The Jews of Tijuana (Part Two)

On the following Shabbat morning, our tale resumes at the Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, the shul of Rabbi Carlos Salas. I was ferried across town by Benjamin Camacho-Mora, and his son Abraham, a member of Rabbi Salas’ congregation. On the way, Benjamin’s discussed his own roots in Judaism. Benjamin’s family arrived in Mexico from Spain and Portugal, and settled in Chihuahua in Northern Mexico. He mentioned that his grandparents would light candles on Friday nights. He also said that his family would never eat pork, he noted, “They would cook pork for show and then feed it to the dogs.”

The Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California is a compound marked with a large blue menorah, located in a residential neighborhood that is far from the border glitz that draws tourists to Tijuana. Presiding over the congregation is the enigmatic Rabbi Carlos Salas, a dapper gentleman with black hair slicked back, a pencil-thin mustache that graces his upper lip and a penchant for dark suits. Words like “charismatic” are often bandied about Rabbi Salas.

Born in Fresnillo in the northern Mexican state of Zacatecas to an outwardly practicing Roman Catholic family, Rabbi Salas noted that his great-grandmother, who came from Spain, left the family two candle holders made from brass and a Star of David fashioned from a bluish-green stone. He said that the matriarch would prepare Shabbat in secret, and left talit and tfillin hidden in their house. Yet, when he was a child, his mother wouldn’t discuss the items, and discouraged his curiosities.

As a young man, Salas helped his family tend sheep- imagery still with Salas today as his office contains paintings of a young Salas tending his flock. As he got older, he learned about and became involved in the gold and silver industries that were prominent in Fresnillo, something that would prove advantageous in his later career. Salas moved to the U.S. to join his brother living in Buffalo, New York. After a stint in the U.S. military during the Korean War, Salas returned to Buffalo, where he began his path down a winding religious journey with his entrance to a Methodist seminary. Although he eventually became an ordained Methodist minister, Salas states that he attended the seminary because there was no yeshiva in Buffalo at that time, and had always planned to become a rabbi. “I was interested in studying Torah, the prophets, and scripture, but the Methodist seminary was the only thing available,” Salas noted.

In 1960, Salas moved to Los Angeles, where he would launch a career investing in jewelry shops and other businesses. Meanwhile, in 1962, he began attending the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Salas studied for five years at the University of Judaism, leaving the Methodist fold and fully converting to Judaism. Salas noted that he was converted by a board of five rabbis, who were extra keen to examine his commitment to the faith given his previous status as a Methodist minister, yet after hours of questioning the beit din was satisfied with his earnest commitment to Judaism.

In 1967, the same year as his conversion, Salas opened his congregation in Tijuana. With his own funds, Salas constructed the synagogue that now houses his congregation. Opened in 1970, the low-ceilinged sanctuary is complete with pink marble imported from Valencia, Spain. On the bimah¸ there resides an elaborate ark that is home to four Torah scrolls. The ark, designed with two intricate menorah motifs, was fashioned from Mexican cedar and carved in Queretaro, Mexico. Two columns flank the bimah, and the Mexican and Israeli flags stand on either end; on the right side of the bimah, an empty chair covered in a talit waits for Elijah. Various Magen Davids and carved wooden menorahs and other Judaic objects decorate the room.

Known to his followers as “Maestro,” (“teacher” in Spanish), Salas has been conducting his spiritual outreach to Mexicans of Jewish ancestry, crypto-Jews still practicing in secret, as well as to Mexican Catholics interested in learning about Judaism. According to Salas, 90 percent of the congregation are descendents of conversos, while another 10 percent are Mexican Catholics interested in conversion. A gentleman named “Nir,” who was in the process of studying for conversion, stated “Things I saw my family doing were actually Jewish traditions without knowing them to be so. Once you see what the traditions are, you gain momentum.”

Despite the nontraditional background of the congregation, Salas was firm in grounding his followers in traditional Jewish ritual and customs, including eating kosher food, and circumcisions for male converts.

In December 1984, the congregation held its first major conversion, with a group of three American rabbis interviewing 24 of Salas’ students. When the beit din was sufficiently convinced of the group’s Judaic convictions, the group then went off to Rosarito Beach and the converts waded into the chilly Pacific waters that was serving as the mikvah. Seven years later, another group of Salas’ flock held a conversion, but this time they traveled to the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and were examined by the Conservative movement’s beit din there, as well as using their mikvah rather than the frigid Pacific. Since then, half a dozen groups of converts made the trek to Los Angeles to meet with the beit din and carry out conversions. On the issue of conversion, Rabbi Salas states, “we hold classes for teaching about torah, that lasts 3 to 4 years. Only after we are convinced that they are ready. Some people have continued their studies for as long as 14 years before they converted. We have brought hundreds back to the fold. We stopped counting after 200.”

