In Mexico City, insular community begins to reach out


The president of the umbrella group of the main Mexican Jewish communities discusses communal challenges. (Ben Harris | The Wandering Jew)

Paul Feldman, left, and Alan Grabinsky in front of Moishe House, a residence for young Jews in Mexico City. (Ben Harris)

Paul Feldman, left, and Alan Grabinsky in front of Moishe House, a residence for young Jews in Mexico City. (Ben Harris)

El Aleph is the only Jewish radio program in Mexico. (Ben Harris | The Wandering Jew)

One of three Mexican Yiddish schools tries to keep the language alive. (Ben Harris | The Wandering Jew)

The Wandering Jew visits a kosher food hall in Mexico City. (Ben Harris | The Wandering Jew)

A tour through the areas where Mexican Jews lived in the 20th century. (Ben Harris | The Wandering Jew)

MEXICO CITY (JTA) — In the final days of September, Alan Grabinsky and Paul Feldman moved into an apartment on a quiet circle in this city’s Condesa neighborhood, establishing only the second Latin American outpost of the global network of Jewish residences known as Moishe Houses.

In their new home, Grabinsky and Feldman will organize social gatherings for Jews in their 20s and 30s while creating an inclusive hub for post-collegiates in a country where Jews typically marry young and settle in the heavily Jewish suburbs in the western part of Mexico City.

Grabinsky and Feldman say their project is, in part, a reaction to the insularity of the Mexican Jewish community, which they see as overly cut off from the wider society, cloistered behind high walls, and too intent on warding off the crime and violence that remains an ever-present part of life in this city of 25 million.

"Before, you could live your whole life inside the [Jewish community] institutions," Feldman said. "People are looking for alternatives."

While some have touted the project as a bold anti-establishment gesture, the Mexico City Moishe House is in keeping with a gradual yet undeniable movement by local Jewish groups to interact more with non-Jewish Mexico and to breach, if gently, the walls that surround a community most often described as "closed."

The community is concentrated in affluent, leafy suburbs at the city’s edge, areas where even non-Jewish institutions are typically surrounded by razor-topped walls and protected by armed security. Some 40,000 Jews are estimated to reside in Mexico City, most of them European and Syrian immigrants, and they have constructed an impressive network comprising more than a dozen schools, nearly twice as many synagogues and a gleaming sports center.

Depending on who’s talking, the area is described either as a protective bubble, an enveloping shtetl or a stifling ghetto.

In recent years, Mexican Jews have made a noticeable effort to reach beyond the walls and develop closer ties with their non-Jewish countrymen. The community has long enjoyed close relations with the government — each year the president attends a luncheon at the sports center, and Jewish leaders are given choice seats at the annual state of the union address — but various initiatives have sought to broaden the community’s ties.

The Mexico International Jewish Film Festival, now in its seventh year, attracts a mostly non-Jewish audience and has been expanded beyond Mexico City to Guadalajara, Monterrey and Cancun. A 4-year-old radio show on Jewish topics, "El Aleph," also has a predominantly non-Jewish following.

Tribuna Israelita, the community’s public relations and anti-defamation arm, has been organizing programs at various private universities to increase public understanding of Israel and Judaism. And the worldwide Jewish Salons project, in which Grabinsky and Feldman are active, recently organized a concert downtown, nearly an hour’s drive from the Jewish neighborhoods.

"I think that what we’re seeing is the reassessment of what it means to be Jewish, what it means to belong to a community," Emilio Betech, the co-host of "El Aleph," told JTA. "Does affiliation equal Jewish identity? I think that many different congregations are asking themselves what is the role of Judaism, what is the role of community, of congregation, in the new millennium."

But alongside these developments, which community leaders say are both positive and unavoidable, come quietly expressed concerns about an erosion in Jewish values that may threaten Mexican Jewry’s enviable affiliation and intermarriage rates. Upwards of 90 percent of Mexican Jews attend Jewish schools and marry within the faith.

"I’m sure it has a risk, but it also has a positive side, for me," said Renee Dayan, the director of Tribuna Israelita. "If you compare the life of my grandmother or mother to the life of my daughter, it’s a world apart."

Yael Rubinstein, a teacher in a local Jewish school, said that when she was younger, it was easy to distinguish Jews and non-Jews based on their behavior. Now Jewish kids are drinking and smoking more and getting into fights.

