The Jewish shepherd of Tijuana

Tijuana, Mexico (special) — The founder and leader of Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California–Carlos Salas Diaz–was born in Mexico to a Roman Catholic family, was ordained in Buffalo, N.Y., as a Methodist minister, and later converted to Judaism while a student at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Since 1966, Salas has been teaching Hebrew Scriptures to poor congregants in Tijuana and leading Jewish services open to all. As a result many of his flock have traveled to the University of Judaism to be converted by a beth din operated on the campus by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement.Salas, 66, told HERITAGE that he is a teacher, not a missionary, and that he never suggests to anyone that they convert to Judaism. But he said the more familiar his students become with the concepts of Judaism, the more they want to formalize their relationship with our faith.

In 1984, at Salas’ invitation, three American rabbis went to Tijuana to examine 24 of his students. Serving as a beth din, the rabbis questioned the Mexican citizens why they would want to give up their Roman Catholic faith and what was their attraction to Judaism. The rabbis satisfied themselves that these two dozen Mexican citizens were committed to Jewish beliefs and practices.

Thereafter, remembered Salas, “we took the entire group to Rosarito Beach. It was Dec. 24, 1984, so the water was kind of chilly. They went into the ocean, first the males, and then the females with babies.”

Besides being cold, the open waters were less than ideal as a mikvah. Although the converts draped themselves in sheets before they went into the ocean, they needed to take off their garments for their ritual immersion in living waters. Although the ceremony was conducted with all modesty, Salas felt it was not sufficiently private.

So when a second group of converts– consisting of 29 people–were converted in 1991, they went to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where they used the Rabbinical Assembly’s mikvah facility. “We arrived there about 9 a.m., and we left about 11 o’clock at night,” Salas recalled.

Since that time, he said, two groups went through the conversion procedures on the University of Judaism campus in 1995 and 1997.

Rabbi Edward Tennenbaum, a former executive director of the United Synagogue arm of the Conservative movement, was a member of the beth din which examined Salas for his conversion as well as some of the groups which Salas helped train.

“He is a very unique kind of person, quite charismatic as far as his followers are concerned, and he impressed us as being quite sincere,” Tennenbaum said. “We felt that he was sincere, and that the people he brought were also sincere.”

A synagogue led by a convert to Judaism and whose members are also converts “you don’t find very often,” the rabbi said. “Judaism doesn’t go out to proselytize people, but we do welcome people who want to join us….The basic feeling in Judaism is that if someone is to become Jewish, it has to be because they want to.”

Today Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California includes 127 families, and “now I am teaching a group of nine families that have arrived from Venta Prieta, in the state of Hidalgo, near Mexico City,” Salas said.

“They claim their families have been there even before the conquistadors arrived and that they have practiced Judaism all this while,” he said. “They don’t have one document to show that they were born Jewish, or that they are Jewish, other than the fact that they have practiced it all their lives.”

On the other hand, the people of Venta Prieta do have some documents which lend support to their claim of being Jewish, Salas said. For example, “they showed me the certificate of circumcision, signed by a rabbi. They have shown me the ketuba of their great-grandfathers dating back over 100 years.”

Salas said when he met the people they knew their Hebrew prayers, and were quite knowledgeable about Torah. “In order for them to have some document to show that they comply with the rabbinical laws and so forth, they have to go through a conversion,” Salas said. “I have been teaching them for a year and a half and they are ready.”

The nine families include a total of 52 people, Salas said. Another 132 families are planning to move en masse from Venta Prieta to Tijuana because of Mexico’s worsening economy. That will mean 600 more people are likely to be attending services at the Congregacion Hebrea, which already is too small to accommodate all its congregants. Double session Shabbat services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings are conducted in the 100-seat sanctuary.

Salas, who does not accept a salary as a teacher and who built the Congregacion Hebrea out of his own funds, said he now plans to build an even larger synagogue. “The cost doesn’t matter because the members of my community have told me time and time again that in the building of this new synagogue, they will participate. They will not let me do it all by myself. I will have their help.”

