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.

Tijuana: A Tale of Two Synagogues

A bus trip to visit two Tijuana synagogues this spring provided an irresistible opportunity to learn about two distinctly different Jewish communities in a bustling border metropolis where Jews number fewer than 1 percent of the city’s 1.2 million residents.

By far the more unusual of the two shuls was Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, made up almost entirely of converted Mexican Catholics, including its leader, a charismatic non-ordained rabbi, whose resume includes a stint as a Methodist minister. Carlos Salas Diaz, an imposing man in a dark suit, who welcomed us warmly into the temple’s brightly lit sanctuary, looks like the successful businessman he continues to be and at least two decades younger than his chronological age of close to 70.

"I have been teaching and serving my community for over 35 years," Salas told the rapt audience of about 40 Angelenos. "And we have never charged one single red cent. Our secretaries also work free of charge, and everyone else in our congregation donates their time. We don’t have any mortgage to pay because we built these facilities with our own funds."

The synagogue is in a quiet residential neighborhood in Tijuana’s La Mesa section. While graffiti is in evidence elsewhere, none is visible on the long white wall at the temple’s entrance, on which the primary ornamentation is a seven-branch menorah set against a baby-blue shingled background.

Since the shul opened, 128 families have been converted to Judaism, Salas said, with many later relocating to San Diego or Los Angeles, a fact which doesn’t seem to faze Salas. It is a fact of Jewish life in this border town, where estimates of the Jewish population vary widely from 200 to 2,000, and fluctuating currencies and fortunes send populations surging back and forth across the frontier.

Many of the Jews who came in the 1920s to Tijuana were from Eastern Europe and settled near the border after being denied entry to the United States because of quotas. Others migrated to Tijuana from Mexico City or from South America, where many Jews fled from the Nazis. Most of these Jews are not members of Salas’ shul, however — at least 80 families are affiliated with Congregacion Hebrea. Since the synagogue doesn’t have a mikvah (ritual bath), the first group to convert in 1984 went to Rosarito Beach instead and converted in the frigid Pacific in December under rabbinical supervision.

Since then, Salas has brought many of his congregants north to the University of Judaism (UJ) to be converted by the beit din (rabbinical court) operated by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA). Those who converted "were fairly knowledgeable, and they all seemed to be very sincere," said Rabbi Edward Tenenbaum, chairman of the RA’s western states region.

Salas, whose flock often call him "Maestro" rather than rabbi, has played a key role in all of this and his influence on his Mexican faithful cannot be underestimated, Tenenbaum said. "He impressed me as being very charismatic." The pull toward Judaism among his Catholic-born flock wouldn’t happen without the influence of the one-time shepherd, he added. "He has an ability to draw people to his own way of thinking."

Salas’ own history unspools like a biblical film saga that might star the late Anthony Quinn in his fiery "Zorba the Greek" mode. Born one of eight children near the town of Fresnillo in the north-central Mexican state of Zacatecas, Salas tended sheep from age 5 to 9 to help ease the family’s poverty. Although his parents were Catholics, he said he really didn’t learn much about his faith "because what kind of religion can you learn when you’re taking care of animals?"

He had a deep hunger for religion, which was at first whetted by a Jewish businessman in Mexico City. Later he joined a brother in Buffalo, N.Y., served three years in the military during the Korean conflict, then returned to Buffalo. He married a Cuban-born woman with whom he had five children and whom he later divorced. (He has since added five more offspring and is married to his third wife.)

Meanwhile, continuing to seek a religious identity, Salas entered a Methodist seminary in Buffalo, eventually becoming an ordained minister. He says he went to the Methodist seminary because there was no yeshiva in Buffalo, but that he always intended to become a rabbi.

In 1960, Salas came to Los Angeles and two years later began attending UJ. Along the way, he made his fortune by investing in jewelry shops and other businesses. It is this money that he used to fund his Tijuana synagogue, which he started in 1967, the same year he converted.

