Steam the mushrooms for about 6 to 8 minutes, remove the lid and continue to cook uncovered until the liquid in the pan evaporates. Add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add the cooked matzo balls (use a slotted spoon if transferring from their cooking water) and serve.

Makes 8 servings.


A standard in Jewish homes across Mexico. Courtesy of Pati Jinich.

– Gefilte Fish Patties (recipe follows)
– 3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
– 1/2 cup white onion, chopped
– 1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
– 3 cups water
– 2 tablespoons ketchup
– 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
– 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, or to taste
– 1 cup Manzanilla olives stuffed with pimientos
– 8 pepperoncini peppers in vinegar brine/chiles güeros en escabeche, or more to taste
– 1 tablespoon capers

Prepare Gefilte Fish Patties; set aside.

Heat the oil in a large cooking pot over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion, and let it cook for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring, until soft and translucent. Pour the crushed tomatoes into the pot, stir and let the mix season and thicken for about 6 minutes. Incorporate 3 cups water, 2 tablespoons ketchup, salt and white pepper, give it a good stir and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to low, to get a gentle simmer, as you roll the Gefilte Fish Patties.

Place a small bowl with lukewarm water to the side of the simmering tomato broth. Start making the patties, about 2 1/2 inches by 1 inch and about 3/4-inch thick. Wet your hands as necessary, so the fish mixture will not stick to your hands. As you make them, slide them gently into the simmering broth. Make sure it is simmering and raise the heat to medium if necessary to keep a steady simmer.

Once you finish making the patties, cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Cook them covered for 25 minutes. Take off the lid, incorporate the Manzanilla olives, pepperoncini peppers and capers. Give it a soft stir and simmer uncovered for 20 more minutes, so the gefilte fish will be thoroughly cooked and the broth will have seasoned and thickened nicely. Serve hot with slices of challah and spiced-up pickles.

Makes about 20 patties.


– 1 pound red snapper fillets, no skin or bones
– 1 pound flounder fillets, no skin or bones
– 1 white onion (about 1/2 pound), quartered
– 2 carrots (about 1/4 pound), peeled and roughly chopped
– 3 eggs
– 1/2 cup matzo meal
– 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
– 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, or to taste

Rinse the fish fillets under a thin stream of cool water. Slice into smaller pieces and place in the food processor. Pulse for 5 to 10 seconds until fish is finely chopped but hasn’t turned into a paste. Turn fish mixture onto a large mixing bowl.

Place the onion, carrots, eggs, matzo meal, salt and white pepper in same bowl of food processor. Process until smooth and turn onto the fish mixture. Combine thoroughly.

Lara Rabinovitch Neuman works for Google as a food writer and regularly teaches food culture courses at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the state funeral for Shimon Peres in September 2016.

Netanyahu: Israel’s ties with Mexico ‘stronger than any passing misunderstanding’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said his nation and Mexico “will continue to have good relations” in the aftermath of a tweet in which he was seen as supporting President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants.

The tweet has caused a diplomatic uproar between Israel and Mexico since it was posted Saturday.

“I take this opportunity to explain or clarify what I did and did not say in my tweet the other night. I thought you’d be interested in that,” Netanyahu said Tuesday morning in an address to the CyberTech conference in Tel Aviv in remarks that were distributed to reporters by his office.

“I did point out the remarkable success of Israel’s security fence. But I did not comment about U.S.-Mexico relations. We’ve had, and will continue to have, good relations with Mexico. And I believe our ties are much stronger than any passing disagreement or misunderstanding. And in fact, I’ve had a long, fruitful and very friendly relationship with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and it will continue.”

Nieto and Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, were scheduled to talk by telephone on Tuesday to resolve the diplomatic storm brewing between the two countries. Mexico summoned Israel’s ambassador for a meeting with its foreign minister on Monday night.

Earlier Monday, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray called on Netanyahu to apologize for the tweet, Haaretz reported.

“We hope that the Israeli government will have the sensitivity to correct Netanyahu’s statement,” said Videgaray before his meeting with the Israeli diplomat Monday evening.

The summons, which the Foreign Ministry of Israel on Monday called an invitation, came a day after Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “The Foreign Ministry expressed to the government of Israel, via its ambassador in Mexico, its profound astonishment, rejection and disappointment over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s message on Twitter about the construction of a border wall. Mexico is a friend of Israel and should be treated as such by its Prime Minister.”

On Saturday morning, Netanyahu said on Twitter that “President Trump is right.”

“I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea,” Netanyahu said in a tweet that featured the American and Israeli flag icons. The White House later retweeted the message.

Following Mexico’s criticism of Israel, the Prime Minister’s Office and Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement to clarify the original tweet, saying that Netanyahu “was addressing Israel’s unique circumstances and the important experience we have and which we are willing to share with other nations. There was no attempt to voice an opinion regarding U.S.-Mexico ties.”

Where are the Mexican rapists?

After two weeks of traveling through Mexico, I feel a duty to report that I did not encounter a single rapist. 

Potential Zika? Maybe. By my second day on the coast of Tulum, I counted 75 bug bites — despite the Deet and mosquito nets. But rapists? Not one. The elephant absent from the circus.

According to what we hear about Mexico, it would be reasonable to worry that American sisters traveling unescorted through the country might be placing themselves in peril. But let the record show that my sister and I were so utterly ignored by the country’s infamous rapists that my sister remarked early in our journey, “Nobody’s even hitting on us!” 

I will allow, of course, for the possibility that we have an inflated sense of our own attractiveness — but still: We were two flesh-and-blood-females traveling alone and wearing lipstick and we didn’t even get so much as a whistle. Frankly, I did better in Burma.   

What is most disorienting about Mexico is how contrary the experience of being there is to the perception many Americans (including one presidential candidate) have of it. There is persistent hysteria about Mexico’s dark underbelly — a place of lawlessness, corruption, organized crime, drug trafficking and dangerous cartels. And while it’s true that some of these issues present real challenges to Mexico’s striving democratic republic, the country also deserves a reputation more expansive than that it consists of marauding wannabe immigrants, on the one hand, and spring breakers drinking in Cancun, on the other. 

I’ve traveled to Mexico twice in recent years — first in 2013, with the international development organization American Jewish World Service (AJWS), and again as a tourist this summer. This does not qualify me as an expert on Mexican society, but my visits have given me an authentic and meaningful glimpse into Mexico’s history, treasures, struggles and dreams. I visited Mayan ruins, walked the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende, washed dishes with an indigenous community in the Sierra Madre, swam in a fresh-water lagoon, dined in Michelin-worthy restaurants and slept in a bedbug-infested cabana on the beach. So I’ll let you in on an open secret: Mexico is awesome. It is cosmopolitan, diverse, culturally rich, gastronomically inspired and breathtakingly beautiful. The people — and sometimes, especially the men — are kind and thoughtful and helpful in ways that would shock me to experience in the U.S. 

My sister began our recent trip with moderate concern. After I phoned her, ecstatic that The New York Times’ top destination for 2016 would be the best choice for our annual trip together, the first thing she did was visit the U.S. State Department website to search for travel advisories. There was nothing very alarming, though: Mexico, according to the State Department site, is mostly safe, except for some rural areas it suggests Americans avoid. Still, colleagues and friends warned my sister of kidnappings and violent crime. I tried to comfort her with the fact that we are neither important enough nor rich enough to be worthy victims.

What we found, instead of menace, were signs of a growing, world-class economy. During our first dinner in Mexico City, in the hip, bourgeois neighborhood of Roma Norte, we found ourselves engrossed in conversation with two worldly locals at the adjacent table: the Argentine-born head of Google Mexico and a French-born executive at Nestlé. They presented a portrait of Mexico fast on the rise, a place of golden opportunity. 

Others agree: Last April’s Milken Global Conference included the panel “Mexico as a Global Powerhouse,” one of a very few Michael Milken chose to moderate. And yet, those are not the stories of Mexico that make headlines.

None of this is to say that Mexico is a flawless country. About half its population lives below Mexico’s national poverty line (about $158 per month in cities, less in rural areas) and one man, Carlos Slim, among the world’s richest people, possesses personal wealth equivalent to about 6 percent of Mexico’s GDP. Like all countries run by human beings, Mexico has a long way to go before it realizes a truly just, equal and free society. 

On the AJWS trip in 2013, I met with communities and NGOs on the hopeful side of this struggle: Naaxwiin, for example, is a collective devoted to women’s health, reproductive and political rights; Ser Mixe is an indigenous community committed to sustainable living; ProDESC, a legal defense organization, takes on great risk in order to represent underserved communities in the fight to protect their social, cultural and political rights — especially in the face of growing multinational mining interests. But this is the good news! Instead of fleeing to the United States, plenty of hardworking, talented Mexicans are staying put to help build their country into something better.

Mexico is so appealing, I met more than a few Israelis who have decamped to the dreamy Yucatan Peninsula, with its turquoise sea and silken powder sand, in order to build hotels, condos and beach resorts. 

But the most memorable moments of my travels came in quiet acts of kindness: like when Marvin, a cab driver, waited for over two hours (at no additional cost) while I dealt with flight delays and other mishegoss; or when a nameless boy and his 5-year-old sister stopped in the sweltering heat to help me untangle my jacket from my bike chain. 

To some, peril. To others, paradise. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Mexico, Israel target tripling annual trade to $2.1 billion

The commercial ties between Mexico and Israel will be expanded, aiming at tripling current trade figures, according to Israel’s ambassador in Mexico.

In 2015, two-way trade between the nations amounted to $700 million, a 300 percent increase since the nations signed a trade agreement in 2000.

“This is a very timely moment for the relationship between Mexico and Israel, which is expressed at political, economic and cultural levels,” the ambassador, Jonathan Peled, told El Universal newspaper Thursday, citing President Enrique Pena Nieto’s scheduled visit to Israel in 2017 as a booster of technological cooperation.

The agreement will be updated as of 2017 to cover other areas such as investment and services. Israel is Mexico’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East and 42nd globally.

Mexico’s exports to Israel include cement, agriculture and mining products. Israel invests in the Latin American nation in the fields of pharmaceuticals, agriculture, water technology, renewable energy, public security and technology.

A Mexican “ProMexico” trade office is expected to be opened soon in Israel. Some 200 Israeli companies have offices in Mexico and more are expected to come, according to the diplomat, who said there are reasons beyond the economic ones the Israelis and Mexicans should be doing more business together.

“We were one of the first to recognize Israel, in 1950,” Mexico’s ambassador to Israel, Benito Andion, said in an interview with The Times of Israel last year. “Our Jewish community is well integrated and well respected, and it has wonderful ties with other Mexican communities, as well as with Israel. Many of our Jewish youth have spent time in Israel and served in the IDF. To me, Israel and Mexico are a natural fit.”

Mexico is home to some 50,000 Jews, Latin America’s third-largest Jewish community after Argentina and Brazil.


Mexico’s Foreign Secretary lambastes Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric

Mexican Foreign Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu issued a blistering attack against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in a speech to a prominent Jewish group in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

“The United States benefits greatly from the economic relationship with Mexico, and the American people benefit immensely from the presence of Mexican people in this country,” Ruiz Massieu said during a speech at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum without mentioning Donald Trump by name. “People, we are most definitely not the problem; we are part of the solution. Our problem is not one of closed borders, but one of narrow minds.”

Lambasting Trump’s recent comments about Mexican immigrants “for political gain,” Ruiz Massieu stressed, “The Mexican people have always been a positive presence and force for good in the United States. And this is not an opinion, it is a fact. The future and viability of the United States as an economic dominant power in the 21st century is linked to the success of its immigrant population.”

According to the foreign secretary, the “foreign” people Trump disparages and demonizes are no different than American Jews and others who “plow the land and make sure there is food on our table.”

“Those who want to make political profit stigmatizing these people, be them Mexicans, Jews, Muslims, people of color, or Asians, are wrong,” she said. “For this country was founded on the very principle – the self evident truth that all men and women are endowed with the same rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Ruiz Massieu further touted the close relationship between the Mexican people and the Jewish community and their shared values, saying that if history has taught us anything, “when discrimination is allowed against one group, it’s just a matter of time before it is targeted against others.”

“Let me say loud and clear: Fighting anti-Semitism, like standing up to anti-Mexican sentiments, is not a Jewish issue nor a Mexican issue. It’s a common battle for human rights. It is a matter of universal dignity that goes beyond race, religion, ideology or politics. And this stance is simply non-negotiable,” she added.

Ruiz Massieu concluded, “The Mexican-U.S. alliance is unwavering. It has deep, strong roots, and it’s mature enough to endure any political juncture. It goes way beyond this unprecedented electoral process.”

Mexico shuns approach by U.S. lobby group seeking to work against Trump

Mexico has rebuffed an approach from a U.S. lobbying group seeking a government endorsement for its efforts to counter Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, according to a Mexican official involved in the talks.

The American Mexico Public Affairs Committee (AMxPAC), a tax-exempt “social welfare” group recently set up by Mexican-American business figures, did not ask for money but was simply testing the waters to gauge whether the government would be interested in giving it some form of support, the official said.

Keen to avoid being perceived as interfering in the domestic politics of its northern neighbor, the Mexican government rebuffed the approach, the official said.

“It would be awful if we joined them and Trump won,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “The political cost would be huge.”

Trump, who is all but certain to be the Republican Party presidential nominee for the Nov. 8 U.S. election, has upset many in his own party and south of the border with insulting comments about Mexican immigrants and pledges to build a wall along the Mexican frontier to keep out illegal immigrants.

Trump argues that Mexico is “killing” the United States with cheap labor and says the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been a disaster.

The AMxPAC president, Antonio Maldonado, said Trump's rise was a factor in the March 18 creation of the group, which is organized under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code and is modeled on the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but added that it was not solely focused on providing a counter-narrative to Trump's rhetoric.

“This idea of having a lobby to strengthen the U.S.-Mexico relationship is something that is much bigger than Trump's candidacy,” said Maldonado, a San Diego-based lawyer.

Nonetheless, Maldonado acknowledged that AMxPAC board member Eduardo Bravo had approached the Mexican government.

