The Jews of Tijuana (Part One)
They say the Pacific Ocean has no memory. Perhaps that was what the Jews who arrived here centuries ago sought: to forget the fiery Inquisition that chased them from the Iberian peninsula and to the New World in search of refuge. For far later waves of Jewish migration to Tijuana that occurred in the 1940s, it was to escape later forms of persecution in Eastern Europe. Many settled near the border after they were denied entry to the United States because of stringent quotas. More recently, Jews have migrated for the bustling business opportunities on the Baja border city from Mexican cities such as Guadalajara and Mexico City, as well as from South America.
In Tijuana, there exist two very different communities shaped by different histories, outlooks and styles; communities led by two very different leaders, both of whom care very deeply for their respective flocks. There is the Centro Social Israelita, a Chabad-led community, under the direction of Rabbi Mendel Polichenco. Meanwhile, across town exists the Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, a community under the aegis of Rabbi Carlos Salas and comprised of conversos, crypto-Jews who have returned to the fold, or are in the process of reconnecting with their Jewish roots and ancestry, as well Mexican Catholics seeking to convert to Judaism. Both rabbis are instrumental in building, maintaining and developing communal institutions for their respective congregations.
I crossed over the Mexican-American border into a tranquil Friday afternoon. Tijuana stands as the biggest land-border crossing point in the world, with more than 40 million crossings annually. Waiting at Tijuana’s large cable-twanging arch- a Mexican Gateway Arch a la St. Louis, I was met by Ezra Yosef of the Centro Social Israelita, in a large white van bringing a gaggle of kids back from Jewish day school on the San Diego side of the border. The kids babbled in spanglish as we made our way to the center.
On our way to the center, I chatted with the kippa-clad, tzitzit-wearing Ezra- a Mexican Jew who had formally converted a year prior. Like everything associated with this tale, his story is fascinating and complex. Ezra was born a Roman Catholic in Ensenada in the Baja Peninsula. He later converted to the Protestant fold and even served as a missionary in Colombia. Yet, he continued his spiritual search and found his way to Judaism. He stated, “I just had a feeling I wanted to get closer to the Jewish people,” and he began studying Judaism in 2001. He began down the observant path, and converted the previous year under an Orthodox beit din in Los Angeles. “Since my conversion, I feel a deeper reality, I feel I received a Jewish soul,” Ezra said. Today, Ezra leads a fully observant life today, keeping all the Orthodox traditions including being shomer Shabbat and fully kosher.
We arrived at the Centro Social Israelita, a somewhat dilapidated structure with a ramshackle charm to it. Bars line the front entrance and a menorah sits proudly above. In the main foyer, a mosaic of Jewish images decorates the main wall, with plaques hanging on the wall commemorating the center’s dedication in 1965, while in a glass nook lays twinned Mexican and Israeli flags. The center once displayed twin statues of respective law givers, Moses and the Mexican President Benito Juarez, but they have since been covered behind a wall as the center has become more Orthodox.
The Mexican Jewish kids ran in the yard behind the center, and chased after the center’s two kaparot-spared chickens that reside in the yard. Soon Rebbetzin Dini arrived, with her 5 kids in tow, four boys and the dainty baby Reizi. The diminutive matriarch, who hails from Milan and is the daughter of an Italian rabbi, brought good tidings and pre-shabbat snacks.
Soon after Rabbi Mendel Polichenco arrived to the center, and we were off to complete some last Shabbat errands before the Sabbath commenced. We made a brief stop for a house call, and were welcomed in to a Jewish home whose front window sported sticker Judaica and walls inside bore the real thing. The rabbi had come to bring a care package and blessings of health to a community member who recently had surgery. After the Rabbi’s house call and brief stop to bring his wife Sabbath flowers, we returned to the center to get ready for Shabbat. Before welcoming in the Sabbath, the Rabbi and Ezra finished up last tasks, like moving pounds upon pounds of frozen kosher chicken into a freezer unit, to be transferred to Cabo San Lucas. The rabbi noted that the celebrated port of call at the bottom of the Baja Peninsula has a burgeoning Jewish population. For that matter, the whole of the Baja Peninsula has a growing Jewish population. Jewish baby boomers, who have long been visiting Baja, are now retiring there in growing numbers, in places like Rosarito and Ensenada. And Rabbi Polichenco is helping to ensure that the Baja communities have the kosher elements needed.
The Centro Social Israelita comes complete with a mikvah, a synagogue for regular use with services on Monday, Thursday, Friday, Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh plus holidays. In addition, there is a larger shul on premise for high holidays, which draws nearly 300 people. There is even a kosher restaurant called “Tante Jane,” (a Yiddish wordplay on the name of the city) on the premises that is open daily; euphemistically termed a “not-for-profit” venture, the restaurant helps provide kosher food for patients visiting Tijuana for medical treatments, as well as kosher products and meals for the community.
Born in Argentina, and educated in Israel and the U.S., Polichenco began his work with the Tijuana Jewish community even before he was fully ordained as a rabbi. While working on a summer Project Talmud camp across the border in San Diego, Polichenco first heard about the Tijuana Jewish community, so he crossed over to find out more. At first the effort proved futile, as he came to a closed Centro Social Israelita, while his calls to the center went unanswered. “I couldn’t find anybody, so I kind of gave up. Maybe there was nothing left,” Polichenco noted. However, the following day he received a phone call that would send him on a path that led down to Baja.