For five years Salas took courses at the UJ, eventually renouncing Methodism and converting to Judaism. He made a decision not to become ordained, which he defends passionately. "I took all the courses to become a rabbi, but I never did wish to be ordained by any of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist (movements)," he explained. "I have never belonged and I don’t care to belong to any of those four movements or to any movement." It is enough, he said, just to be a Jew, to pray, to go temple, to observe Jewish law. "When people ask, ‘What are you?’ I say, ‘We are just Jews.’ "

The synagogue uses a Conservative Spanish-Hebrew prayer book and a Ladino-Spanish-Hebrew haggadah, he says. Some members believe that their ancestors were descendants of Marranos who emigrated to Nueva Espagna (New Spain) to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Zulema Ruiz, who has been studying with Salas for 27 years and converted 13 years ago, says she was born a Catholic, but never felt at home in her faith. "Probably I have some Jewish blood. My father’s name is Israel, and Zulema means Shulamit."

The synagogue hopes to open its doors to a large influx of Indian Jews from Venta Prieta in the state of Hidalgo near Mexico City. Salas explains that they are a small township of more than 6,000 people (some accounts have pegged the number at a fraction of that number, perhaps only 200) who claim to be descendants of the Marranos or Crypto Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition. "Everybody thought they were Indians because they didn’t understand what they were saying. In fact they were speaking Hebrew," Salas said. Some have shown an interest in migrating to Tijuana since the largely Orthodox congregations of Mexico City question their Jewishness and are reluctant to accept them, Salas said. "We have welcomed them without questions."

At the center of a poor neighborhood, the synagogue has excellent relations with its Christian neighbors, gathering groceries weekly to feed the poor. The local priest helps distribute the goods to the needy. "We’re extremely close in our relationship," Salas said. "We were born in the same country and have a complete understanding."

After introducing his wife, who converted to Judaism last year, and three of his children, Salas shows off the shul’s four Torah scrolls inside their hand-carved cedar ark and an Israeli flag which he insists is not just for show. "We feel very Jewish. If Israel needs our young people, we will do whatever has to be done. We are proud to serve in any way, shape or form."

In another part of town, our tour bus pulls up in front of a white building with green awnings shielded by iron bars. In contrast to the Hebrea Congregacion, there is no external sign that this is a Jewish building, the Centro Social Israelita, Tijuana, until we enter the building. Greeting us is the president of the synagogue, Sofia Model de Segal, and Rabbi Mendel Polichenco, the Argentine-born Chabad rabbi who leads the congregation. The Centro claims to have 100-plus families who "belong to us," with many commuting across the San Diego border, Salas says.

Some are members of the Ashkenazic Jewish community that helped build the synagogue in the 1970s under the leadership of Max Furmansky. A trained cantor and a Conservative Jew, Furmansky led the primarily Orthodox membership in the ’70s, presiding over Shabbat services, organizing classes in Jewish law and history and inaugurating a Jewish summer camp which attracted children from Mexico City and Guadalajara, as well as Tijuana.

In the early 1980s, a schism in the synagogue between Sephardic and Ashkenazic practice drove membership down to about 50 or 60 families and left the synagogue without a regular spiritual leader. The falling value of the peso also sent many Jewish-Mexican Tijuana families north of the border to San Diego, with the Centro’s loss proving to be the gain of several San Diego synagogues, according to an account by writer and National Public Radio commentator Alan Cheuse.

Polichenco, a short, stocky, bearded man dressed casually in jeans and an open-neck shirt, arrived at the Centro fresh from the Orthodox seminary. The first Chabad rabbi authorized to work at a Mexican synagogue, he married an Orthodox Jew from a large Italian family and, with his wife, helped to build a strictly Orthodox facility, with three kosher kitchens, a "kosher" mikvah, a day school that goes through third grade and a daily minyan. In the Latin American tradition, the synagogue also aims to be a social gathering place, including a small outdoor pool with a Mogen David at the bottom and a somewhat neglected, looking play yard.

In contrast to Salas, who makes a show of proud financial independence, Segal makes no bones about asking the American visitors for contributions. "It’s so important to have a Jewish presence here," she said.

The two synagogues, a mile or two apart represent two poles of the dynamic and ever-evolving Mexican-Jewish experience.

The next Tijuana bus tour will take place Sun., Oct. 28, through Jerry Freedman Habush’s Jewish LA Tours. For information, call the University of Judaism Department of Continuing Education at (310) 440-1246.