“There was a conversation,” he said. “But only to explain that we didn't want to hinder what they were doing, and also, we didn't want them to hinder what we were doing.”

Mexico has responded to concerns over Trump's remarks and worry that his comments reflect wider ill-feeling toward it in the United States by sending in a respected diplomat, Carlos Sada, as its new ambassador in Washington, charged with boosting the country's image. Maldonado said the government had also hired U.S. public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.

The official said the government is also focused on helping eligible Mexicans in the United States become citizens, and other “soft power” strategies. For example, Mexico may lean on the national soccer team to help it reach the U.S. Mexican diaspora.

It is illegal for foreign governments, corporations or individuals to spend funds in connection with U.S. federal, state or local elections.

The 501(c)(4) groups do not have to disclose the identities of their donors as long as they spend less than half their time and money on political activities, providing a potential illegal workaround for foreign nationals hoping to donate to political causes.

Maldonado said the AMxPAC was predominantly formed as a 501(c)(4) for tax purposes, not to allow donors anonymity.

Why Trump makes us all dizzy

There’s no better feeling in the world than being 100 percent right about something. In a slippery world where everything seems to be debatable — even climate change! — it’s so refreshing to find something that is not debatable, something truly black and white.

The fact that Donald Trump has made vile, racist, sexist, violent and bigoted statements is not debatable. It’s the cold truth, as if I told you that water is a liquid or the Lubavitcher Rebbe was Jewish.

This cold truth has united most of the Jews of America. Whether you’re on the right or the left, religious or secular, the vast majority of Jews (there are always exceptions) will not condone the vile statements made by Trump as he has climbed to the top of the Republican primaries. If you don’t believe me, try getting a Jew to publicly defend Trump’s racist comments. It’s one thing to harbor dark thoughts, it’s another to go public with them.

Trump goes public with them, and this has made us all dizzy.

Saying things like “Muslims won’t be allowed into America until we can figure out what the hell is going on” is not just racist, it’s incredibly stupid. We’re not used to hearing such raw bile from politicians who want to get elected. Talking points that come out of focus groups are littered with inoffensive clichés. If you want to be popular and attract as many voters as possible, the less offensive you are, the better.

So, when we hear such shocking and immoral bile from a presidential candidate, we go nuts. How could we not?

Our revulsion at Trump is making us so dizzy that it is trumping other values, like knowledge, curiosity and understanding. The rabbis and activists who plan to walk out in protest of Trump’s speech Monday night at the AIPAC Policy Conference have no interest in hearing what he has to say. I get it. Moral values are fundamental to one’s identity. If someone challenges these values as blatantly as Trump has, our instinct is to cut him out.

But I will be there Monday night, and I will definitely not walk out.

I hate Trump’s racist bile as much as anyone, but that’s not the point. The point is this: my feelings often bore me. They don’t encourage me to think, and thinking is what I love to do. The minute I internalize something like, “I hate you,” “You’re a racist,” or “Your statements are unacceptable and beyond the pale,” my feelings take over and I get in activist mode. I don’t mind the activist mode; I just prefer the thinking mode.

I prefer the mode of trying to make sense of this crazy Trump phenomenon, the likes of which I have never seen. Is he more of a huckster than a racist? Can attitude trump substance? Is he getting all those votes because or despite his vile comments? Is he just another politician who won’t deliver on his promises, including appalling ones like cutting out Muslims or building that 10-foot wall on the border of Mexico?

How much validity is there in his argument that we’re getting ripped off by China in our trade agreements? How much of his appeal is due to people’s economic worries and his shtick that because he knows how to negotiate good deals for himself, he’ll know how to negotiate good deals for America? How could so many voters overlook his horrible comments? Why are even educated people voting for him? How will he tailor his speech for the AIPAC crowd, and what will that say about him? And so on, and so on.

That Trump’s comments offend me to no end is a cold truth, but there’s another, equally vital truth swimming in my head: I like to figure out what the hell is going on.

It makes me less dizzy, and better equipped to counter what I hate.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Mexico recaptures drug boss ‘Chapo’ Guzman

Mexico has recaptured the world's most notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, President Enrique Pena Nieto said via Twitter on Friday, six months after he brazenly broke out of a high security prison through a tunnel.

Guzman, the head of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel who Pena Nieto first caught in 2014, was captured in an early morning raid in the drug baron's native state of Sinaloa, a government security source said.

“Mission accomplished: We have him,” Pena Nieto said on his Twitter account. “I want to inform all Mexicans that Joaquin Guzman Loera has been arrested.”

In October, the government said Guzman narrowly evaded security forces searching for him in the northwest of Mexico, sustaining injuries to his face and leg.

Guzman, staged his jailbreak in July, when he escaped through a mile-long tunnel which burrowed right up into his cell, heaping embarrassment on Pena Nieto.

Once featured in the Forbes list of billionaires, Guzman is one of the world's top crime bosses, whose Sinaloa Cartel has smuggled billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States and fought vicious turf wars with other Mexican gangs.

Guzman potentially faces a quick extradition to the United States. After coming under fire for failing to extradite him the last time, Mexico's Attorney General's office said in July it had approved an order to extradite him north of the border.

Guzman is wanted by U.S. authorities for various criminal charges including cocaine smuggling and money laundering.

Patricia, one of strongest ever hurricanes, set to slam Mexico

Mexico scrambled to evacuate thousands of people on Friday as one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded bore down from the Pacific Ocean, threatening to wreak catastrophic damage and spreading fear along the country's west coast.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Patricia was the strongest storm ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, and the World Meteorological Organization compared it to 2013's Typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands in the Philippines.

Blowing winds of 200 mph (322 km/h), the Category 5 storm had the Pacific states of western Mexico on high alert, including Jalisco, home to the popular resort of Puerto Vallarta as well as Guadalajara, the second-biggest city in the country.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said Patricia would probably hit the coast between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. (2100 GMT-2300 GMT), most likely near the village of Punta Perula between Puerto Vallarta and the major cargo port of Manzanillo.

“This hurricane is an enormous worry,” said Patricio Flores, a trade union official from Jalisco. “We know they can demolish anything you put in their path.”

Pena Nieto said it was hard to predict what would be done by the massive storm, which could be seen from outer space.

“But one thing we're certain of is that we're facing a hurricane of a scale we've never ever seen,” he said in a local radio interview shortly before U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States was standing by ready to help Mexico.

Both Mexican and U.S. officials said the unprecedented hurricane could wreak catastrophic damage.

Roberto Ramirez, head of Mexico's federal water agency, said Patricia was so strong it could possibly cross the country and head over the Gulf of Mexico to the United States.

Writing from 249 miles (401 km) above earth aboard the International Space Station, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted an imposing image of the giant storm, blanketing a significant portion of the globe in white cloud, along with the message: “Stay safe below, Mexico.”

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico said Patricia was seen as one of the most powerful and dangerous hurricanes in recorded history.

“If you are in the hurricane warning area, make preparations immediately to protect life and property,” it said.

Still, the NHC said the storm should weaken once it slams into Mexico's mountainous terrain.


On the shores of Puerto Vallarta, the heart of a string of resorts that range from low-end mega hotels to exclusive villas attracting tech billionaires and pop stars, loudspeakers blared orders to evacuate hotels as light rain fell and a breeze ruffled palm trees. The streets emptied as police sirens wailed.

Federal water official Ramirez said 15,000 domestic and foreign tourists had been evacuated from Puerto Vallarta.

The government warned that ash and other material from the volcano of Colima, about 130 miles (210 km) from Puerto Vallarta, could combine with massive rainfall to trigger “liquid cement”-style mudflows that could envelop nearby villages.

In Punta Perula, expected to be the first place to feel the impact of the storm, local hotel worker Fernando said he and other staff had hunkered down in one of the rooms in the Hotel Estancia Dolphins, locking the door and shutting off lights.

In near darkness, they waited for the storm to arrive.

“The truth is, I'm very, very nervous,” he said. “This is going to get very ugly, and I'm sad I'm not with my family.”

Still, some visitors to Puerto Vallarta chose to adopt a more philosophical outlook.

“It's natural to be worried, and then you breathe and it's gone,” said Carolyn Songin, 52, a California resident visiting her friend Judith Roth, who owns a nearby yoga retreat.

Roth, a 66-year-old California native, said she would ride out the storm at Songin's “bunker-like” apartment. “We're set up, we have our food and water, and we're just going to be in meditation and sending prayers for the area,” Roth said.

By Friday afternoon, the Miami-based NHC said Patricia was located about 85 miles (137 km) southwest of Manzanillo, with maximum sustained winds of 200 miles per hour (321 kmh) as it moved north at 12 mph (19 kph).

Puerto Vallarta's airport and port were closed on Friday, while Manzanillo port was also shut. State oil company Pemex said service stations would stop selling gasoline in the hurricane-watch area.

Local schools were closed and some business owners were busy boarding and taping up windows. The Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) said it was carrying out electricity shutdowns in the states of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit.

Long lines of traffic stretched out of Puerto Vallarta en route to Guadalajara, around a 5-hour drive inland to escape the storm, which the WMO said grew at an “incredible rate” in the past 12 hours.

“The winds are enough to get a plane in the air and keep it flying,” WMO spokeswoman Clare Nullis told a U.N. briefing in Geneva, likening Patricia to Typhoon Haiyan.

Haiyan killed over 6,300 people and wiped out or damaged nearly everything in its path as it swept ashore on Nov. 8, 2013, destroying around 90 percent of the city of Tacloban.

The strongest storm ever recorded was Cyclone Tip which hit Japan in 1979.

None of Pemex's major installations lie in the storm's projected path, but the company said it was taking measures to protect operations in Manzanillo and the port of Lazaro Cardenas.

Mexico kingpin ‘Chapo’ Guzman stages brazen jailbreak in blow to president

Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, broke out of a high-security prison on Saturday night for the second time, escaping in a tunnel built right under his cell, and heaping embarrassment on President Enrique Pena Nieto.

The kingpin snuck out of the prison through a subterranean tunnel more than 1 mile long that ended at an abandoned property near the local town, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido told a news conference on Sunday.

Guzman, who had bribed his way out of prison during an escape in 2001, was seen on video entering his shower area at 8:52 p.m. on Saturday (0152 GMT Sunday), then disappeared, the National Security Commission (CNS) said.

Wanted by U.S. prosecutors and once featured in the Forbes list of billionaires, Guzman was gone by the time guards entered his cell in Altiplano prison in central Mexico, the CNS said.

“This is going to be a massive black eye for Pena Nieto's administration,” said Mike Vigil, former head of global operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“I don't think they took into account the cunning of Chapo Guzman and the unlimited resources he has. If Chapo Guzman is able to make it back to the mountainous terrain that he knows so well in the state of Sinaloa … he may never be captured again,” Vigil said.

Beneath a 50-cm (20 inch) by 50-cm hole in the cell's shower area, guards found a ladder descending some 10 meters (32 feet) into the tunnel, which was about 1.7 meters (5.6 feet) high and 70-80 centimeters (28-31 inches) wide.

Inside the passageway used for Guzman's latest escape, guards found a motorbike mounted on rails, probably used to cart away soil, Rubido said, as well as equipment to pump air into the tunnel.

Prison workers were quickly questioned over the escape.

The government said 30 officials from the penitentiary were being interrogated at the unit specializing in organized crime at the Attorney General's office.

Outside the Altiplano lockup, and at the deserted property where Guzman surfaced, security forces barred reporters, while guards arrived for the day shift and encountered a prison in lockdown, wondering whether to stay or go home.

After the launch of a massive manhunt for Guzman, Pena Nieto ordered an investigation into whether public officials had helped the capo escape.

“There's no doubt this is an affront to the Mexican state, but I have confidence that the institutions … can recapture this criminal,” he said in a statement from Paris.

Guzman was one of the world's top crime bosses, running the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, which has smuggled billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States and fought vicious turf wars with other Mexican gangs.

The flight of Guzman, who became a legendary figure in villages scattered in the sierra where he grew up in northwestern Mexico, seriously undermines Pena Nieto's pledge to bring order to a country racked by years of gang violence.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, noting Guzman faces multiple drug-running and organized crime charges in the United States, said Washington shared Mexico's concern over the escape.

“The U.S. government stands ready to work with our Mexican partners to provide any assistance that may help support his swift recapture,” she said in a statement.

The breakout happened in the State of Mexico, the home state of Pena Nieto, who took office in 2012 vowing to confront cartel violence that has killed more than 100,000 people since 2007.


The Mexican president has come under increasing pressure to deliver on his pledges to root out corruption after becoming embroiled in a string of conflict-of-interest scandals. He was en route to France when news of Guzman's getaway broke.

Before Pena Nieto won election, politicians in his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had mocked their conservative rivals for letting Guzman escape while they ran the country, saying it would not have happened on their watch.

Days after Guzman was captured in 2014, Pena Nieto said another El Chapo escape must “never happen again.”

“Given what happened in the past, truly, it would be worse than deplorable, it would unforgivable,” he said then.

Over the past decade, dozens of illegal tunnels built by gangs trafficking drugs and people across the U.S.-Mexican border have cropped up, with more than 100 found since 2007.

But penetrating Mexico's highest security prison to spring the world's most infamous drug smuggler undoubtedly represents a more audacious challenge, experts said.

Rubido did not comment on why authorities had apparently failed to notice a long tunnel being built under the prison.

The capo's escape could also strain relations with the United States, which wanted Guzman extradited, said Alberto Islas, a security expert at consultancy Risk Evaluation.

“They were concerned about how dangerous he was, and they had a lack of confidence in the Mexican authorities to stop him operating from jail,” he added.

In 2001, Guzman paid guards to help him slip out of the high-security Puente Grande prison near the city of Guadalajara after a previous arrest in 1993. After eluding capture for 13 years, Guzman was arrested in Sinaloa in February 2014.

Government officials vowed on Sunday that Guzman would be recaptured, and security forces fanned out to search roads near the prison, which is some 90 km (60 miles) west of the capital.

Mexican TV anchor Zabludovsky, symbol of government spin, dies at 87

Influential Mexican journalist Jacobo Zabludovsky, seen for years by critics as an unofficial mouthpiece for the government, died on Thursday morning after suffering a stroke in hospital.