Like many of the congregants from Venta Prieta, Salas believes that he may be descended from Jews who were forced by the Spanish Inquisition to become Catholics.

“My great-grandmother came from Spain and she left two candle holders made out of brass, and a Star of David that was made out of a stone that is bluish green,” Salas said. As a child, “I questioned my mother and she wouldn’t talk about it. She said, ‘Look don’t get involved in any of those things. It is dangerous. Some of our ancestors died for believing in that sort of thing.’ She did everything possible to discourage me, but she never told me why.”

Salas said when he returned to his home city of Fresnillo five years ago, “I talked to some very elderly people who are still alive today. They said, ‘look your grandmother used to light candles every Friday night.'”

The congregational leader said that when he began to formally study Judaism after moving to Los Angeles in 1958, “I felt that I was learning something that was very dear to me.” While still studying at the University of Judaism, he said, he became a member of Congregation B’nai Emet in Montebello.

“I was called on several occasions to sell bonds for Israel, and I sold among the wealthy Mexican community more bonds than anybody else sold. They said, ‘You are Mexican; what are you doing selling bonds for Israel?’ I would say ‘Look my body seems to be of a Mexican, but my soul is very Jewish.”

* * *

Fresnillo is in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, where they have active gold mines. But the family in which Salas was born was anything but rich. From the age of 5 to 9, he helped his family tend sheep. Instead of starting school at age 6 like other Mexican students, his education did not begin until he was nine.

“When you are a shepherd in the trees somewhere you can hardly know anything about religion or anything else,” Salas said. Perhaps because he was not inculcated with his family’s Roman Catholicism at an early age, he added, he was not particularly drawn to it.

Perhaps because school had been denied to him, Salas said he immediately threw himself into his studies with seriousness. To earn money after school and on weekends, he learned how to work gold and silver. But he particularly enjoyed writing, and “when I was about 14 years old, the newspaper from the state of Aguas Calientes offered me a position as a writer with the Sol of Aguas Calientes. He used to pay me three pesos per column in those days that was quite a lot of money.”

An older brother, who had migrated to the United States during the Second World War, invited Salas to come live with him “and in those days it was very easy to claim someone from Mexico. All you had to do was send a letter stating that you would not be a public charge, and so on and so forth, and it was easy to get to the States.”

Salas said he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and although as a Mexican citizen he could have declined to serve, he “never regretted one single second of my service.” After basic training and a brief stint in Korea, he wound up in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he honed his entrepreneurial skills.

“The young soldiers used to wash their clothes by hand, so the idea came to me to establish washing machines in the barracks,” Salas said. “With the permission of the captain, the company commander and the battalion commander, I was able to establish washing machines in the barracks of the Second Battalion. It was a good business. So then they needed dryers, and I had to establish dryers, and I hired three civilians to run the business for me. The night I was separated, I sold the business and went back to Buffalo.”

While still in the Army, Salas said he became friendly with some servicemen who were Jewish, and “I had a great thirst for knowledge as far as religion was concerned.” He said he asked them to acquaint him with Judaism, and “I had many months to learn.”

“I planned that when I came back to the States. I would be able to get into some type of school,” to learn more about Judaism, Salas said. “But in the City of Buffalo there was not any school that would be able to help me: the only institution there was a Methodist seminary, and they used to teach theology in a universal sense.”

Salas simultaneously followed three careers paths following his return to Buffalo. With the money he earned in the Army, he invested in the Windsor Hotel at the corner of Chippewa and Franklin Streets in Buffalo; worked as a journalist covering the Spanish speaking Puerto Rican and Cuban communities of Buffalo, and attended the United Methodist Seminary of Buffalo, where after eight years study he was ordained.

“I was assigned to the circuit of Buffalo, Attica and Syracuse, but I did not do this for too long because at the beginning of 1960 I moved to Los Angeles.”