“Next day, I get a phone call from a gentleman in Tijuana, asking ‘are you the visiting Rabbi?'” Polichenco noted- to which he replied that he was a student-rabbi. The community member’s father had passed away in Venezuela, and he was sitting shiva here in Tijuana, and there was no one around to lead the services. “So he asked me if I could come. I came that evening and we had services, and they asked me, since there was no one to lead services the next morning, if I could come back the next morning,” Polichenco said, “And I came back the next morning, and the next afternoon. By the end of the week, everyone knew me at the border crossing. And I had made a bond, a relationship with the community.”
That bond would help lead the way for Rabbi Polichenco to be the first Chabad rabbi posted in Mexico, a position he assumed in 1997. In the years to come, Polichenco would help steer the ship of the enigmatic Tijuana community, through years of community contraction born out of economic difficulties with the decline of the Mexican peso, the present economic downturn and the ongoing border instabilities.
As the daylight faded and members of the community arrived for the evening services, the community convened to welcome the Sabbath bride at the center’s synagogue, which radiated an effulgent glow from the light that poured through the shul’s bright stained glass windows bearing biblical imagery. Nearly 35 people were on hand for the evening’s service, stemming from a Jewish melting pot of participants. There were Jews from Mexico, from Mexico City and Guadalajara, as well as Jews from various other places including South America, Israel, and the neighbor to the north. Polichenco’s community numbers nearly 200 families, which straddles both sides of the border and down the Baja coast. Roughly 150 Jewish businessmen who live in San Diego but work in Tijuana buoy the numbers of the Jewish community in Tijuana.
After services, the group reconvened for a Sabbath meal and to share fellowship. Rabbi Polichenco commented that the community is very much like a family, and are drawn to the social life extending from the center, especially since so many of the community are not originally from Tijuana, but rather were drawn there for business opportunities. Over a delicious fare of traditional Israeli salads, homemade challah and the Mexican counterparts of nopales (cactus salad and homemade crunchy tostadas), along with fresh fish and roasted chicken, the ongoing situation in Tijuana and the violent image that the city has attained in the media was the main topic of conversation.
Statistics related to border violence paint a terrifying picture of “Baghdad on the border” in the frontier region between Mexico and the U.S., with more than 6,000 estimated deaths in 2008- numbers on par with the death toll in Iraq. In talking to the Tijuana Jewish community, a different picture on the situation is painted rather than what is portrayed in the mainstream media. Vivian Sur, a Jew from Uruguay now living in Tijuana, scoffed at the portrait painted of Tijuana as being dangerous. That the violence was something between the narco-traffickers and didn’t filter down to people’s daily lives was a sentiment expressed by Miguel Kleinkopf, a Jew from Chile who also now resides in the area.
In discussing the security situation in Tijuana, Rabbi Polichenco was rather composed. He noted that during the 1990s, when kidnappings started becoming an issue in Mexico City, there were fears that it would happen in Tijuana as well. “The main concern people have here is kidnapping,” stated the rabbi, “and thank G-d we haven’t had any problems with that.” With that said, the rabbi noted that the situation has gotten worse over the last couple years. There have been incidents of community members falling victim to robberies or hold-ups, but these incidents have been isolated occurrences. In short, the community members go on about their daily lives and their businesses.
Regarding the security situation, it is important to offer a little perspective. There has been much written of the ongoing insecurity on the Mexican border, and the climate of fear. Yet to address the question of whether Tijuana is dangerous, it is important to ponder whether Israel is dangerous. Like Israel, the only news that ever emanates from Tijuana in the mainstream press is usually related to violence; meanwhile most go about living their daily lives. Not to be overly pollyanish but in a city whose population runs between 1.5 to 3 million depending on estimates, the tales of lurid violence that suffice for news from Tijuana don’t portray the whole story of a city that boasts one of Mexico’s largest middle class communities. Moreover, he speaks warmly of the Tijuana community and highlights the overall safety of the community, especially in regard to anti-Semitism. Polichenco noted, “I have never seen a place with less anti-Semitism. I have lived in Canada, in Argentina, and there is zero anti-Semitism here. It’s a very loving community here, people stop me on the street and ask ‘are you Jewish-yes, G-d bless you.'”
An issue that Rabbi Polichenco seemed far more preoccupied with than the security situation was the alternative therapy medical tourism. The rabbi noted that Tijuana has many “alternative medical clinics” that cater to those with advanced stages of cancer. These clinics offer “miracle cures,” and people come from Israel, Europe and the US for these alternative medical treatments. He stated that the clinics are, “looking for people with cancer, and they promise they’ll cure them. They give them fruit smoothies and coffee enemas. Or light treatments. People shouldn’t come to Tijuana for that.” Polichenco continued, “We have so many people from Israel. We had a gentleman that was transferred yesterday to Cedar Sinai in LA in a coma, and he came fine. It’s very sad. It happens too often, every couple weeks we get someone like that. Sometimes it’s 4 or 5 people at the hospital.” For Polichenco, having a strong Jewish community in the area is vital and necessary for the burgeoning community in the Baja peninsula, as well those Jewish visitors to the region who require support and assistance.