Zabludovsky was from 1971 to 1998 host of “24 Hours” a nightly news show on the dominant Televisa TV network, which had a cozy relationship with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Ruling Mexico continuously from 1929 to 2000, the PRI became synonymous with vote-rigging, corruption and authoritarianism, but its many detractors said it could rely on Zabludovsky to deliver the government line, glossing over inconvenient truths.

Such was his notoriety that popular Mexican rock band Molotov even opened an 1997 album with a song called 'Que no te haga bobo Jacobo,' or 'Don't let Jacobo fool you.'

Born in Mexico City in 1928 to a family of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Zabludovsky left Televisa in 2000, complaining his son had been overlooked for the post of the network's leading nightly news anchor.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who returned the PRI to power in 2012, was among many prominent Mexicans to express their sadness over Zabludovsky's death. He was 87.

Zabludovsky, who continued interviewing top politicians and wrote a regular newspaper column until late June, was still sending out news bulletins on his Twitter account until he was hospitalized on Tuesday night with signs of dehydration.

Me and La Migra

I am carrying through here on my prior post about the Wong family by making visits on Xmas and New Year’s to their rented beach front manse (for one third of San Diego rents) in Rosarita Beach.

I found Northern Mexico rugged but beautiful, the people friendly to a fault.  I ate at a “nouvelle cuisine” restaurant named “Mi Casa Supper Club”  as good as any I’ve eaten at in Southern California, and we bought fish at a beachfront, pelican-populated market in Ensenada that has all the local color of John Steinbeck’s novels.

Yet Mexico is a society desperately in need of infrastructure investment. Maybe it’s the provincial American in me, but I could not help thinking what a few hundred billion in American—and European and Asian—capital investment could do if politics did not get in the way.

The worst of my experience was with “La Migra”—the U.S. border patrol. As best as I can understand it, we have for American citizens returning by car from Mexico, a three-tier system: one expedited lane for those holding a “passport lite” border document, one for returnees with a valid driver’s license or birth certificate, and one with some sort of special medical status. It’s very easy to get confused trying to find the correct lane.

That you have this special “border passport” is apparently a Border Patrol preference, but not an official legal requirement. We know this because many if not most Americans return with just a driver’s license, and are not hassled—unless the border agent is suspicious or in a bad mood.

On my most recent trip with my friend, Chris, driving me back to San Diego, we were sidelined for almost two hours for reasons we can only surmise: because Chris told the truth that he was born in the UK (on an American military based where his father was service as an Air Force medic), or because I only showed a California driver’s license, or because the agent did not like the look of us: Chris is a blend of Chinese and Latino, and I told the agent bluntly that I was born in the Bronx, three blocks from the old Yankee Stadium.

The experience at the interrogation center was like a combination of Kafka and the Keystone Cops. When Chris asked whether we would be given a number and treated in a logical order, he got back from an agent a sarcastic: “Welcome to the real world.”

To the contrary, La Migra seems to be the fantasy land police. The agents mill around endlessly, joking about who took the longest lunch break, and posing for selfies. The idea that these demoralized petty functionaries  could arrest a real world terrorist is beyond laughable.

After a desultory inspection, we were allowed to return to “the promised land.” Fortunately for all concerned, my spastic colon did not erupt, nor did my New York Jewish temper which might have landed me in jail, possibly in a hospital ward.

For many years, I’ve favored a well-paid and well-treated border agents strictly enforcing border security, coupled with a liberal immigration policy. Now, I’m tending towards a libertarian-anarchist position. With neither party in D.C. apparently serious about comprehensive immigration reform, let’s put out of its misery by abolishing it. Homeland Security’s worse-than-useless INS. 

The cantankerous California writer Ambrose Bierce crossed into Mexico at the time of the 1910 Revolution, and was never seen again. Probably his way of saying adieu to the human race. I’m not that misanthropic, but won’t revisit Mexico until La Migra cleans up its act. Unfortunately, that happening is a fantasy.

My travels with the Wong family

My experience is that those of us who believe—albeit with qualifications—in multiculturalism don’t always have the opportunity to put theory into practice.

A transplant from Los Angeles to San Diego, I lived in a confirmed bachelor’s not-so-splendid isolation, with my housekeeper, Patty, and Maltese, Toby, before the Lord smiled on me. The smile came in the form of my association with the cross-border Wong family, who have enriched my observation of multicultural families beyond seeing them at Southern California shopping malls.

My computer consultant and the paterfamilias, 40 year-old Chris, is a blend of Latino and Chinese, born in the UK where his father  served in the U.S. Air Force. Chris’ great grandfather was shanghaied in the 1800s from China to the U.S., where he worked on the railroads up-and-down California before becoming a farmer and dying at a relatively young age in Mexico. Chris’ grandfather, a trucker, mostly transported produce across America, but once delivered  a Christmas tree to Ronald Reagan. His wife, Amor, is a U.S.-born Latina, who is punctilious about good manners and whose roots in Mexico hint at the exotic, though she is unsure whether her great grandmother really was partly Jewish. 

They started successfully building a family in San Diego until they were wiped out financially by the 2008 Crash. Ever resilient, they have relocated at least for a few years in Rosarita Beach, living at the ocean for a fraction of the rent, while maintaining close economic and families ties with relatives in San Diego.

The miracle of the Wong family, which has won my indelible affection, is their six children, ages 2 through 12. Their names  (from oldest to youngest) are Genesis, Jireh, Mission, River, Liberty, and Eternity. Chris has been a lay minister for several decades, and the children are being brought up as believing but tolerant Protestants, with great mutual love—but Internet access closely monitored.

Almost four year-old Libby has mood swings as tempestuous as summer showers, and is already extremely opinionated as well as intellectually sharp. Six year-old River combines perhaps a touch of autism with an artistic streak. Eight year-old Mission plays the piano and is already “macho.” Twelve-year-old Genesis (“Juby”) has her law career mapped out.

Their parents don’t play favorites, but I can. Although I love them all, my special delight  is Jireh (from the Hebrew for “provider”), who’s a 10 year old with a sweet nature, precise vocabulary, musical talents, budding gourmet tastes, race car enthusiasm, and soccer prowess. I am trying to teach him some history—not an easy subject to teach his generation. While on a recent visit to Disneyland, he conned me into riding  with him the “California Screamin” coaster in a front row seat. I am still recovering.

Though living in San Diego, I haven’t visited Mexico in twenty years. With some trepidations about cross-border developments (about which I have written in a scholarly vein elsewhere), I have now agreed to accept the Wongs’ hospitality in Rosarita Beach.  We just returned from a Sunday jaunt on the American side to Temecula where we visited my friend, Selma Lesser (now 95 years old), whom I wrote about previously in the “Jewish Journal” and who lives on her vineyard and winery. It was my pleasure to introduce the children to the wonder, at the other end of the spectrum, of great age combined with the wisdom of experience.

Multiculturalism is all well-and-good. I telecommute as a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance is Los Angeles which promotes it. But abstract debates about the merits, pro and con, are no substitute for contact with the real thing.

Mercifully, the Wongs and I rarely discuss politics (though Jireh, I am sad to report, recently exclaimed “politics stinks!”—to which I did not have a good reply).  But we do discuss family trajectories, with my being accorded the honorary title of Tío  Heraldo. 

My association with the Wongs—an all-American as well as multicultural family—keeps alive my hope that we really do have a future worth investing in and, if necessary, fighting for.

*Born in New York but educated as an historian at UCLA,  Harold Brackman, a consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal's Museum of Tolerance,  is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, forthcoming).

Killing it in Mexico

I confess that I’ve felt a little guilty luxuriating in a Mexican resort during this Passover holiday instead of finding ways to connect with the long and painful journey of my ancestors. But I did spend the first part of the holiday in freezing Montreal, so maybe that compensates somewhat. 

I was invited by Presidential Kosher Holidays to give a few lectures at a resort near Cancun, where several hundred mostly Orthodox Jews have gathered from across the country, and … how could I say no?

It’s as if there’s an unwritten message floating here that says: “Maybe our people suffered for 5,000 years so that we won’t have to.”

But lest you think it’s all fun and games, there’s plenty of serious stuff, too: Daily prayer services (Ashkenazi and Sephardi minyanim), Talmud learning, Torah sermons and, of course, the speakers.

This year, one of the speakers was former Ambassador and Middle East expert Dennis Ross. His lectures covered the unraveling Arab Spring, the comatose Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the continued nuclear threat from Iran.

In the comedy business, when you do very well, they say you “killed.” Well, at the lectures I attended, Dennis Ross killed.

He killed not only because he is so knowledgeable (he may have done more Middle East diplomacy than anyone alive), but also because his insights have the ring of truth.

A rabbi friend once told me that the ring of truth is even more powerful than truth itself. That’s because the ring of truth is familiar. It’s plausible. It’s already inside of us. A good speaker will help us uncover it. 

In his lectures, Ross uncovered many insights that rang true. One of them: Don’t play nice with bullies or they’ll walk all over you.

Of course, he used more diplomatic language: When dealing with dictators, the key is to always show that any hostile action will carry a price. When that price becomes too costly, that’s when bullies back down. 

He used the example of Syria. Millions of people have been displaced and nearly 200,000 people killed because bully-in-chief Bashar Assad has hardly paid a price for his bullying. 

Whether in Syria or elsewhere, Ross concluded, America has lost leverage and influence precisely because it has failed to enact a high enough price for the misdeeds of rogue regimes. Whatever your ideology, that seems to ring true.

Ross’ sober lectures were a sharp counterpoint to the lighthearted mood you feel in a vacation resort. It was geopolitics one hour, hot stone massage the next — a dose of reality in a place of fantasy.

Thank God, then, for comedian Elon Gold. 

Just when the gravitas of Dennis Ross was starting to weigh on us, Gold rescued us with a Saturday night performance that, well, killed.

And just as Ross moved us with the ring of truth, so did Gold.

He kicked off his show by pointing out that here we were, a group of Jews memorializing the enslavement of our ancestors by enslaving a slew of bus boys, waiters, cooks and hotel staff.

In 3,000 years, Gold said, maybe they, too, will gather for a special meal to celebrate their freedom from vacationing Jews.

He had us in stitches when he performed a precise, hypothetical talmudic debate over how Jewish scholars might handle a Christian ritual like getting a Christmas tree. (“Do you make the blessing on the tree before or after you bring it in the house? And what if one foot is in and one foot is out? Our Sages had a major disagreement about this.”) 

Gold is an observant Jew, but he’s also an observant comedian, especially when it comes to observing his people.

“Jews love to leave events early,” he said, “because the best part of the night is the car ride home when you can gossip about other people.”

Even though his show came right after a lavish dinner, he couldn’t ignore the Jewish obsession with food and the constant anticipation of more food. That was a running gag — “Let’s end this show already, we’re all starving.”

The ring of truth echoed in the howls of laughter when Gold channeled his inner Dennis Ross and weighed in on politics: “Questioning the Jewishness of Israel,” he said, “would be like questioning the Asian-ness of China.” 

After six eventful days in Mexico, I can tell you there was no questioning the Jewishness of my Passover vacation: Too much food, angst about Israel and the Middle East, a few good laughs, a search for truth and, of course, that ever-subtle feeling of Jewish guilt that never quite leaves you. 

Tijuana to Tefilah: Crossing from Mexico to America with Jewish children who do it every day

As I stepped out of the van into the chilly, pre-dawn Tijuana air, I could just barely make out the shadows of the pedestrians nearby, all of them stepping over puddles and street trash, walking in the same direction. 

I watched as two girls, Chaya Leibkinker, 16, and her sister, Tali, 11, grabbed their backpacks from the trunk of their SUV, quickly said goodbye to their father, Israel, then, along with their mother, Sandra, melted into the crowd approaching the Tijuana-San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing into the United States.

Every weekday, about 30,000 people cross this border into the United States, the vast majority of them Mexican citizens who work in metropolitan San Diego.

Among the crowd are seven Jewish children from Tijuana, who, five days a week, make the multihour cross-border trek to day schools in northeast San Diego so they can receive a Jewish education. There are no Jewish schools in Tijuana, and the community there can’t offer them a viable religious education. So each day, they cross northbound through U.S. Customs and Border Protection and then return southward each evening into Mexico.

It wasn’t always like this. From 1997 to 2004, Tijuana had a very small Jewish day school, run by Rabbi Mendel Polichenco, who leads the city’s only traditional Jewish synagogue, a Chabad. 

But with only about 25 students per year, the school’s small budget made it too difficult to provide a great level of education, and there was not enough demand to continue making a go of it. Plus, there was the problem of turnover; many of the children’s families immigrated to the United States as soon as they were able, Polichenco said.

Bottom line: A dollar spent on transporting children to San Diego every day goes further than a dollar spent schooling them in Tijuana.

Judaism, though, is not the only reason parents and their kids spend so much time and energy crossing the border every weekday. 

After all, throughout the United States, many observant families in small Jewish communities lacking a serious educational infrastructure supplement their children’s education by enrolling them in online classes with experts in Torah, Talmud, Hebrew and other foundational elements of a comprehensive Jewish education.

One of Sandra Leibkinker’s main motivations: She believes access to Southern California’s Jewish community could very well impact whether her daughters marry Jewish men and build  Jewish homes for their own families. 

“This is a small community,” Sandra said of Tijuana, as Tali made a face while her mom untangled the girl’s knotted locks. “I want that she will marry with a Jew.” 

For Rabbi Josef Fradkin, head of school at the Chabad Hebrew Academy in San Diego, where a handful of the Tijuana students learn, the young Mexican Jews lucky enough to obtain student visas to go to a Jewish day school in America — as opposed to a public education in Tijuana — simply have better odds of growing economically as well as religiously.

“That’s why their parents send them every morning across an international border — to give them a chance to succeed,” Fradkin said.

Sandra Leibkinker stands with daughters Tali, 11, left, and Chaya, 16, as they wait on the American side of the U.S.-Mexico border for the carpool van.

