Jews in distant places: Pesach in San Miguel de Allende

Each Pesach it seems I find myself in another city and experiencing another adventure. In past years I have been in Columbia, Cuba, China, India, Cambodia, and Hungary. This year I spent Seder in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Some from North America may know that this town has not a few retired ex-pats from the States. Quality of life is good. Prices are relatively low for those living in US dollars.
San Miguel is several hours from Mexico City by bus. There is no local airport – and this is as the majority of residents prefer. One could easily think that there is no organized Jewish community in such an isolated town – but that would be an error. San Miguel has had some organized Jewish infrastructure for quite a few years now. These days it is blossoming and has some special qualities.
The website of the Jewish Cultural and Community Center (JC3,CHESMA, A.C. ("Comunidad Hebrea En San Miguel de Allende, Asociación Civil") describes itself as “an umbrella organization whose mission is to provide for the religious/spiritual, social, intellectual, charitable, and cultural needs of the Jewish community of SMA and its friends.” For years the community activities were held in rented space. Today, the Jewish community provides the basics that our tradition demands of a community. Davening is held in a beautiful synagogue building that also contains space of study, meetings, cultural events, and dining. The community has built a Mikveh (ritual bath), and is in the process of dedicating a Jewish cemetery.
CHESMA, AC and the JC3 are non-denominational and welcome different expressions of Jewish religious/spiritual service. Central to this is Kehilla Shalom San Miguel de Allende, the Conservative/Masorti Minyan which meets for traditional (egalitarian) weekly Shabbat and holiday services. On the first morning of Pesach some sixty people were in shul for davening.
One very special aspect to this community is the integration of Jews by Birth and Jews by Choice. Sadly, in much of Latin America, those who seek to convert to Judaism find the doors closed. Those that have converted to Judaism are not welcomed into the established communities. Some of the Jewish schools even set a quota for the number of students they are willing to accept who are converts or the children of converts. While such exclusion is at odds with Jewish law – it is a sad aspect to Jewish life in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, and elsewhere.
This is far from the case in San Miguel. One source of strength is the growing number of young Jews affiliating. Those seeking to convert study with Rabbi Juan Mejia, supplemented by local teachers. The process is demanding yet open to those who make the commitment. Thus the older ex-pats sit side by side with young Mexican converts, and with those preparing for conversion. They are not seen as outsiders but as a source of nourishment to the community.
Services are lay-led. Community president, Dr. Dan Lessner, and others he has trained, serve as Shlichei Tzibur. While most Jewish ritual items must be brought in from Mexico – Pesach foodstuffs were available in local supermarkets.
Various classes are offered on an ongoing basis. Tikun Loam is central to the mission of the Jewish community.
Members of Kehilla Shalom San Miguel, and JC3, come from several nearby towns too. While those who participate come from a variety of backgrounds and levels of observance – this is one Jewish community in Latin America where all are welcome.