Nearly 100 people were on hand that Sabbath morning to take part in the services. Although there is no mehitzah, men clad in kippot and talits sat on one side of the synagogue, while women sat on the other. The service weaved along a Conservative style. The congregants followed a Conservative Spanish-Hebrew prayer book, going methodically prayer by prayer. Many prayers were recited aloud in Hebrew, while others were read or sung in Spanish, with Rafael “Gamaliel” Hernandez serving as the cantor and leading along in a rich baritone voice.

When the Torah was taken from the ark, Rabbi Salas carried the holy scrolls on a slow procession through synagogue. The procession descended down the male side of the congregation, with congregants wrapping their fingers in their talits and touching the shawls to the Torah, while bowing their heads and closing their eyes for quiet contemplation before the scrolls. The procession passed up through the female section, with the women congregants carrying out similar prayers before the scrolls.

After the procession, the weekly Torah portion was read by alternating congregants from a chumash in Spanish translation, who followed the text with a shared yad. The congregation would rise as men were called up for the various aliyot. Eight men were called up to read from the week’s portion, and began and ended their portion by reading the blessings over the Torah in Hebrew. As the service progressed, the children were excused for their own lesson, only to return at the end of the service to offer a children’s choir rendition of the final prayers. The three-hour service concluded with a woman named Alejandra singing “haTikvah” and the congregants filtered out into the afternoon, dutifully touching the mezuzah on their exit.

The service felt like a traditional Conservative affair, although there were a few non-traditional elements that were present. Throughout the service, children would bring donations up to the bimah, pray over the offerings, and leave envelopes in a brass bowl on the ground. Rabbi Salas noted there are no monthly dues for congregants, and that the donations were used for members in the community that were struggling, and were used to help provide families with food staples in the form of food stamps from the congregation to families that had unmet needs.

Another more nontraditional aspect is the role of the Masonic movement in the synagogue’s affairs. Rabbi Salas was proud of his high level role in the Masons, and noted that a Masonic lodge is connected to the synagogue, and many of the male congregants are members of the order. According to Salas, during the period of the Inquisition in Mexico, the Masons were the only institution that would offer protection to Jews. There are some estimates that that calculate the number of people living in Mexico that have Jewish roots to be upwards of a seemingly astounding 40 million. These are descendents from marranos and had their heritage hidden by fears of the Inquisition-which officially lasted in Mexico until 1820. Rabbi Salas was quick to point out the numerous plans for outreach to Mexicans of Jewish ancestry and plans that has for his community. He noted that there is a rabbinical school under construction in Rosarito beach, which he plans to use to educate future rabbis of the community. He also plans to open synagogues throughout Mexico, with the goal to host synagogues aimed at conversos in every Mexican state for the many Mexicans with Jewish ancestry. Salas mentioned that the congregation has already opened another synagogue in Durango, which is host to some 40 families. Salas also mentioned various plans such as plans for a Jewish old-age home, and to create a Jewish cemetery in Tijuana, which currently does not have one.

On the security situation, Salas was more circumspect, noting that a house just three doors down from the synagogue had been sprayed by bullets just a few days prior. “I’m not pretending it’s sunny and safe, it can be dangerous here. There are executions that take place and we don’t want to expose people to danger,” he noted. Salas stated that when a family comes down from the U.S. for a tourist visit to his synagogue, the congregation ferries visitors from the border to the synagogue.

The two communities reside in an uneasy cordiality. Relations had previously been strained, but today remain calm and cordial, if somewhat distant. But the Rabbis have a dialogue and remain civil; while I was there, Rabbi Polichenco invited Rabbi Salas to come address his congregation the following week. Part of the strain comes down to the fundamental quandary of what it means to be a Jew and the religious minefield of defining what constitutes Judaism. To put the chasm between the two communities in perspective, you must first look at the divisions in Judaism. If you accept that Reform and Conservative Judaism are full-fledged, legitimate strands of Judaism, then Rabbi Salas is simply the leader of a more exotic strand. If you have a more orthodox perspective that questions the legality of non-Orthodox conversions, then misgivings arise simply from the notion of more mainstream Conservative conversions, and from the existence of a community like Salas’ even more so.


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