Most of these students have Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) cards, which allow them to cross relatively quickly while riding in the carpool van. The Leibkinker girls, however, don’t have their passes yet, so each day they cross through Customs by foot, lengthening their commute by at least 30 minutes. The girls and their mother, who accompanies them into the United States each day, meet up with the rest of their group on the other side of U.S. Customs.

My own morning started early, at 5:15 a.m. Theirs began at 5 a.m., as it does every day. To get Chaya to Torah High School of San Diego and Tali to Chabad Hebrew Academy by 8 a.m., the Leibkinkers picked me up at my Tijuana hotel, the Palacio Azteca, at 5:55 a.m. 

It was dark outside, and Carretera Federal No. 1, Tijuana’s main traffic artery, was still nearly empty — until, that is, we got close to the border, where dozens of other cars were dropping off some of the thousands of Tijuana residents crossing to work in California.

Inside Customs, the Leibkinkers and I split off into different lanes — they have a fast pass, but for pedestrian crossing only. On a normal Tuesday, crossing into San Ysidro in the standard lane often takes nearly an hour, according to a Web site run by UC San Diego. 

Despite a border guard’s somewhat intense questioning, I got through quickly, in about 10 minutes.

Just a few feet away, in San Ysidro, the sun was rising over the horizon and the Leibkinkers had been waiting for me for a few minutes. The air was still cold, and Sandra was leading her two girls to a convenience store, where they grabbed an on-the-go breakfast — a Mrs. Fields cookie, corn nuts and a Frappuccino. 

Then they waited to be picked up by the van and the rest of their schoolmates, just a few hundred yards inside the United States. This morning, as we lingered on San Ysidro Boulevard, Chaya played with her cell phone, and Sandra combed Tali’s hair.

Born and raised in Mexico City, home to a thriving, traditional Jewish community of 40,000, the Leibkinkers moved north four years ago to Tijuana, which has a Jewish community of approximately 2,000, Sandra said. She said the reason was economic, but she didn’t go into additional details.

She and Israel, a graphic designer, are hoping soon to move the family to America — like so many Mexicans who move to Tijuana, according to Polichenco, who, in addition to running the Tijuana Chabad, runs one just north of the border in Chula Vista.

“Either it [Tijuana] is a stepping stone, or they like the possibilities that the U.S. gives them,” Polichenco said. “They like being by the border.”

Polichenco, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, opened the Tijuana Chabad in 1993, moving into a building on Avenida 16 de Septiembre, which the Jewish community built in 1965. For the past 10 years, he has arranged for the children’s transport, paying the costs by raising most of the needed $25,000 per year from philanthropists in Mexico and California. He said the students’ families contribute what they can, but overall, their payments cover less than half of the total cost.

The same goes for tuition, which, without financial aid, runs upward of $10,000 at Chabad Hebrew Academy and $19,800 at Torah High, for example. Polichenco said that none of the Mexican families is able to afford full tuition. They pay what they can, but many of the children need full scholarships.

Like many families in Tijuana, some members of these Jewish families are U.S. citizens, while others are not, which is why the dream of moving north as a family is not yet possible. In the Leibkinkers’ case, Sandra, Chaya and Tali all are U.S. citizens, but Sandra said that because her husband is not, they won’t be able to move as a family until he finds a job in America.

I asked immigration expert Claire Bergeron of the Migration Policy Institute about the Leibkinkers’ case, as it is often relatively easy for the spouse of a U.S. citizen to receive legal permanent residence in a timely manner. 

Bergeron confirmed that, yes, in many cases, a spouse can legally immigrate quite easily, often in less than 12 months. But there are loads of exceptions that can turn that wait time into years, including doubt over whether an applicant will be able to support himself or his family in the United States.

Yaakov Levy, a Tijuana resident and seventh-grader at Chabad Hebrew Academy, plays a hybrid game of flag football and Frisbee during P.E. class. 

At 3:30 p.m. — the end of the school day, Tali and Yaakov Levy, Raquel’s cousin, a seventh-grader who is also from Tijuana, played a hybrid game of flag football and Frisbee. “Sometimes you can tell that they are tired; that their day has been long,” Stanley said. It wasn’t showing on this day, as Yaakov sped past as his friends who were trying, in vain, to grab his flags.

Occasionally, but not often, the students encounter legal and paperwork issues at the border, said Chabad Hebrew Academy executive administrator Cindee Sutton. Vivian Sur said that when Fernando was a student at Chabad Hebrew Academy, the school made their lives much easier by assisting with the annual paperwork that the U.S. government required for Fernando to renew his student visa.

When there are legal issues at the border, the fix is usually simple  — a call to Polichenco tends to patch things up with the authorities — but it’s the students who suffer academically when things like immigration law get in the way.

“If they can’t come for a couple [days], we are going to make accommodations,” Stanley said. “Maybe have them sit out of P.E. or an elective to meet with their teacher.”

And as much as these students’ parents sacrifice to give their children a Jewish education, Stanley wishes she could meet with the parents more often. But the distance, and the border, makes that tough.

As P.E. wrapped up and the school day neared its end, Torres, the driver, waited at the front of the school. 

At the end of the day, leaving Chabad Hebrew Academy, we stopped back at Torah High to collect the final three students. As everyone settled in, and Fernando, Raquel and Atenas discussed typical high school topics — namely, other boys and girls — Rezi, the youngest Polichenco, was ecstatic when a bag of lollipops was passed her way.

Then, as Torres turned the key in the ignition, something went wrong — a strange clunking sound was coming from under the van’s hood. After trying without luck to start the car, Torres spent the next 90 minutes on the phone with Polichenco, GEICO and a local Russian mechanic Polichenco knows.

As the kids waited for the mechanics, they chatted, laughed, complained and walked around in the chilly dusk air. Eventually, Polichenco sorted out that a tow truck would drive the broken van to the Russian mechanic, while another van from a San Diego Chabad would be dropped off so Torres could drive the group back across the border, hopefully in time for the community’s celebration of little Elimelech Polichenco’s third birthday.

When the replacement van finally pulled up, the irony was palpable — after a day spent in the country where most of these children and their families hope to one day live and work, there was nothing but relief when our ride out of America and into Mexico arrived. 

Arrival time back in Tijuana? Around 7:30 p.m.

Kaddish in Mexico

Light and wind poured in through the cracks in the plastic casing the first time we said it. 

We were in Oaxaca, on the rooftop of a charming but spare hacienda, shielded from the elements by a tent of opaque plastic walls, and the mood was a little bit somber. 

Three stories below was the ordinary street chaos of a small town, whose medium scale and communal vibrancy made it seem almost quaint, until the surrounding mountains of the Sierra Madre enter the frame, dwarfing even the city’s smallness. There was an unpleasant irony in the air that morning. It was the first of our 10 days “in the field” with American Jewish World Service, surrounded as we were by the beauty of the natural world just as we were to hear of its horrors. 

A typhoon had just hit the Philippines. Tens of thousands had died or lost their homes, their livelihood and, some, their will to live. Suddenly there was an urgency to saying Kaddish that had not existed moments before. There had been only my duty to say it, and Joshua’s; we had both suffered recent losses and, because we were a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community on a holy mission, the group had agreed to form a daily minyan so that we could recite those ancient, praiseful words with continuing fidelity.

But from that first morning, we couldn’t say Kaddish only for my mother. Or for Joshua’s father. We had to honor all the others — those we had never met who were now also gone, and on behalf of so many new companionate mourners who had been left behind. We had to say it as if our grief was fresh. 

The peculiarity of the Kaddish prayer is that it speaks nothing of grief. It is a prayer of exaltation, of reverence and belief, and how could we praise God just then? How could we magnify and sanctify, glorify and exalt in the aftermath of unsparing destruction? “People swept away in a torrent of seawater … vast stretches of land swept clean of homes … at least 10,000 may have died,” we read in The New York Times. 

May His Great Name be blessed.

So that day we said it as an entreaty, as a plea for more of God’s presence in the face of disaster. We said it to remind ourselves that we live in a tragically broken world, and it is especially during times of devastation that we must seek God’s majesty

May His Kingdom come, in your lives and in your days …  

Each day we said it, Kaddish was different. Each day we would bring new kavanot (intentions) to the prayer that fit the various schema of our social justice study tour. On the way back from El Zarzal, where we met with the indigenous women’s group Naaxwin, we stood atop Mitla’s ancient Zapotec ruins — their alternate name Mictlan, meaning “the place of the dead or underworld” — and contemplated the stories of anger, abuse and aspiration the indigenous women had shared with us. One woman said she had nearly lost her life after the man she had been married to since age 12 stabbed her five times. That day, we said Kaddish as witnesses. 

The prophet Isaiah is told, “atem eidai va’ … ani El — You are my witnesses and I am God” (43:12). Jewish tradition teaches that the act of bearing witness actually wills God into the world. All that we had beheld that day — the stories of struggle, isolation and transformation — became an invitation, even an insistence, for God’s hand. From our glamorous lives in Los Angeles to one community’s meager subsistence in a Mexican jungle, we witnessed the raging vicissitudes of God’s world, demanding the divine actualize — and answer. 

May His Great Name be. In the world that He created. As He wills …

And when what we saw was too much to bear, we said Kaddish as protest. We protested the vanishing of our loved ones, the lost opportunities, the unrealized dreams. We protested the economic rape of agrarian communities, the poisoned fields, the sickened animals, the toxic water. We protested injustice and poverty and indifference; we protested “against everything wrong,” as Elie Wiesel wrote, “to show that we care, that we listen, that we feel.”

May a great peace from heaven — and life! — be upon us and upon all Israel …

Kaddish became our anthem. Our daily affirmation of all that this world is and all that it can yet be. We said it on rooftops and in ruins, in fields and on farms, when our souls and spirits yearned for it, and when there was nothing else to say. 

“The symbols were seeping into everything,” Leon Wieseltier observed in his brilliant book, “Kaddish.” From the mourner’s prayer to the people’s prayer, it suddenly seemed there was no occasion on earth in which we couldn’t — in which we shouldn’t — magnify and sanctify, praise and glorify, raise and exalt, honor and uplift God’s great name …

Above all blessings! And hymns and praises and consolations — that are uttered in the world.

On our final day, when we had said Kaddish in Mexico for the last time, several people were crying. One woman shared that her father abhorred religion and so she had not mourned him with the prayer, but now she understood it differently; another had lost close friends and felt that saying it had helped heal lingering wounds; another, like me, had lost her mother far too soon, and Kaddish had awakened long latent grief. 

Through pain, Kaddish had brought what we’d lost close again.

Each time I utter it, I find my mother in it. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach teaches: Kaddish is what the dead would say to us, if we could hear them. But for us on earth, it is a commemoration; memory is what we do with what we’ve witnessed once the seeing is over.

May His Great Name be blessed, always and forever. Amen!

‘Don’t take my daddy’: When the immigration debate hits home

No matter where you sit on the immigration debate, it’s hard not to be moved by what happened to little Adam, an 8-year-old Jewish boy from the San Fernando Valley who watched his father being taken away on the morning of Oct. 18.

Adam was holding his father’s hand as they started their short walk to school. They had barely left their house when five vehicles surrounded them — three black town cars and two silver-gray SUV’s. As a group of men got out of the vehicles and confronted his father, Adam felt his father’s hand being pulled away from his.

Now alone on the street, and seeing his dad being handcuffed, Adam started screaming, “Don’t take my daddy! Don’t take my daddy!” One of the men told him, “Back away, son.”

Meanwhile, Adam’s mother, who had just kissed him and his father goodbye and saw the scene unfolding, ran toward the men who were taking her husband, none of them in uniform. 

“My husband is not a criminal!” she yelled. “Where are you taking him?”

Despite all the screaming and protestations, within minutes the whole episode was over. Adam’s father, the lynchpin of the family, disappeared in a speeding convoy of dark vehicles.

This dramatic scene of a family being torn apart was many long years in the making. It’s a story that encapsulates the heart-wrenching dilemmas confronting America as it decides what to do about its millions of illegal immigrants.

The story began innocently enough about 12 years ago, when a single Jewish woman in her early 30s, Laura Michaelson, met a sweet and attractive single man, Willebaldo Reyes (she calls him “Willie”), at a West Los Angeles gym.

They started dating and fell in love. Laura was conflicted about dating outside of the Jewish faith, but her new boyfriend loved Judaism, and she knew that if they had a family together, the children would be raised Jewish.  

Laura, who is a vocational counselor for people with disabilities, also knew that Willie did not have his immigration papers, but there were some hopeful signs.

Willie was being sponsored by a Mexican restaurant where he worked, and Laura figured that if he married an American citizen, it would surely help.

As she would learn, however, Willie’s situation was a lot more complicated. Years before meeting Laura, he had entered the country illegally from Mexico and started making a decent living doing bodywork on expensive cars. He even got a driver’s license and California ID card. But when his mother fell ill in Mexico, he had to return to take care of her.

It’s when he came back to the United States that he made his first fatal mistake. Instead of re-entering illegally, he took his chances with his California ID card. That got him arrested and deported on the spot. He re-entered the following day (illegally), but by then, his name was already in the system.

This episode haunted him for years. He was grateful that he had several jobs and could send a little money back to his relatives in Mexico, but he knew he was living in the shadows of the law. When he met and fell in love with Laura and dreamed of starting his own family, his fear of being deported became a daily obsession.

This fear was matched only by his intense desire to obtain legal status. So, after they married, had Adam and started building a life together, Willie made his second fatal mistake.

Following the advice of a shady immigration “Notario,” who charged him $4,000, Willie, in partnership with Laura, filed what’s called an I-130, an application for formal entry. His mistake, as any good immigration attorney will tell you, is that he should have waited until he got a response to his Freedom of Information Act request, so he’d know what the government had on him before filing the I-130.

Of course, the government had plenty on him, namely, his fingerprints and arrest record from when he was deported at the border many years back.

What he got on the morning of Oct. 18 was a lot worse than a rejection. He got another deportation.

Laura broke down a few times when she told me the story — but she’s fighting back. She feels her own rights have been violated.

Since that fateful morning, she has been on a mission to bring her husband home, firing off letters to everyone from her local councilman to President Obama. The most hopeful response so far has been a personal letter from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, expressing support and promising to help.