Last year, she said, a Jewish boy was killed in a car crash that likely involved alcohol.

"That never happened before," Rubinstein said. "Jews are children of the times, and that’s what’s happening in modern times. We’re no different."

In many Jewish communities, that wouldn’t amount to a particularly profound sociological insight. But in Mexico, the barriers between the Jews and everyone else are,  literally and figuratively, quite high.

Signs of the mounting concern are apparent at one of the community’s most admired institutions, El Centro Deportivo Israelita, the shimmering modern sports facility that boasts 19,000 members, down from 30,000 just six years ago. Posters on the walls encourage honesty, part of a wider campaign to promote positive social values. A separate effort gathered the community’s teenagers in the center not long ago for discussions about gambling, drug abuse and sex, among other topics.

"I think there’s a very legitimate worry in the community about what’s happening to the young people," said Jessica Kreimerman Lew, a Mexico City native who runs CasaLuna Conscious Community, a Jewish Renewal-inspired center outside the communal framework. "Because what’s happening is there’s an apathy going. They don’t know what to do — forget the ones that have left, the ones that are there."

Oskar Gorodzinsky, the president of the community’s umbrella group, Comite Central de la Comunidad Judia de Mexico, expresses cautious support for the more outward-looking young people even as he cites the values issue as a top communal concern — second only to the economic downturn that is making it ever harder to support Jewish infrastructure. He wants Mexican Jews to feel like they are Jewish first, not "liberal" or a "citizen of the world."

Yet along with other community leaders, Gorodzinsky also worries about a seemingly opposite trend: the growing ranks of Mexican ba’alei teshuvah, those who have returned to Orthodox Jewish practice. While those promoting greater religious practice voice the same concerns about values — the founder of the recently opened Mexico branch of the outreach organization Aish HaTorah said he wants to promote Jewish identity, not necessarily Orthodoxy — Gorodzinsky worries that increasing piety will make it harder to maintain communal unity.

"It’s getting bigger," he said of the movement toward Orthodoxy, "and we have to pressure in order to keep them inside the community."

The fear is underscored by the experience of the tiny Jewish community of Guadalajara, which six years ago split in two after a successful push to make the city’s only synagogue Orthodox after decades in which it adhered to Conservative standards. The initiative was motivated in part by the community’s sagging fortunes, which some thought could be turned around by a more robust religious commitment, said Fanny Mizrahi de Sades, the president of the Orthodox synagogue. The result was just the opposite.

In Mexico City, the community has remained unified and closely knit despite its manifold divisions. Comite Central encompasses six constituent communities, including Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, two groups of Syrian Jews and two Conservative congregations. The capital’s high affiliation rates stem in part from the fear of what lies beyond the community walls in a country where public education is poor and vast disparities of wealth separate the affluent few from the impoverished masses.

Community membership provides a layer of insulation against the perils of life in a third world country.

"You get a lot, in every way," Gorodzinsky said. "You get the sports center, you get the school, you get the society, you get the belonging. It’s very important in Mexico  because the Jewish community has always been very small but very cohesive."

Comite Central estimates that to pay tuition at Jewish schools and enable residence in the upscale Jewish areas, the typical family must take home $4,000 monthly, a sizable sum by Mexican standards. No child is denied admittance to a Jewish school because of cost, a commitment that represents an enormous financial burden that is becoming ever harder to bear.

The comforts afforded by affiliation are not lost on the younger generation, many of whom recognize that they lead lives of comparative privilege inside the communal bubble and don’t appear eager to strike out on their own. Besides, several Jewish teenagers said, the Jewish community isn’t as closed as the stereotype suggests. Many have non-Jewish friends and neighbors, and participate in non-Jewish activities after school.

"The Jewish community is closed," said Yael Rubinstein’s daughter Ilana, 17. "But it has a door."

But for a minority of young Jews who, like Grabinsky and Feldman, choose to live a substantial portion of their lives beyond the community gates, the door isn’t nearly wide enough. And while many predict that even the outliers will marry at some point and follow the well-trodden Mexican Jewish road, Grabinsky himself isn’t so sure.

"I don’t know if I will integrate into this community," he said. "I would like to have one foot in, one foot out.”

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