Among the members of Buffalo’s Cuban community was a young woman who “was a descendant of Jewish people, Sephardic Jews from Spain,” Salas said. He and Ariela were “married by a judge” and as he had not yet converted, “no rabbi would marry us.”

“But after we came to Los Angeles, I asked her to also take some classes at the university. She talked to some rabbis and they said, ‘Look you don’t have to take these courses, from what you tell us, your relatives who came to the States were Jewish.'” But she went through a year at the University and also was converted.

Before the couple was divorced, they had five children, the oldest of whom–a son–is 41. “All of them have finished college and the two young ladies are married, and the oldest has a baby girl,” Salas said proudly. “The young one studied law in New Jersey and she married a young Jewish attorney and they have separate practices. Each one has a career of their own.”

With proceeds from the sale of the Windsor Hotel and knowledge as a boy working gold and silver in Fresnillo, Salas said he established jewelry stores in Los Angeles, eventually growing successful enough that he was offered the opportunity to manage an entire first floor of retail stores and services at the Mexican Consulate building in Los Angeles at 125 E. Sunset Blvd. Salas still owns jewelry stores in the United States today, his chief source of income.

In 1962, Salas enrolled as a night student at the University of Judaism, remaining there until 1967. “I was converted by a board of five rabbis and because of the fact that I was a Methodist minister, they really questioned me for about 3 1/2 hours in a public audience there. They were, I guess, quite satisfied with my answers, my dedication to those ideas, and they gave me conversion papers.”

Salas said he explained to the rabbis that although he had entered the Methodist seminary, he really would have preferred going to a Jewish institution of learning–only there was none near Buffalo. “I told them if I had the opportunity in Buffalo to join any yeshiva I would have. Well, they believed what was the truth. At the university those five years, I never missed a class. I stayed with it. And immediately after I entered the university, I resigned as a minister.”

Born a Catholic, taught as a Methodist, wasn’t the figure of Jesus an important part of his life? Was it difficult for him to give that up?

“When you study the Hebrew Scriptures and you study the Greek Scriptures–‘the New Testament’–you begin to see many, many empty spaces that you cannot comprehend. As I studied for those long eight years (in Buffalo), immediately I did not find any logical explanation as to how you can have a father, son and a holy ghost. Who said that this exists? Where did they get that? Who started those teachings? I was questioning not my teachers, but myself, and getting into books.”

He said he began to think of Jesus “not as a God, but as a person who did well, and taught well. And then I searched for any writings that he must have done and he never wrote anything. Some other sources wrote the entire Greek Scriptures. As I read the ‘Old Testament’ and the “New Testament,’ I could see the Greek scriptures were sort of a copy of the ‘Old Testament’ …”

Salas used to go from Los Angeles to Tijuana for “business deals,” increasing the frequency of his visits after his mother moved to Tijuana from Fresnillo. Meanwhile, Salas continued his involvement in journalism, publishing or directing a variety of newspapers both in Los Angeles and in Tijuana. Among these was La Opinion of Baja California, in which he began regularly to publish a notice announcing free Bible classes were available to anyone.

Congregacion Hebrea was started in 1966 near downtown Tijuana in Colonia Cacho. The house which Salas obtained at 65 Holland accommodated classes and prayer groups on its main floor, and served as a dining hall for the needy in the basement.

“People used to come for the free classes in the Bible, and I had some nuns and priests come in addition to the other people,” Salas said. He said the Roman Catholic priests did not object to his Jewish teaching. “I explained to the bishop, ‘look you have one single parish that services between 65,000 and 70,000 people. They come to mass, rosaries and so forth, some of them, but you are never able to teach all of them your own religion.”

Salas said the Roman Catholic church recognizes that most of the people who converted to Judaism after studying with him “were never real practicing Catholics…They did not know anything about their own religion, so actually when they began to learn about the Torah….it was something new to them.”

In 1970, Salas moved his synagogue to its present quarters at 207 Amado Nervo in Colonia Montebello in Tijuana’s La Mesa section.