Legally, their chances are not good. The attorneys she has consulted so far have told her that unless the law changes, they’ll have to wait 10 years to reapply for legal entry. That depresses her, but it doesn’t break her will to fight on.

In the meantime, she and Adam spend long hours on Skype staying connected with Willie, who’s living with his mother in Mexico. Adam, who was very close to his father, is having anxiety attacks.

I can imagine that seeing his father’s face on a computer screen is reassuring, but it’s a far cry from the comfort of holding his hand.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Report: One-quarter of Israelis—and 37 percent of kids—live in poverty

The numbers tell a consistent storyline: Nearly one in four Israelis lives in poverty.

A report last week by Israel’s National Insurance Institute showed that 1.8 million of Israel’s 8 million people live below the poverty line.

In 2011, the year for which the report was issued, more than 36 percent of Israeli children were poor, a jump of 1 percentage point from the previous year. Poverty afflicts more than 400,000 Israeli families – including almost 7 percent of families with two working people.

Among developed countries, these numbers are unusually high. Israel has the second-highest poverty rate in the developed world, behind only Mexico, according to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

“There’s a very large segment of the Israeli population that isn’t receiving tools they can use in the modern economy,” said Dan Ben-David, executive director of Israel’s Taub Center, a think tank that released its “State of the Nation” report last month — which analyzed Israeli socioeconomic policy. “It’s not only bad for them, it’s also become a huge problem for the country over time. They’re dragging down our productivity and growth.”

Israel’s relatively high poverty rate stems in large part from two sectors of the population that are especially poor: Israeli Arabs and haredi Orthodox Jews, who have poverty rates of 53 and 54 percent, respectively. Israeli Arabs constitute about a quarter of all Israelis, while approximately 10 percent of the country is haredi.

The Israeli government defines the poverty line as individuals who have expendable income of about $9,500 annuall after taxes – which is approximately 50 percent of the median Israeli expendable income. Exactly 24.8 percent of Israelis, or 19.9 percent of families, live in poverty.

By comparison, the United States is fourth-highest on the OECD’s list, with a family poverty rate of about 17 percent, according to the OECD's standard. Twenty-three percent of U.S. children live in poverty.

In Israel, poverty usually does not mean starvation. Unemployment in Israel is at 6 percent, and one of the country’s socialist legacies is a strong safety net for the poor, sick and elderly. Israeli economic policy has, however, turned more conservative in recent years.

Food line

People waiting in line for food packages at a distribution center for the needy in Lod, near Tel Aviv, September 2012. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

Shlomo Yitzhaki, Israel’s government statistician, says higher-than-average birthrates among haredi and Arab Israelis is the principal reason for their high poverty rates.

“If you look at income by family size, as the families get bigger, from five members and up, total family income gets lower,” he said.

Arabs and haredim are also exempt from Israel’s compulsory military service, which makes it harder for them to find work in a culture where army service often serves as a career starting point, allowing people to network and in some cases gain specialized skillsets.

Ben-David says Israel’s problems aren’t limited to minorities and that the state needs to invest in education and transportation infrastructure.

In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living and growing wealth inequality in the country, which were seen as hurting the middle class. Though the issue has gotten a lot of attention in Israel’s current election campaign, it does not dominate headlines the way it did during the 2011 protests.

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a new commission of government ministers to streamline socioeconomic reforms. He did not specify what those reforms would be.

Ben-David said Israel’s security needs often make it hard to find enough money to address the country’s other challenges. Defense spending makes up about one-fifth of the total budget, and social service spending adds up to about two-fifths.

“That we have such a high defense budget means we have to be judicious with the rest,” he told JTA.

Nonprofit groups here have stepped in to alleviate poverty in Isael, including many managed by haredim. But Yoram Sagi Zaks, founder of the Movement for the War on Poverty in Israel, says the government still needs to take primary responsibility for helping the poor.

“The nonprofits help people, but they need to supplement the state, not replace the state,” Zaks said. “Poverty is not a fate. This is not something we need to get used to.”

Opinion: The embrace

At the end of Shabbat services last Saturday, I watched a 7-year-old boy recite the blessing over the wine, the Kiddush. His voice was pure, the Hebrew, a learned language for him, flowed fast and flawlessly from his mouth. His face shone.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the boy, because I was in Mexico and had learned that just a year ago, he wasn’t Jewish. His parents had approached the expatriate Jewish community in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, and asked if they could learn about Judaism.

Yes, at a time when our community is almost 100 percent focused on the people who opt out, these people wanted in.

Last June, The Journal reported the story of six native Mexicans’ conversion to Judaism in San Miguel. When I found myself in the small, perfectly beautiful colonial town for a friend’s birthday celebration, I jumped at the opportunity to attend Shabbat services at the congregation San Miguel Shalom and see the community there for myself.

They meet for services at the Hotel Quinta Loreto,  located just off the Mercado de Artesanias, a large covered market where you can buy crucifixes fashioned from polished pewter,  papier-mache crèches, wood-carved Jesus figurines and terra cotta saints. A sloping driveway leads into the hotel, where a lush garden — and the jungle call of some tropical bird — reminds you you’re not exactly at Temple Beth Am.

When we entered, a middle-age man launched a big smile in our direction, indicated a woven basket of prayer shawls, and beckoned us to sit down. There were 40 people seated around tables formed into a long rectangle.  The Torah ark on the east wall was made from hammered tin, decorated in a familiar local style.

Most of the congregants are Americans. The prayer leader, Dr. Daniel Lessner, retired early from his practice in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and conducts the services in English, Hebrew and Spanish. The community’s president, Carole Stone, adds her cantorial voice. For decades now, San Miguel, a town of simple but unrelenting beauty, has attracted retirees, artists and snowbirds from the United States. About 20 years ago, some of the Jewish ones formed this congregation, in what they say is the largest Jewish community in Mexico outside of Mexico City.

In the past few years, at least 16 non-Jewish native Mexicans have gravitated to the congregation. Many believe they are descendants of Jews who migrated to the Americas after being expelled from Spain 500 years ago, coerced by the Catholic Church to abandon their original faith. They are called B’nai Anusim — the Children of the Forced Ones. Others have been drawn to the Jewish faith for spiritual, social or intellectual reasons.  In their experience, the more established synagogues in Mexico City do not encourage or welcome potential converts.  

But Shalom San Miguel, as you should be able to deduce by now, is very welcoming. The leaders have translated the prayer books, including the High Holy Days’ siddurim, into Spanish. Lessner, who conducts a truncated Conservative-style service, lapses easily into Spanish and invites native speakers to read passages of liturgy in translation.

“Everyone should feel at home here,” longtime congregant Charles Soberman told me during Kiddush. “It’s nice to have young families.”

That is one striking difference between the converts and the congregants:  The ex-pats are older, the generation of Judaism that was. The converts have kids. A mother swaddled her newborn baby in a colorful blanket throughout the service.  The baby was born just after the three Spanish-speaking rabbis from Los Angeles, Oklahoma City and Las Vegas flew down at the invitation of the congregation to conduct a formal conversion ceremony. For this, the new members had spent a year studying and practicing Judaism. Lessner explained that the rabbis had invested him with the power to convert the newborn upon arrival.

San Miguel is an intensely Catholic town:  “You argue with an upbringing like that; you don’t escape it,” Tony Cohan wrote in his book “On Mexico Time: A New Life in San Miguel.”

In that atmosphere, cut off from Jewish friends and family — not to mention good deli — I couldn’t imagine the kind of courage and perseverance it must have taken for the men and women who walked into Shalom San Miguel to make the choice to become Jewish.

But I did see what happens when congregations actively welcome potential converts:  At one point in the service, a young man stood to thank the congregation for helping him through the untimely death of his brother. Afterward, a newlywed lawyer who had commuted two hours from Leon, Mexico, for a year for conversion lessons, invited the whole congregation to his house to celebrate his and his wife’s one-year wedding anniversary.

And I marveled. What we so often push away, these Children of the Coerced drew close:  Judaism’s way of making sense of the world, of offering meaning, of asking hard questions and providing no easy answers, of emphasizing godly behavior over even belief in God. They need Judaism. And it needs them.

We Jews are just now emerging from what Rabbi Harold Kushner calls “a period of illiteracy and assimilation … a time of embarrassment at being Jewish.” That embarrassment only amplified our reluctance to seek, welcome and encourage converts — a custom brought on by anti-Semitic edicts, but completely at odds with a Judaism that for centuries sought out and venerated new Jews.

The opposite of embarrassment, the opposite of coercion, is embrace. Embracing new Jews was once the Jewish past. And my visit to San Miguel only confirmed what I’ve long believed: It is also the Jewish future.

Amigos in San Miguel de Allende: A Shavuot Story of Conversion

Click here to read this article in Spanish.

Earlier this year, I got a call from an old friend, Rabbi Juan Mejia. Juan asked me if I’d be willing to accompany him and Rabbi Felipe Goodman to San Miguel de Allende for a couple of days in early February. Juan, Felipe and I have a lot in common: We laugh at the same jokes, we all speak Spanish, and we’re all rabbis. A little getaway to Mexico in the middle of winter? Sure, I could fit that into my schedule — no problem, I said.

Three Spanish-speaking rabbis were needed for a beit din (rabbinic court) in the quaint village of San Miguel de Allende. Our purpose was conversions. It sounds like the set-up to a joke: One day a Colombian rabbi from Oklahoma City (Juan), a Mexican rabbi from Las Vegas (Felipe) and an Argentinean rabbi from Los Angeles (me) get on a plane and fly to a little colonial town in Mexico. Many of the people in the town have never seen a rabbi before; as a matter of fact, it’s the first time in more than a century that three rabbis have gathered together in the town for a beit din. The townsfolk don’t know quite what to make of them …

So, late on a Saturday night, I went to LAX to catch a plane. I knew the flight number and the time, but I didn’t really know where I was flying, exactly. I met Felipe and his assistant at the gate, and together we boarded the red-eye to Guanajuato/Leon. Exhausted, we landed an hour late. Waiting to meet us was a young man with payot wearing a black kippah, white shirt, black slacks, black vest and tzitzit. I have to admit, we gawked. It was as if a character had just stepped out of a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” — only with a much darker complexion.

The young man introduced himself as Josue and drove us to his house in Guanajuato. There, his wife, Paola, and their 2-year-old son, Salomon, joined us for the next leg of our journey. Salomon is almost criminally cute, and he kept us entertained and in high spirits, despite our fatigue from the overnight flight. We continued driving for another hour and a half until we reached San Miguel de Allende.

We arrived at the home of Dr. Daniel Lessner, co-president of the Jewish community in San Miguel de Allende. He graciously served us a sumptuous breakfast — and, immediately after, herded the six adult conversion candidates and us into another car, in which we drove to a palatial home. Eager to get started, they urged us to begin the beit din immediately.

Before us stood six people who didn’t know what to expect from three American rabbis. As they faced the beit din waiting for the questioning to begin, we must have seemed formidable. It was evident they felt a considerable measure of fear and anxiety. Little by little, they began to open up. One by one, they shared their stories with us.

In their journeys to become Jews, most of them had encountered daunting obstacles. Some of them had already been denied the opportunity to convert. When they had inquired about it in Mexican synagogues, they had been summarily turned away; they had even been prevented from attending services. For more than a year, five of the six conversion candidates had to drive for an hour or more every week in order to attend services and classes in San Miguel de Allende, because every other place had rejected them.

Their stories were remarkable; we felt privileged to hear and witness them. Each personal journey was both a struggle and an epiphany. These six adults deeply yearned to become part of the Jewish people. It made me think of how often we who are born Jewish take our rich traditions and cultural heritage for granted. All six candidates were well prepared and passed with flying colors. As I reflect on their inspiring stories, I realize that as much as we are dayanim (judges), we are also witnesses to people’s entrance into the Jewish tradition. It is an honor beyond measure. The depth of their commitment to Judaism inspires me.

Rabbi Daniel Mehlman officiates with Josue and Paola under the chuppah. Behind the bride, Rabbi Juan Mejia videotapes with a small camera. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Daniel Mehlman

After the beit din, another man joined us for a long lunch. Just off the bus from a five-hour ride from Guadalajara, he accompanied us on a walk through the charming town center. This man had ridden for five hours to be with us for only a short time, to see if we could help him pursue his own dream of conversion, along with his wife and their two little girls. He rode five hours, spent just two hours with us, then rode back for five more hours — just because he wants to live his life as a Jew.

That evening we dined at the home of an American-born member of the community. There we met with several wonderful people, many of them Americans who had retired in charming San Miguel de Allende. After dinner, we were allowed a few short hours of sleep; we had to arise at daybreak to go to the mikveh, the ritual bath.

We were a tired but eager caravan of 12 people, driving to the Rio Laja. Abutting the river were three small lagoons fed by flowing thermal springs. Despite the early hour, the lagoons were occupied when we arrived. Townspeople were using them to take baths and wash their laundry, as many of them had no access to running water. So, eager with anticipation, we waited. After a while, one of the lagoons was vacated, and our natural mikveh was free. One by one, the adults immersed themselves. Little Salomon, the seventh to convert, was handed to Paola in the mikveh after both his parents had their tevilah (immersion). Now we were all Jews.

Time to party! From there we drove to a beautiful colonial hotel and showed everyone what Jews do best: eat. It was an amazing reception, with more than 100 people attending. And after the eating, naturally, came the talking. Everyone thanked everyone else for making the moment possible. They thanked the three rabbis for donating their time. And can anyone guess whether the three rabbis each wanted to get in on the act and give a little speech, too?

Rabbi Mejia was very emotional in his remarks, having personally experienced the same kind of rejection when he wanted to convert in his native Colombia. Rabbi Goodman emphasized the fact that the three members of The Rabbinical Assembly constituted a beit din that is widely recognized. I mentioned that on the same week we learn of the lighting of the menorah — our seven-branched candelabra and the oldest Jewish symbol — we participated in an event in which seven new lights were added to our people.

