The doors swing wide
By Pat Hirschl
A new community resource opens its doors on September 3. CHESMA, AC/Shalom San Miguel de Allende inaugurates its new building along with a new year, 5774 in the Jewish calendar. The building at Las Moras and 5 de Mayo, Col. Guadiana/Allende was recently sold to SSMA by Feed the Hungry and is now the JC3, Jewish Cultural and Community Center of San Miguel de Allende.
Although I have been a member of SSMA since its formation, this is my first visit to the new JC3. The building blows me away with its spaciousness and pristine condition. Two of the community’s leaders show me around.
Dan Lessner, the community’s spiritual leader, brought a Torah along when he moved to San Miguel, and has been chanting from it on Saturday mornings ever since he retired from his practice as family physician in Sag Harbor, New York. His face lights up as he talks about his vision for the JC3.
“We’ve been lucky to have the Quinta Loreto TV Salon at minimal cost, thanks to the generosity of the Sautto family, but we are rapidly outgrowing that room and are thrilled to have a building of our own.”
“Sounds like you have big plans,” I prompt.
“Absolutely. I think we do well serving more traditional Jews with our Saturday morning egalitarian service, and classes from How to Bake Challah to Radical Judaism. But for a community that includes many secular and ethnic Jews, it is not enough. Our model has always been ‘an umbrella of diversity, welcoming all to experience a Judaism that speaks to their hearts and souls as well as their minds,’ to quote our mission statement. It’s been an uphill struggle.”
President Carole Stone agrees, “We want a wider community to share our space. Yoga classes, art events, folk dancing, literary readings, musical recitals—the sky and San Miguel’s appetite are the only limits.”
She waves toward an area where a café is planned, “Folks can gather here for a bit of refreshment, conversation, and, knowing San Miguel, the latest gossip.
“I was never the president of anything in my former life, but my passion to nurture a Jewish presence in San Miguel has me enthusiastically playing a leadership role. It’s not the first time I’ve jumped in to fill a need. When the nascent GLBT community Bet Tikvah in Pittsburgh needed a cantor for their High Holiday services, I volunteered, although I was teaching full-time, and it was an experience I would not trade for anything.”
Dan adds, “We are already bilingual and binational; our prayer books use four languages: English, Spanish, Hebrew and transliterated Hebrew. The Spanish is for our Mexican members, some of whose ancestors converted unwillingly during the Inquisition, and others who are turning to or returning to the faith. SSMA has been a path to Judaism for 24 Mexicans.
“We work hard to integrate these “new Jews” despite the real-life cultural and language barriers,” Dan says. “They enliven our community as families with young children and forge a closer link to Mexico, our adopted home. About a third of our 84 members are Mexican.”
Carole points out that it Dan’s fluency in Spanish, from medical school in Tampico, is crucial to the community’s integration of Spanish speakers.
I learn that the history of Jews in San Miguel goes way back, at least to the 1930s, when the Cohen family arrived from Aleppo, Syria. More Jews came among the GIs who “discovered” SMA after WWII, and among the artists and writers who settled here. Miranda Nadel led a Jewish community for many years that held Torah study on Saturday mornings and celebrated all the Jewish holidays. When she retired seven years ago, CHESMA/Shalom San Miguel de Allende was formed. In 2012, it earned legal status as a Mexican not-for-profit organization, CHESMA, AC, una Comunidad Hebrea en San Miguel de Allende, Asociación Civil.
Carole, Dan and CHESMA/Shalom San Miguel de Allende invite all to help shape the JC3 with program suggestions and donations of furnishings or money. Shalom San Miguel holds some classes at the JC3 now; the first services will be Rosh Hashana morning services, Thursday, September 5. Eve of Rosh Hashana services on Wednesday, September 4 will be in the Hotel Quinta Loreto restaurant after a festive dinner. Visit the community’s website, www.shalomsanmiguel.org, for more information and the complete High Holidays schedule.