“For many years I felt that because of the tremendous poverty that we have in Tijuana we needed to establish a facility to feed the poor,” Salas said. “So I went ahead and built a dining room, large enough to feed 50 to 70 people, and we distribute baskets of food, with the basics like sugar, butter and so forth and so on.

“We are located in the midst of a very poor community and the priests of those churches are very good friends of mine and they have thanked us for helping,” he added. “We never ask them if they are Catholics or what religion they are. We help them, we feed them, and we seem to be getting along very well.”

There is no set time for food distribution, he said. “It is open, anytime, for anyone who needs something. They come over and knock on our door and we will give them a basket of groceries. Our membership contribute enough groceries so that we can always have food to give.”

In the first group of Jews who converted under Salas’ auspices was his future wife, Rebecca, who “told me after six months or so of classes that she would be very much interested in meeting a man who would give her a family.

“She was a young lady, 18-19 years old. I had been divorced already nine years from my previous family that I had in New York and California, and that is how we met. We got married and we created four children.”

The couple’s children sound like a biblical roll call: Elias, 20; Sara, 19; Deborah, 18, and Rachel, 16. “And the young man I adopted is David,” Salas said. “My oldest son is attending law school. My daughter Sara is in medical school. Deborah is also in law school and Rachel is in senior high.”

Salas said after his wife became an attorney, they were divorced. “I have been the mother and the father for the last 12 years,” he said. “They are doing fine.”

* * *

For more than 30 years, the former shepherd boy has been teaching Judaism–a biblical image that has not been lost on Salas’ congregants. In the dining hall is a painting one of them did of the child Salas holding a lamb in his arms.

“A man asked me the other day, ‘Why waste your time? Why are you here all these years dedicating so much time without being rewarded?’ ” Salas said.

“I said ‘you are wrong. I feel inside of me that the health and one’s life is given by the One God, and I am 66 years old and I am very healthy, extremely healthy. I don’t remember even having a toothache. And my children here are very healthy and my children in New York are all healthy people… I think my reward comes from my God, the one of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the one who gives me my wages. I am not interested in ever receiving a salary.”

One of the two Torahs at Congregacion Hebrea is from Jerusalem. The other Salas obtained after receiving a telephone call from Los Angeles from a group of Russian refugees who told him they began writing the Torah in secret, and completed it after leaving the former Soviet Union. Both Torahs passed a sofer’s inspection.

The Aron Kodesh was made from a single piece of wood without any nails. The doors were carved with a menorah design in Queretaro, Mexico. The marble in the sanctuary was cut and polished in Valencia, Spain. “It took eight months for the marble to arrive,” Salas said. “We could perhaps have purchased marble here in Tijuana, but never marble made by Jewish hands, especially by people who suffered so much as the Marranos or their descendants.”

There is a special bonus for people who are members of Congregacion Hebrea–a 14 carat menorah that may be worn as a lapel pin, as its creator Salas does, or, as women do, as a pendant.

“The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ordered Moses and Aaron to build a menorah, and this is a menorah,” Salas explains. “We give this whenever someone goes through a conversion and becomes a member of the congregation.”

While no dues are collected, members do have their responsibilities, Salas said. “Once a week, each member of the congregation, comes in with a large quantity of beans, rice, sugar and so forth, and they themselves make the baskets to give away.”

About 100 baskets per week are given away, he said. “I imagine in the future we will have to increase that number because the poor are getting poorer and the wealthy are getting wealthier.”

The community in turn shows its appreciation to the congregation, Salas said. “You will see as you go out that there is graffiti all over this area, but none on our building because the people of our neighborhood, they say ‘this is the temple where they help us and we want to make sure nothing happens to it.’ Sometimes break-ins are reported in the neighborhood, but not once has anyone attempted to break in here.”

Salas’ own residence is in the same complex as the synagogue. With the need for a larger sanctuary, Salas said he is considering converting his living space to prayer space, and moving somewhere else. He explained that as he owns a car, it will be easier for him to travel to the synagogue on a daily basis then for poor residents of the community to go elsewhere.


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