After the speeches, all six adults read the Declaration of Faith, in unison, and by then there was not a dry eye in the house. After the new members of the Jewish people received their certificates of conversion, a surprise took place — a Jewish wedding. Under the chuppah, the three rabbis officiated at the union of Josue and Paola. With a wide-eyed Salomon looking on, Yehoshua Ilan and Adina Tamar were married according to the laws of Moses and the precepts of Israel. A wonderful reception with more to eat came after, with an opportunity to mingle with the wonderful community in San Miguel de Allende.

And here’s another note: Remember the man who joined us after a five-hour bus ride? Last week, he flew to Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 4. They went straight to the American Jewish University to stand before the Rabbinical Assembly beit din. There they shared their remarkable story. Their yearning to join the Jewish people took them on a journey to a faraway land, a bit like Abraham and Sarah.

That evening, 20 or so people gathered at a charming little synagogue in Studio City and became an instant family. Most didn’t know one another; none knew the bride and groom or their daughters — yet they celebrated together. Yes, once again I was lucky enough to attend another Jewish wedding under a chuppah, to witness them sealing their commitment to each other in our traditional Jewish way. Jewish for only a few hours, they shared a millennia-old ceremony. Not only are they now part of our future together, they share our long history as well. Candlesticks and a Kiddush Cup were among the presents they received from people whom they had never before met. Then they spent a whole Shabbat with their brand-new community. The day spoke of a promising future for all Jews.

I will return to San Miguel de Allende. I must go back, not only for a Shabbat, but to be part of another beit din. I want to witness the next conversions that will occur in this holy place. We, the ones who were born Jews, often take our birthright for granted. We rarely dwell on what it means to be Jewish. On this trip, I was reminded that the Jewish journey is one of the most amazing adventures a person could experience. Every time I witness a conversion, my heart fills with joy and hope. Am Yisrael Chai — the people of Israel live. We are diverse, we are joyous, and despite our tragedies, we are yet alive. L’dor v’dor — from one generation to the next, the torch passes, and continues to be a light unto the world.

Rabbi Daniel Mehlman is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Meier in Studio City. He can be reached at {encode=”rabbidanytee@yahoo.com” title=”rabbidanytee@yahoo.com”}.

En Español

Amigos en San Vicente de Allende

Por Rabino Daniel Mehlman

Unos meses atrás recibí la llamada de un viejo amigo, el Rabino Juan Mejía.  Juan me pregunto si estaría dispuesto a acompañarlo junto con Felipe a San Miguel de Allende por un par de días a principio de Febrero.

Juan, Felipe y yo tenemos mucho en común: nos reímos de los mismos chistes, todos hablamos español, y todos somos rabinos.

¿Unas pequeñas vacaciones a México en la mitad del invierno? Claro, yo puedo acomodar eso en mi agenda- ningún problema dije.

Tres rabinos de habla hispana se necesitaban para una corte rabínica (Beit Din) en la villa de San Miguel de Allende. Nuestro propósito eran conversiones.

Suena como un chiste: Un día un rabino colombiano de Oklahoma City, un rabino mexicano de Las Vegas, y un rabino argentino de Los Angeles subieron a un avión y volaron a un pequeño pueblo colonial de México. Muchas de las personas del pueblo no habían visto a un rabino antes; de hecho, es la primera vez en mas de cien años que tres rabinos se juntan en el pueblo-incluso tal vez en territorio mexicano- para un Bet Din. Los pueblerinos no estaban seguros que hacer de ello…

Entonces el sábado tarde, a la noche, fui al aeropuerto a agarrar un avión.  Sabía el número de vuelo y la hora, pero no sabía realmente adonde estaba volando.

Me encontré con el Rabino Felipe Goodman y su asistente en la puerta, y juntos abordamos a Guanajato/León. Exhaustos arribamos a Guanajato con una hora de atraso. Nos estaba esperando un joven con peyes; estaba usando una kipá negra, camisa blanca, pantalones negros, chaleco negro y tzitzit. Tengo que admitir que eso nos asombró.

Era como si uno de los personajes de “Violinista sobre el tejado” se hubiera escapado de la obra -solo que este tenía una complexión mucho más oscura.

El joven hombre se presentó como Josué y nos condujo a su casa en Guanajato. Allí su esposa Paola y su hijo de dos años, Salomón, se unieron para la siguiente parte del viaje. Salomón es casi criminalmente encantador, nos mantuvo entretenidos y en buen espíritu aún con nuestra fatiga por el viaje nocturno. Seguimos manejando por otra hora y media hasta que llegamos a San Miguel de Allende.

A la mañana llegamos temprano y radiantes al hogar del Dr. Daniel Lessner,  co-presidente de la comunidad Judía de San Miguel de Allende.  Cortésmente nos sirvió un suntuoso desayuno, e inmediatamente después nos llevo junto con los seis candidatos adultos para la conversión.

Nos condujeron hacia un palacio, deseosos por comenzar. Deseaban que comenzáramos con el Bet Din inmediatamente.

Ante nosotros estaban seis personas que no sabían que esperar de tres Rabinos Americanos.  Encarando el Bet Din, esperando que el cuestionario empezara debimos parecerles formidables.  Era evidente que sentían una considerable cantidad de miedo y ansiedad.  Poco a poco comenzaron a abrirse. Uno por uno comenzaron a compartir sus historias con nosotros.

En su viaje a volverse Judíos, la mayoría de ellos se encontraron con intimidantes obstáculos. A alguno de ellos ya se le había negado la oportunidad de conversión.  Al preguntar acerca de esto en las sinagogas mexicanas, no solo se les había rechazado, incluso se les había prohibido atender servicios. Por mas de un año, cinco de los seis candidatos a conversión tuvieron que manejar una hora o más para poder asistir a los servicios y clases en San Miguel de Allende, ya que todos los otros lugares los habían rechazado. Mirándonos, es de esperar que pensaran que nosotros los íbamos a rechazar también.

Sus historias eran extraordinarias; nos sentimos privilegiados de escucharlas y ser testigos de ellas. Cada camino personal fue, ambos, de obstáculos y de epifanía. Estos seis adultos profundamente desearon volverse parte del pueblo Judío. Me hizo pensar que tan a menudo aquellos nacidos Judíos tomamos nuestra rica tradición y herencia cultural por dada. Todos, los seis candidatos estaban bien preparados pasando con brillantez. Como he reflejado en sus historias que nos inspiran, me di cuenta que por mucho que seamos Dayanim, jueces, somos también testigos de la entrada de personas al la tradición Judía. Es un honor que no se puede medir. La profundidad de su compromiso al Judaísmo me inspira nuevo amor por nuestra tradición.

Después del Bet Din alguien nuevo se nos unió para almorzar. Recién bajado del autobús después de un viaje de cinco horas nos acompañó en un tour por el cálido centro del pueblo. Este hombre viajó por cinco horas para estar con nosotros por un corto periodo de tiempo, para ver si podríamos ayudarlo con su propio sueño de conversión, junto a su esposa y dos pequeñas hijas.  Viajó cinco horas, estuvo solo dos horas con nosotros y luego viajó cinco horas de regreso, solamente porque quiere vivir su vida como Judío.

Esa tardecita cenamos en el hogar de un miembro de la comunidad nacido en America. Allí conocimos personas maravillosas, muchos de ellos Americanos retirados en la cálida San Miguel de Allende. Después de cenar, se nos permitió unas horas de sueño, teníamos que levantarnos al amanecer para ir a la Mikveh, el baño ritual.

Éramos una caravana de doce personas, cansadas pero deseosas, manejando al Río Laja. Orillando el río había tres pequeñas lagunas de agua termal. Aunque temprano, las lagunas estaban ocupadas a nuestra llegada. Pueblerinos las estaban usando para bañarse y lavar la ropa ya que muchos de ellos no tienen acceso al agua corriente. Así que deseosos con la anticipación, esperamos. Después de un rato una de las lagunas se desocupó, y nuestro Mikveh natural estaba disponible. Uno a uno los adultos se sumergieron en la Mikveh. El pequeño Salomón, el séptimo a convertir fue entregado a Paola en la Mikveh después que sus padres tuvieron su Tvilah (inmersión). Ahora todos éramos Judíos.

La hora de festejar! Desde ahí manejamos hacia un hermoso hotel colonial y les mostramos a todos lo que los Judíos hacemos mejor: comer. Después de la comida, por supuesto viene los discursos. Todos agradecieron a todos por hacer ese momento posible. Agradecieron a los tres rabinos por donar su tiempo. Y puede alguien imaginar si los tres rabinos aceptaron dar una pequeña oratoria también?

El rabino Mejia fue muy emotivo en su comentarios, habiendo experimentado personalmente la misma clase de rechazo cuando quiso convertirse en Colombia. El rabino Goodman enfatizó el hecho que tres miembros de la Asamblea Rabínica constituyeron un Bet Din que es ampliamente reconocido.  Yo mencioné que durante la misma semana aprendimos del encendido de la Menorah, nuestro candelabro de siete brazos, el mas antiguo de los símbolos Judíos, participamos en un evento donde siete nuevas luces fueron encendidas en nuestro pueblo.

Después de la oratoria, los seis adultos leyeron la Declaración de Fe al unísono, para entonces no había un par de ojos secos en el recinto. Después de que los nuevos miembros del pueblo Judío recibieron sus certificados de conversión, una sorpresa tomó lugar- una boda Judía. Bajo la jupá, los tres rabinos oficiaron la unión de Josué y Paola. Con un Salomón de ojos bien abiertos, Yehoshua Ilan y Adina Tamar fueron casados de acuerdo a la Ley de Moises y los preceptos de Israel. Una magnifica recepción con mas comida sobrevino después, con la oportunidad de mezclarnos con la comunidad de San Miguel de Allende.

Agrego aquí una nota, ¿se acuerdan del hombre que se encontró con nosotros luego de viajar por 5 horas? La semana pasada, él, junto con su esposa y sus ni¬ñas de 7 y 4 años volaron a Los Ángeles. Fueron directamente a la Universidad Judeo-Americana presentándose frente al Bet Din, la corte rabínica de la Asamblea Rabínica, la organización rabínica del movimiento conservador. Allí ellos contaron su extraordinaria historia. Su deseo de unirse al pueblo judío los llevó a una travesía a una lejana tierra, un poco como Abraham y Sarah.

Esa noche unas veintitantas personas se reunieron en la encantadora pequeña sinagoga en Studio City y se convirtieron instantáneamente en su nueva familia. La mayoría no se conocían entre ellos, ninguno había conocido antes al novio, la novia o las dos niñas, y así y todo se reunieron para celebrar juntos. Sí, una vez más tuve la fortuna de presenciar otra boda judía bajo la jupá, para atestiguar su compromiso de crear un hogar judío y unirse de acuerdo a la tradición judía. Judíos por sólo unas horas, compartieron la milenaria ceremonia. No sólo son ahora parte de nuestro futuro, ellos comparten ahora nuestra larga historia común también. Recibieron los augurios y el amor de gente que nunca los había conocido. Y luego pasaron su primer Shabat como Judíos en su nueva comunidad.

Esos momentos llenan de esperanza el futuro del pueblo judío.

Regresaré a San Miguel de Allende. Tengo que volver, no solamente para un Shabbat, pero para ser parte de otro Bet Din. Quiero presenciar las próximas conversiones que sucedan en este lugar sagrado. Nosotros, aquellos que hemos nacido Judíos, a menudo tomamos nuestro derecho de nacimiento por otorgado. Raramente nos detenemos a ver que significa el ser Judío. La semana pasada fui recordado de que el camino Judío es uno de las mas maravillosas aventuras que una persona puede experimentar. Cada vez que soy testigo de una conversión, mi corazón se llena de alegría y esperanza. Am Israel Jai- el pueblo de Israel vive. Somos diversos, somos alegres, aun con nuestras tragedias, estamos aun vivos. LeDor vador- de una generación a la próxima la antorcha se pasa y continua para ser una luz sobre el mundo.

Rabbi Daniel Mehlman es el rabino de la Congregación Beth Meier en Studio City, California. Lo puede ubicar en {encode=”rabbidanytee@yahoo.com” title=”rabbidanytee@yahoo.com”}.

Deals on December getaways

It is so good to be a traveler during December. Whether you want a romantic escape, a girlfriends’ getaway or a family vacation, the deals are abundant as many people choose to stick closer to home through the holiday season. My family and I have traditionally hit the road and enjoyed destinations that are packed with value and are not crowded — great places for a quick winter trip. 

Here are a few places to visit that are loaded with value:

Las Vegas
December bargains and Las Vegas go hand in hand. The Mirage Hotel offers a great grown-up getaway called The Serenity Spa and Room Package. Through Dec. 24, guests can spend two nights in a deluxe room and enjoy two 50-minute Swedish body massages or opt for two nights in a deluxe room with one 50-minute massage and a manicure/pedicure at a cost of $331 for Sunday through Thursday arrivals. Friday and Saturday arrivals are available at $461. Call (800) 234-7737 and ask for the “spa weekday” or “spa weekend” package.

All-inclusive vacations have made their way to The Strip with a jam-packed offering at The Luxor. Starting at $209.99 per night through Dec. 28 (two-night minimum stay), guests can enjoy all-you-can-eat at MORE Buffet; two tickets to “Criss Angel Believe,” two tickets to “Titanic: The Artifacts Exhibition,” two Nurture Spa day passes, VIP admission for two to LAX Nightclub and CatHouse Ultra Lounge plus VIP check-in. Call (877) 386-4658 and mention promo code “PDALL1.”

We’ve hit the slopes at the end of December several times and found that it is a terrific time to enjoy a ski/snowboard holiday. Ski.com is a great resource for planning a value-packed winter vacation, and there are a couple of terrific packages being promoted for December. Snowmass (aspensnowmass.com) is one of the best family ski destinations in the world and they are offering 30 percent off of lodging from Dec. 18 to Jan. 1. Located at the base of the mountain, The Treehouse is a massive, kid-friendly experience filled with winter activities and lots of fun.

Crested Butte Mountain Resort (skicb.com) is also running an added-value promotion with an early booking incentive of a fifth night free. These rates are subject to making your reservations by Nov. 23. Ski.com is also featuring an awesome air special with a fourth airline ticket free after the purchase of three.

