Diaspora: Shalom, San Miguel de Allende

This small Mexican town has been cited as one of the best places US Jews could retire to.

san miguel de allende 88 (photo credit: )
san miguel de allende 88
(photo credit: )
It is a Jewish custom not to mix one simha with another; this year, however, Succot turned into a week-long double fiesta in the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende, when this extraordinarily picturesque town celebrated its annual patron saint's day while its small Jewish community was observing its own zman simhatenu. Unlike many of Mexico's often religiously-tinged fiestas, San Miguel de Allende's yearly autumn celebration is not marked by pilgrims carrying crucifixes and religious images. Instead, native residents from the entire state of Guanajuato and beyond flood into the narrow cobblestoned streets of historic San Miguel dressed in traditional Indian garb, typically wearing flamboyantly feathered headdresses and dancing with abandon to occasionally frenzied drumbeats. It is a three-day spectacle that rivals the most famous of the world's storied carnivals, and it is capped by a spectacular display of fireworks featuring whirling rocketry that takes off from temporary pillars erected in the city's fabled central square. The Jewish community of San Miguel de Allende is almost as unusual as the city itself, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its distinctive beauty and history as a cradle of Mexican independence. Virtually all of its members are North American retirees: San Miguel de Allende is consistently ranked by American publications as one of the top retirement cities outside the United States, for its affordable quality of life and pleasant year-round climate. Thus, it is a community of senior citizens not unlike many in south Florida, except that hardly anyone was born in the country in which they now live. With but a few exceptions, no Jews lived in San Miguel de Allende before the last 30 years or so; nor has there ever been any more than the handful of Jewish children that are there today. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is no synagogue in San Miguel de Allende. Organized Jewish life was never a priority for American Jewish retirees relocating here, compared to the city's other attractions, including a vibrant arts community. For this reason, it is extremely difficult even to estimate the number of Jewish residents; the best guesstimates are several hundred souls marginally identified as Jews. In the winter months, known as the "season," the arrival of American and Canadian snowbirds multiplies this number several times over. IN RECENT YEARS, an organized Jewish community of sorts has emerged. Initially, the community identified more or less with the Jewish renewal movement. Then a "traditional, egalitarian" American Conservative-style minyan began operating on Shabbat mornings. For some reason, as tiny as the number of actively engaged Jews is, a serious schism developed, with the result that today these two groups do not even talk with one another. The mantle of an organized Jewish community now rests on an entity called Shalom San Miguel - which itself has already seen splits and defections among its small board of directors. Nevertheless, Shalom San Miguel has managed to score some impressive accomplishments: It has secured a regular meeting place in a room at the downtown Quinta Loreto Hotel, where services and adult education classes are held, and a succa is built in the courtyard. Twice weekly classes in Talmud and Kabbala are led by Shalom San Miguel president Larry Stone, formerly of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Carole, also teach Hebrew to the community's children. According to Stone, the crowning glory of Shalom San Miguel's activities is the weekly Torah study, held at 11:15 every Saturday morning. "In the season, we have been known to attract more than 50 people to Torah study," he notes, adding that High Holy Day services drew similar numbers from residents in San Miguel de Allende and cities up to several hours' drive away. The star of High Holy Day services is clearly the Jewish community's elder statesman, Sidney Yakerson. At 91, he blows the shofar effortlessly, sounding clear blasts whose length would be the envy of many a younger man. Stone envisions Shalom San Miguel as an umbrella organization comprising secular individuals as well as groups representing both Reform and Conservative worship services. "Ideally," he says, "we would like to see a Reform Friday night service that would complement nicely the Saturday morning Conservative service." In the meantime, according to the organization's weekly electronic newsletter, several Shalom San Miguel families, including the few who drive to Mexico City from time to time to purchase kosher provisions (a much shorter trip, to Costco also yields a nice variety of kosher products) are planning to hold monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinners in members' homes. The community also occasionally invites visiting scholars-in-residence and receives visits from Chabad emissaries. San Miguel de Allende may not have a synagogue, but it does boast an interesting landmark building in the downtown area with the intriguing name of Casa Cohen. Adorned with a Magen David and a frieze referencing Noah's Ark, Casa Cohen houses a decorative metalworking shop where the determined Jewish shopper may find a hanukkiya or mezuza for sale. The building is owned by a Sephardic Jewish family with roots in the large Mexican city of Guadalajara. True to Mexican form, whether or not the local Cohens choose to travel back to Guadalajara to celebrate the occasional Jewish holiday, they would not be found worshiping with Ashkenazic Shalom San Miguel de Allende. n