A Jewish Community Blossoms
By Carole Stone
Almost six years ago, a stocky Mexican with a scruffy beard walked into the Shabbat morning service of the Shalom San Miguel Jewish community and asked in halting English if he could pray with them. Of course—the Jewish community welcomed any and all comers. The scene was the Quinta Loreto TV Salon, where for many years, due to the generosity of the Sautto family, local and visiting Jewish folk gathered every Saturday morning for the Conservative lite egalitarian morning prayer—egalitarian because women count for the required ten-person minyan (quorum) necessary for certain prayers and lite because the service lasts two hours rather than the customary three.
The visitor wanted to know more about Judaism; he suspected his ancestors were conversos—forced to leave Spain for Mexico and convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. His unscripted entrance was the first of a stream of Mexican nationals to the community’s door, all seeking information about Jewish faith and practice and many suspecting Jewish lineage, as he did.
The seeker exposed a Mexican Jewish world unknown to the expats who made up what was then Shalom San Miguel. An individual who shows up at a Jewish congregation in America or Canada seeking information is steered into an orderly process of welcome and instruction. In Mexico, this is not so.
For reasons unclear, Jewish congregations in Latin America discourage newcomers. Interested outsiders find the doors closed, sometimes literally slammed in their faces.
The local community had no idea of the gap they were bridging. Serendipitously, the spiritual leader of the community, Dan Lessner, a retired family practice physician from Long Island, spoke fluent Spanish from his study of medicine in Tampico. With his Spanish skills and feelings of empathy for them, he shepherded the visitors into classes, worship services, and eventually, conversion for those who chose to become Jews. The community went to work to translate, transliterate, and print prayer books in Spanish for their guests.
Meanwhile, the community outgrew its space in the Quinta Loreto, bought a building at the corner of Las Moras and Cinco de Mayo, and remodeled it into a sanctuary, classrooms, library, dining room, bathrooms, and even a mikveh, the ritual bath traditional for conversions to Judaism. During the years, three groups of seekers have been formally welcomed into the Jewish faith, totaling 47 individuals.
The conversion rituals are conducted by three bilingual Conservative rabbis with pulpits in the US, all natives of Latin America. They consider the Latin Jewish community’s treatment of outsiders scandalous and embrace the chance to help their fellow Hispanics become Jews.
Once more this December 24 and 25, the Jewish community, now CHESMA, A.C. (Comunidad Hebrea en San Miguel de Allende), will welcome aspirants to the faith. This fourth group of ten adults and two children will be welcomed in a ceremony on December 25, followed by a celebration including Hanukah, which begins that day. Those who are married couples will renew their vows under the chuppah, the Jewish traditional marriage canopy. Shalom San Miguel invites the community at large and any Jewish visitors in particular to attend these joyous community events.
Friday, December 23
Kabbalat Shabbat service and potluck dinner. Join us in welcoming Rabbis Juan Mejía and Dany Mehlman. Please bring dairy or vegetarian food/beverages/desserts to share.
Saturday, December 24
Lecture: “Who are the Conversos, and why do they want to be Jews again?”
Havdalah, First Night Chanukah Lighting and “Nittelnacht”
Sunday, December 25
Annual Community Chanukah Party