Cabo San Lucas is an easy trip by plane and The Marquis Los Cabos (marquisloscabos.com) has extended its Thanksgiving Promotion to Dec. 20, making it even more enticing. The all-suite, beachfront hotel is giving a lot of bang for your buck with a fourth night free, $300 spa credit per suite, VIP roundtrip airport transportation, up to two children (under 12) complimentary, unlimited access to the fitness center and one dinner for two (drinks included during the first hour) at the resort’s Vista Ballenas restaurant. There is also a complimentary daily continental breakfast. Nightly room rates start at $590 for a junior suite.

Bay Area
San Francisco is another ideal destination for a December escape, via a road trip or quick flight. The Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf and The Hyatt Regency San Francisco have designed “San Francisco on Sale” packages that are filled with added value. The Fisherman’s Wharf property (fishermanswharf.hyatt.com) has room rates that start at $161 and include a $25 food and beverage credit as well as the Shop SF/Get More savings card, which features special offers and discounts at more than 200 retailers around the city. Rates at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco (sanfranciscoregency.hyatt.com) begin at $169. There are plenty of ways to enjoy San Francisco, from hopping on board a City Lights Cruise on the Red and White Fleet or ice skating at the Embarcadero Center’s ice rink. New Year’s Eve at the Hyatt properties is value-packed as well with a great location to view the Waterfront Fireworks and enjoy all kinds of special amenities, from champagne to breakfast buffets with rates of $299 at the Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf and $219 at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco.

If you want to feel like you are miles away yet stick close to home, the city of Ventura (ventura-usa.com) is a perfect option. Best-known for its cozy beachside atmosphere, Ventura bursts with activity during the month of December. The Winter Wine Walk takes place Dec. 4 with a sampling of fine wines and delicious appetizers in downtown Ventura’s restaurants and stores. Ventura Harbor’s Winter Wonderland and Carnival takes place Dec. 19 with faux snowfall, fudge tastings, ice-sculpting demonstrations and more from noon to 4 p.m. The harbor is filled with boats decked out with lights, and fireworks fill the sky during a two-day celebration on Dec. 17 and 18 with a family carnival and something for everyone.

Israeli father and daughter found shot in Mexico

An Israeli man and his daughter were found dead in their home in Mexico City amid signs of violence.

The bodies, riddled with gunshot wounds and signs of violence, were discovered Sunday by volunteers for the ZAKA international rescue unit.

Moshe Aruh, 60, and his daughter Sapir, 24, were found in two separate rooms in the apartment by ZAKA volunteers and local police in what is believed to be a double homicide.

A relative of the victims knocked on the locked door last Friday for a long time but did not receive an answer, according to ZAKA. After Shabbat, ZAKA and police broke down the door and discovered the bodies.

The ZAKA unit in Mexico recently completed its training.

Reversal of fortune: The Mexican immigrant shift

“Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America” by Gregory Rodgriguez (Pantheon, 2007).

The immigration-reform debate has gripped the country and enflamed passions. Hate groups, along with mainstream media, have engaged in facile assumptions about Mexican immigration, often leading to racist stereotypes and opening the door to extremist ideology. The advent of new technology aggravates the spread of xenophobia as commentators hide behind the anonymity of the Internet, and fact gathering is replaced by speculation.

For those who monitor and respond to extremism at the border, hate crimes against Latinos and the victimization of new immigrants, Gregory Rodgriguez’s new book, “Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America,” is a welcome resource, detailing the history, politics and patterns of Mexican immigration. His academic approach and extensive research provide much-needed factual information. His humor and straightforward style keep the reader engaged and curious. And his conclusions are well reasoned and accessible.

Rodriguez takes us through a history lesson that tells the story of Mexican immigration through the lens of his premise that the Latin American concept of mestizaje (racial and cultural synthesis) has influenced and will continue to influence America’s view of race. He starts in the 16th century with the story of the first Spanish expeditions to Mexico and their mixed race progeny who blended Spanish, Indian, Black, Aztec and Christian customs.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California were colonized by missionaries who were predominantly mestizos. In these areas, there was only a brief interlude between the Spanish period, which ended when Mexico became an independent federal republic in 1824, and the American period, ranging from 1839 in Texas to 1851 in California.

Even before statehood in California, the Mexican upper class accepted the immigration of working-class United States citizens looking for a better life.

“We find ourselves threatened by hordes of Yankee immigrants who have already begun to flock into our country and whose progress we cannot arrest,” said California’s last Mexican governor, Pío Pico. “Whatever that astonishing people will next undertake I cannot say, but on whatever enterprise they embark they will be sure to be successful.”

Californian hospitality to the American immigrants, motivated by the stimulus to the economy that the influx of cheap labor supplied, continued even after Mexico City attempted to curb foreign immigration.

The irony of this particular history is hard to miss.

A reversal of fortune occurred in Anglo-Mexican relations as the government structure in the Southwest shifted from Mexican to American. Between 1850 and 1930, extralegal violence in the Southwest resulted in more deaths of Mexican Americans than African Americans.

Mexican immigration rose during this period and into the 20th century as mining and agriculture business grew. Anglos made no distinction between citizens and non-citizens.

“To them, a Mexican was a Mexican,” Rodriguez writes.

imageRodriguez details the history of the Mexican American response — starting with opposition to the use of Mexican labor.

“No careful distinctions are made between illegal aliens and local citizens of Mexican descent,” former League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) director George Sánchez said in 1951. “The ‘wet’ migration … has set the whole assimilation process back at least twenty years.”

Yet, three short years later, opposition no longer sufficed as a strategy and LULAC spoke out against inhumane deportation efforts. In the 1960s, the Chicano movement emerged and, by the 1970s, the Southwest Council of La Raza helped to establish community-based organizations and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) pursued hundreds of lawsuits to challenge segregation and discrimination.

During the 1980s, California’s Latino population, 80 percent of Mexican origin, enjoyed unprecedented acceptance into the middle class. The population grew by 67 percent, half due to immigration, so that Latinos made up a quarter of the state.

More Mexican immigrants arrived in the United States in the 1990s than in any previous decade, most of them without documentation. But, by the turn of the 21st century, the foreign-born were no longer the fastest growing portion of the population and, by 2040, the third-generation Mexican American population is projected to triple while the second generation will double.

Rodriguez weaves recurring themes throughout the book. As in the 1930s and 1940s, U.S.-born Mexican Americans will “shift the cultural balance of Mexican America from immigrant to ethnic American culture.” Today, we see once again dual trends of increased anti-immigrant sentiment and mobilization by Mexican Americans to become citizens. And we see again how the Mexican American view of race, class and assimilation is reflected in the mirror America holds up to itself.

Rodriguez’s thorough study and articulate presentation will help anyone who advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and speaks out against bigotry of all kinds. But even the casual observer of race and society in America will find the book enlightening and accessible.

Amanda Susskind is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest Region.

Some retirees make aliyah to San Miguel de Allende

This coming week, Angelenos of all races and creeds will join in Cinco de Mayo celebrations that the local Mexican American community has adopted as its major holiday (even though it is different from Mexico’s actual Independence Day, which is Sept. 16; May 5 marks a victory of the Mexican army over French invaders during the U.S. Civil War).

Two weeks later, the Jewish community will celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday, which falls on May 14, according to the Gregorian calendar but is celebrated on 5 Iyar, or May 18, this year.

Although the history of Mexican-Israeli relations has sometimes been strained — while several Central American countries voted in favor of the U.N. partition plan creating the State of Israel, Mexico abstained — the two L.A. communities get along just fine. Moreover, a growing number of American Jews have chosen to retire to Mexico, creating a different kind of dual allegiance than the one usually associated with moving to Israel.

Two of the largest American expatriate communities are located in the charming city of San Miguel de Allende, three hours north of Mexico City, and Ajijic, a lakeside community near the city of Guadalajara. The latter has a retired Reform rabbi to lead the community, while the former has gone through some turbulent times while attempting to establish lay spiritual leadership.

Just like the proximity of the Mexican and Israeli celebrations this month, in the early fall, the Jews of San Miguel de Allende celebrate Sukkot, while the city as a whole celebrates its name day. Jews join in, as well, because unlike many of Mexico’s often religiously tinged fiestas, San Miguel de Allende’s autumn celebration is not marked by pilgrimages carrying crucifixes and religious images. Instead, native residents from the state of Guanajuato and beyond flood into the narrow, cobble-stone streets of historic San Miguel dressed in traditional Native American garb, typically wearing flamboyantly feathered headdresses and dancing with abandon to occasionally frenzied drumbeats.

It is a three-day spectacle that rivals the most famous of the world’s storied carnivals, and it is capped off by a spectacular display of fireworks, featuring whirling rockets that take off from temporary pillars erected in the city’s fabled central square.

The Jewish community of San Miguel de Allende is almost as unique as the city itself, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its distinctive beauty and history as a cradle of Mexican independence. Virtually all of its members are North American retirees: San Miguel de Allende is consistently ranked by American publications as one of the top retirement cities outside the United States for its affordable quality of life and pleasant year-round climate.

With but a few exceptions, no Jews lived in San Miguel de Allende prior to 30 years or so ago; nor has there ever been any more than the handful of Jewish children that are there today.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there is no synagogue in San Miguel de Allende. Organized Jewish life was never a priority for American Jewish retirees relocating here, compared to the city’s other attractions, including a vibrant arts community. For this reason, it is extremely difficult even to estimate the number of Jewish residents. The best guesstimates are several-hundred souls marginally identified as Jews. In the winter months, known as the “season,” the arrival of American and Canadian snowbirds multiplies this number several times over.

In recent years, an organized Jewish community of sorts has emerged. For several of the initial years, the community identified more or less with the Jewish Renewal movement. Then a traditional, egalitarian American Conservative-style minyan began operating on Shabbat mornings. For some reason, as tiny as the number of actively engaged Jews is, a serious schism developed, with the result that today, these two groups do not talk with one another.

The mantle of an organized Jewish community now rests on an entity called Shalom San Miguel, which itself has already seen splits and defections among its small board of directors. Nevertheless, Shalom San Miguel has managed to score some impressive accomplishments: It has secured a meeting place at the downtown Quinta Loreto Hotel, where services and adult education classes are held, and a sukkah is built in the courtyard.

Twice weekly classes in Talmud and Kabbalah are led by Shalom San Miguel President Larry Stone, formerly of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Carole, also teach Hebrew to the community’s children. According to Stone, the crowning glory of Shalom San Miguel’s activities is the weekly Torah study shiur held at 11:15 a.m. every Saturday.

“In the season, we have been known to attract more than 50 people to Torah study,” he noted, adding that High Holy Days services drew similar numbers from residents in San Miguel de Allende and cities up to several hours’ drive away.

The star of High Holy Days services is clearly the Jewish community’s elder statesman, Sidney Yakerson. At 91, he blows the shofar effortlessly, sounding clear blasts whose length would be the envy of many a younger man.

Stone envisions Shalom San Miguel as an umbrella organization comprising secular individuals, as well as groups representing both Reform and Conservative services: “Ideally, we would like to see a Reform Friday night service that would complement nicely the Saturday morning Conservative service,” he said.

In the meantime, according to the organization’s weekly e-newsletter, several Shalom San Miguel families, including the few who drive to Mexico City from time to time to purchase kosher provisions, are planning to hold monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinners in members’ homes. The community also occasionally invites visiting scholars-in-residence and receives visits from Chabad emissaries. .

Finally, San Miguel de Allende may not have a synagogue, but it does boast an interesting landmark building in the downtown area with the intriguing name of Casa Cohen. Adorned with a Magen David and a frieze referencing the Arca de Noe, Casa Cohen houses a decorative metalworking shop where a shopper may find a chanukiah or mezuzah for sale.

The building is owned by a Sephardic Jewish family with roots in the large Mexican city of Guadalajara. True to Mexican form, whether or not the local Cohens choose to travel to Guadalajara to celebrate the Jewish holidays, they would not be found worshipping with Ashkenazic Shalom San Miguel de Allende.

Buzzy Gordon is a travel writer who writes frequently about Jewish communities around the world.

Oaxaca is a dreamy stop down Mexico way

If you’re heading down Mexico way, all the way down to Oaxaca, you should know about a bed and breakfast there called Casa Machaya. The name is a sly Jewish reference, a wink at potential clients for the B & B: That’s right, it’s not meant to be the Spanish “ch,” as in “change,” but a guttural “ch,” as in mechaya, Yiddish for “joy.”

“When I was a kid, we’d go out to a lake near Toronto,” said Alvin Starkman, Casa Machaya’s owner and proprietor, “and Grandma Minnie would say, ‘What a mechaya!’ In a rush to come up with a name for the B & B, I remembered Grandma Minnie’s comment, so we called it Casa Machaya.”

Besides running the B & B, Starkman also guides tourists to villages and archeological sites, an abiding interest of his. Fit and energetic-looking in his late 50s, Starkman leans over the balcony of his house, looking down at the B & B unit on a lower floor. He waves to the middle-aged Canadian couple staying there, then takes in the mountains all around and the city rising up dreamlike in the distance. Even though it’s the dry season and the hills are covered with brown grass and shrubs, the landscape still seems magical.

Oaxaca seemed magical to Alvin and Arlene Starkman when they started vacationing here in the early 1990s. They loved it so much that in subsequent years they didn’t vacation anywhere else. At the time they lived in Toronto, Canada, where Starkman practiced law. Little by little, with each subsequent visit, the idea of leaving his law practice and retiring to Oaxaca took root.

When they began to consider settling in Oaxaca, Arlene Starkman, originally from Chicago, contacted the Mexican Jewish Congress, based in Mexico City, to find out about Jewish life in the southern Mexican city. To their surprise, they were told there were no Jews in Oaxaca.

“No Jews in Oaxaca?” Alvin Starkman said. “How could that be? How could a city of 400,000 in the Western world have no Jews? We’d see people wearing a Magen David or we’d see businesses with the name Shalom or Adonai. We’d ask the owner if they were Jewish, but were always told no. Nothing but dead ends.”

However, as time has gone by, the Starkmans have discovered that there are, nowadays, scores of other Jews living in the area: mostly American and Canadian ex-pats, but also Mexico City Jews, often artists, who have settled in Oaxaca, a place teeming with art galleries and indigenous crafts.

But they’ve also discovered that — in spite of their initial inquiry about Jewish life in Oaxaca — they prefer not to go out of their way to befriend ex-pats, Jewish or not.

“Having Judaism in common, or being American or Canadian, is not enough to establish a friendship,” Starkman said. “I didn’t want to get sucked up in a relationship with people just because they happen to speak English or happen to be Jewish.”

During the years, their stays in Oaxaca grew longer and longer, until in early 2004 the Starkmans bid goodbye to Toronto — where their daughter was starting college — and settled for good in southern Mexico. By then they had many friends in Oaxaca, nearly all of them Mexican and Catholic. When they celebrate Jewish holidays at their house, they invite their local non-Jewish friends to join them.

How do the Starkmans’ Oaxacan friends feel about their being Jewish?

“The fact is,” Starkman said, “the local population simply has not had enough contact with Jews for there to be any significant amount of anti-Semitism.”

That changed, however, during the unrest in 2006; demonstrations turned violent and, more than two-dozen people were killed. That occurred at the same time as the war against Hezbollah, so the Middle East war was conflated with local problems.

“During that period in 2006,” Starkman said, “there were outside agitators here stirring the pot. These people were also responsible for some anti-Israel graffiti as a result of the Lebanese war. My daughter was visiting here, and one day I got a call from her. She was with local friends, in the center of town, and saw an anti-Semitic poster. She decided to tear the poster down and her friends helped her.”

Is Starkman happy with his decision to live out the rest of his life in Oaxaca?

“I don’t harbor any serious doubts,” Starkman said. “Maybe, sometimes, for a fleeting moment…. And then you think, ‘Look what I have here, retired and healthy in my 50s, doing what I want…. How can you compare slugging away doing family law to touring clients in the mountain regions of southern Mexico, taking in the sun, sampling mescal [local cactus liquor], and being welcomed into villagers’ homes?'”

For more information about Casa Machaya, contact Alvin and Arlene Starkman at oaxacadream@hotmail.com or visit

Thirst for Judaism binds group together across border

We were near the desert, somewhere past the Salton Sea, when Daniel (Dany) Mehlman, a 48-year-old Conservative rabbi, summed up the situation.

“OK,” he said, “we’re going to rendezvous with a man I’ve never met, go with him to a Mexican city I’ve never been to, then spend the weekend with people I don’t know.”

“Sounds perfect,” I said.

In El Centro, a California town about 100 miles east of San Diego, we met Jose Orozco — smiling, middle-aged, wearing a kippah. We followed him across the international border to Mexicali.

At a modest house in a residential area, Alfredo and Lupe Medrano came out, greeted us warmly and introduced us to their children and grandchildren, as well as to relatives and friends who come to the home every Friday night to celebrate Shabbat.

By sundown, the living room overflowed with several generations, from babies in arms to those older than 80, and everything in between.

There were at least a dozen in their teens and 20s. Kippot were distributed to the men, candles were lit, small plastic cups filled with wine, prayers recited. The brachot were led by Orozco and Lupe Medrano, as well as by Lupe’s daughter, Naara, and her friend, Nancy Fajardo.

During the Hamotzi, everyone either touched the braided, homemade challah or someone nearby, so that all were connected.

Mehlman had gone to the Mexicali home because this community wants Spanish-speaking rabbis to visit them and give them guidance. Through a series of connections, Orozco learned about Mehlman, who’s Argentine-born and has sponsored many conversions, and invited him for the weekend.

Mehlman teaches at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and at the University of Judaism in Bel Air, in addition to being the spiritual leader at K’hilat Ha’Aloneem in Ojai and part-time rabbi at Beth Shalom of Whittier.

When Mehlman told me he was going to visit a group of Mexicans practicing Judaism on their own — no rabbi, no shul — it sounded fascinating; I asked if I could come along.

I wondered what had led these people — born into Catholic families — to follow Judaism. More than that, I wanted to see Judaism through their eyes. What do they feel when they say the prayers? What is the source of their faith?

This was not the first time I’d asked these questions. During the High Holidays, I had attended services at Beth Shalom, where a vibrant group of Latino converts has revitalized that shul.

I’d seen their dedication and commitment. But the Whittier group lives in Los Angeles, where it’s not hard to practice Judaism. The people in Mexicali, on the other hand, risked alienating themselves from their families and their society. Why?

This question was on my mind as I watched the three women — one middle-aged, two in their 20s — cover their heads, close their eyes, wave their hands and say the brachot.

Afterward, Mehlman led the kabbalat Shabbat service. Some could read Hebrew, others knew the prayers by heart. All sang niggunim.

The feeling was warm and affable, even joyous — a large extended family welcoming Shabbat. When the service was over, Mehlman asked that each person say a few words about the path that led him or her to Judaism and to this home.

Dr. Mario Espinoza, a Mexicali obstetrician-gynecologist, spoke about his certainty that he’s descended from Jews forcibly converted to Christianity centuries ago. He used the Hebrew word anousim (constrained people or forcibly converted) rather than Marranos, which means “swine.”

For Mexicans who trace their lineage to anousim, the Inquisition is not ancient history. It continued in Latin America, including Mexico, from the 1500s until the 1800s. During that period, those whose ancestors had been forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity were harassed, tortured and sometimes killed if they were discovered to have continued Jewish practices, which is why those practices continued in secret, if at all.

Espinoza commented that he has learned to read and speak Hebrew, and he brought with him several siddurim in Hebrew and Spanish. He and his wife, Lucia, who made the challah, are raising their four children as Jews.

Orozco said he grew up in Mexico and lives in El Centro, where he works for a social welfare agency. Recently converted to Judaism, he goes across the border regularly to spend Shabbat with the Medrano family and friends.

He said he’s been drawn to Judaism since childhood.

“When I was little,” Orozco said, “I’d listen to Jewish music, to Israeli music, and be deeply affected by it. I felt that this was the music of my heart, of my soul. I remember, as a child looking at photos of the Western Wall and crying.”

Several offered anecdotes that indicated that they, like Mario Espinoza, had ancestors who had carried on Jewish customs. Lucia Espinoza mentioned a grandmother who lit candles on Friday night. Lupe Medrano said that when she looked through her late grandfather’s effects, she found a tallit hidden in a box.

This visceral certainty about their Jewish roots may or may not be backed by hard evidence, but it’s what they feel, in blood and bone, fueled by family traditions — a feeling made all the stronger by the empathetic bond they have with those who, over the centuries, were unjustly coerced into professing a faith that was not theirs.

More than one person said that being at the Medrano house on Friday nights is like “coming home.” By being together on Shabbat, by performing Jewish rituals and saying the prayers, they’re confirming their deepest-held sense of who they are. They’ve looked into themselves — and at their family history — and have returned to their true nature, which had been overlaid with alien rituals and faiths for hundreds of years.

A few at the gathering were born Jewish. Michael Schorr, in his 70s, said that he was a child when his family left Poland before World War II. He was brought up in Argentina, has lived in Israel and now teaches engineering at a university in Mexicali.

Yehoram Uziel: A Lifeline to Mexico

Yehoram Uziel

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Yehoram Uziel, 56, began volunteering right after he finished serving in the Israeli army as a tank corps officer. First he worked nights at the suicide hotline service, then he moved to the family services center in Haifa.
“I learned volunteering is something that adds to your self-esteem; it’s not just donating — it’s something that benefits you,” he said.

So when he was sent by his high-tech company to America in 1989, it was only natural that he would begin to search for more volunteer opportunities. An experienced pilot, Uziel, 56, began working for various medical aid organizations, flying needy sick people, as well as medical equipment and doctors around the country.

Some 10 years ago, he began devoting his efforts exclusively to The Flying Samaritans, a volunteer medical aid organization that assists clinics in Mexico. In addition to flying personnel and equipment there, he stayed over on weekends to help out. “Once I get there,” he says, “I do everything that doesn’t require a medical license and requires a good pair of hands — fixing handles, overhauling generators, repairing equipment, installing dental chair, roofing, putting in air conditioning, fixing the water supplies and pumps.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “I’ll go play with the kids.”

Last year, when The Flying Samaritans became beset by internal politics, Uziel, who now owns his own business and who is also trained as a mediator, stepped in to resolve the conflict — and found himself nominated president. Now he’s focused on integrating new technology for the “Sams” so they can schedule their 2,500 volunteers at the 20 clinics in Mexico, improving services provided to the Mexicans by conducting a marketing survey and boosting the spirits of the volunteers.

“We want to make sure the service we give is worthwhile to the people that get the service, and, more importantly, when you ask so many volunteers to donate their time and money, you better make sure that they feel valuable.

Otherwise they get worn out,” he said. “It’s really important that volunteers can come back and not say they just threw money at some altruistic cause.”

Uziel, who is married to Rhoda Weisman Uziel and has two children from a previous marriage, was raised a secular Jew in Ramat Gan, Israel. His outlook on life was shaped by his great uncle — the chief rabbi of Israel.

“When my father was ordered to go to World War II, he went to his uncle to get a blessing. The uncle said: ‘I know you’re not going to keep kosher, and I know you’re going to drive on Shabbat, I know you’re not going to follow the etiquette, but there’s one thing I want you to remember: You’re always a Jew.'”

Volunteering one weekend a month in Mexico gives his life perspective.

“I go to Mexico and come back — and no matter how much it costs me it’s better than sitting on a shrink’s couch and whining about how terrible things are,” he said. “We’re lucky. We have a good life. We have so many options — cultural, financial. And when you see what they live through, you get perspective, you appreciate what you have.”

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).

Su temple es mi casa

It’s 103 degrees in Hollywood, and I’m schvitzing. As I head up the stairs at my synagogue, Tony Guerrero and I exchange greetings.

As usual, he’s looking sharp: pressed
slacks, a clean white button-down shirt, and today — a tie and a kippah.
“Tony,” I ask incredulously, “how can you wear that tie in this heat — don’t you want to at least loosen it a bit?”

“No way,” he answers. “It’s Shabbat.”

His answer impresses me, but it no longer surprises me. For although Guerrero is a Mexican American non-Jew, I have come to understand just how intensely he has embraced the Jewish community and how genuinely at home he feels here.

Non-Jews are common at many Jewish facilities, ensuring the smooth operation of our institutions — understanding and anticipating the needs of members, meeting the standards of our practices. But Guerrero’s story is more than the tale of someone “other” who happens to work among “us.” To hear Guerrero tell it, he has learned both the most fundamental and profound of life’s lessons by being among Jews.

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, where my family has belonged for 10 years, Guerrero attends to all facets of our building’s use: repairs, maintenance, security, and more. He is striking for his efficiency, his quiet presence and the way in which he brings — for lack of a better word — a haimishness to his work. The way he sees it, he’s not just our facilities manager, he’s also “a psychiatrist, a referee … a jack-of-all-trades.”

Born in Mexico, Guerrero came to the United States at the age of 5 with his mother. He quickly adapted to Southern California, acquiring skills that his family came to depend upon. When his uncle needed a new part for his car, Guerrero went along to translate for him. Impressed by the 10-year-old’s maturity and English skills, the owner of the auto shop, Arthur Louis Richman, offered him a job cleaning up after school.

Guerrero learned that Richman was a nonobservant Jew who “had no kids, no family.” He found ways to be useful — and Richman both encouraged and challenged him. By the time Guerrero was 11, he was spending every afternoon and weekend at the shop, and his relationship with Richman became “like a father-and-son thing.”

Through observation and initiative, Guerrero learned much by Richman’s side. Whether the lessons involved auto repairs, coin collecting, or interpersonal behavior, “[Richman] was a perfectionist; he was a very smart man.”

When Guerrero started getting into trouble as a teenager, Richman took him to a boxing gym. At the age of 16, Guerrero had his first amateur fight; at 18 he turned pro.

After four pro fights — he won them all — Guerrero decided he wanted out: “I was just too young to deal with all the pressure.”

Around the same time, his mentor retired.

“After I stopped boxing and he sold his business, I didn’t know what to do. I only had [some] high school … and I was striving; I wanted better.”

In 1989, encouraged by Richman, Guerrero applied for a building maintenance job at Valley Cities Jewish Community Center. Although he felt that he was “out of [his] league,” he says, “I [just] told them the truth — that I’d boxed, that I was a mechanic, that I was good with tools, but that … I wanted to learn.” Modestly, Tony admits “I guess they liked the ambition part.”

Tony quickly got to know many of the families there, and he found them more than willing to help him excel. When he needed to upgrade or repair the building he’d “know who to call on [among the families] to learn from … a plumber, or an electrician, or a carpenter.”

But his learning didn’t stop with the tools of his trade.

“I started seeing how important education was, which I didn’t know before,” he said.

With encouragement from people at Valley Cities, Guerrero completed high school and attended community college.

He also saw Jewish family role models worthy of emulation.

“I started seeing how close the fathers were to their kids,” he said.

He was equally impressed with the kids: “Where I grew up, if you [did] something for a kid … the kid would look at you and say, ‘Who are you?’ and use the f-word.”

But the kids at Valley Cities would “say, ‘Good morning, Tony. How are you?’ and ‘Thank you for fixing’ this.’ It really made me a better person.”

His informal education in Judaism took another leap forward about nine years ago, when he accepted his current job at Temple Israel.

“I didn’t know what a tallit was … what a kippah was, what the Torah was,” he said. “I had to catch on [quickly] when I came here.”

Guerrero tells me that he “isn’t religious,” though he was raised as a Catholic. “But I have a lot of faith. I live by the Ten Commandments, and I try to be the best person I can be.”

Noticing the ways Jews “give back to their community,” Guerrero says, “Now, if I’m able to help somebody, I will; before I wasn’t like that.”

As though still surprised by his good fortune, Guerrero quietly confessed that he had been “a lost soul” before he was taken in and “raised by” Richman. Whenever they speak, he says, “I just thank him, thank him, and thank him. He really taught me how to be a good man.”

Working “with Jews for so long, and coming from where I started [can] make you a smart man, make you a nice man. And that’s the kind of people I belong with.”