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Tijuana to Tefilah

Crossing from Mexico to America with Jewish children who do it every day

by Jared Sichel

April 17, 2014 | 5:19 pm

Fernando Sur, whose father drives him from Tijuana to Southern California Yeshiva High School in San Diego, wraps tefillin at his all-boys school. Photos by Jared Sichel

Fernando Sur, whose father drives him from Tijuana to Southern California Yeshiva High School in San Diego, wraps tefillin at his all-boys school. Photos by Jared Sichel

As I stepped out of the van into the chilly, pre-dawn Tijuana air, I could just barely make out the shadows of the pedestrians nearby, all of them stepping over puddles and street trash, walking in the same direction. 

I watched as two girls, Chaya Leibkinker, 16, and her sister, Tali, 11, grabbed their backpacks from the trunk of their SUV, quickly said goodbye to their father, Israel, then, along with their mother, Sandra, melted into the crowd approaching the Tijuana-San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing into the United States.

Every weekday, about 30,000 people cross this border into the United States, the vast majority of them Mexican citizens who work in metropolitan San Diego.

Among the crowd are seven Jewish children from Tijuana, who, five days a week, make the multihour cross-border trek to day schools in northeast San Diego so they can receive a Jewish education. There are no Jewish schools in Tijuana, and the community there can’t offer them a viable religious education. So each day, they cross northbound through U.S. Customs and Border Protection and then return southward each evening into Mexico.

It wasn’t always like this. From 1997 to 2004, Tijuana had a very small Jewish day school, run by Rabbi Mendel Polichenco, who leads the city’s only traditional Jewish synagogue, a Chabad. 

But with only about 25 students per year, the school’s small budget made it too difficult to provide a great level of education, and there was not enough demand to continue making a go of it. Plus, there was the problem of turnover; many of the children’s families immigrated to the United States as soon as they were able, Polichenco said.

Bottom line: A dollar spent on transporting children to San Diego every day goes further than a dollar spent schooling them in Tijuana.

Judaism, though, is not the only reason parents and their kids spend so much time and energy crossing the border every weekday. 

After all, throughout the United States, many observant families in small Jewish communities lacking a serious educational infrastructure supplement their children’s education by enrolling them in online classes with experts in Torah, Talmud, Hebrew and other foundational elements of a comprehensive Jewish education.

One of Sandra Leibkinker’s main motivations: She believes access to Southern California’s Jewish community could very well impact whether her daughters marry Jewish men and build  Jewish homes for their own families. 

“This is a small community,” Sandra said of Tijuana, as Tali made a face while her mom untangled the girl’s knotted locks. “I want that she will marry with a Jew.” 

For Rabbi Josef Fradkin, head of school at the Chabad Hebrew Academy in San Diego, where a handful of the Tijuana students learn, the young Mexican Jews lucky enough to obtain student visas to go to a Jewish day school in America — as opposed to a public education in Tijuana — simply have better odds of growing economically as well as religiously.

“That’s why their parents send them every morning across an international border — to give them a chance to succeed,” Fradkin said.


Sandra Leibkinker stands with daughters Tali, 11, left, and Chaya, 16, as they wait on the American side of the U.S.-Mexico border for the carpool van.

Most of these students have Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection (SENTRI) cards, which allow them to cross relatively quickly while riding in the carpool van. The Leibkinker girls, however, don’t have their passes yet, so each day they cross through Customs by foot, lengthening their commute by at least 30 minutes. The girls and their mother, who accompanies them into the United States each day, meet up with the rest of their group on the other side of U.S. Customs.

My own morning started early, at 5:15 a.m. Theirs began at 5 a.m., as it does every day. To get Chaya to Torah High School of San Diego and Tali to Chabad Hebrew Academy by 8 a.m., the Leibkinkers picked me up at my Tijuana hotel, the Palacio Azteca, at 5:55 a.m. 

It was dark outside, and Carretera Federal No. 1, Tijuana’s main traffic artery, was still nearly empty — until, that is, we got close to the border, where dozens of other cars were dropping off some of the thousands of Tijuana residents crossing to work in California.

Inside Customs, the Leibkinkers and I split off into different lanes — they have a fast pass, but for pedestrian crossing only. On a normal Tuesday, crossing into San Ysidro in the standard lane often takes nearly an hour, according to a Web site run by UC San Diego. 

Despite a border guard’s somewhat intense questioning, I got through quickly, in about 10 minutes.

Just a few feet away, in San Ysidro, the sun was rising over the horizon and the Leibkinkers had been waiting for me for a few minutes. The air was still cold, and Sandra was leading her two girls to a convenience store, where they grabbed an on-the-go breakfast — a Mrs. Fields cookie, corn nuts and a Frappuccino. 

Then they waited to be picked up by the van and the rest of their schoolmates, just a few hundred yards inside the United States. This morning, as we lingered on San Ysidro Boulevard, Chaya played with her cell phone, and Sandra combed Tali’s hair.

Born and raised in Mexico City, home to a thriving, traditional Jewish community of 40,000, the Leibkinkers moved north four years ago to Tijuana, which has a Jewish community of approximately 2,000, Sandra said. She said the reason was economic, but she didn’t go into additional details.

She and Israel, a graphic designer, are hoping soon to move the family to America — like so many Mexicans who move to Tijuana, according to Polichenco, who, in addition to running the Tijuana Chabad, runs one just north of the border in Chula Vista.

“Either it [Tijuana] is a stepping stone, or they like the possibilities that the U.S. gives them,” Polichenco said. “They like being by the border.”

Polichenco, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, opened the Tijuana Chabad in 1993, moving into a building on Avenida 16 de Septiembre, which the Jewish community built in 1965. For the past 10 years, he has arranged for the children’s transport, paying the costs by raising most of the needed $25,000 per year from philanthropists in Mexico and California. He said the students’ families contribute what they can, but overall, their payments cover less than half of the total cost.

The same goes for tuition, which, without financial aid, runs upward of $10,000 at Chabad Hebrew Academy and $19,800 at Torah High, for example. Polichenco said that none of the Mexican families is able to afford full tuition. They pay what they can, but many of the children need full scholarships.

Like many families in Tijuana, some members of these Jewish families are U.S. citizens, while others are not, which is why the dream of moving north as a family is not yet possible. In the Leibkinkers’ case, Sandra, Chaya and Tali all are U.S. citizens, but Sandra said that because her husband is not, they won’t be able to move as a family until he finds a job in America.

I asked immigration expert Claire Bergeron of the Migration Policy Institute about the Leibkinkers’ case, as it is often relatively easy for the spouse of a U.S. citizen to receive legal permanent residence in a timely manner. 

Bergeron confirmed that, yes, in many cases, a spouse can legally immigrate quite easily, often in less than 12 months. But there are loads of exceptions that can turn that wait time into years, including doubt over whether an applicant will be able to support himself or his family in the United States.

The wait for legal permanent residence in America for people who aren’t immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen can be very long — particularly so for Mexicans — 1.3 million of whom currently have outstanding residence applications with the U.S. State Department.

To get to the front of the line can take up to two decades. Even after obtaining permanent residence, citizenship is usually another three to five years away. 

At their San Ysidro carpool meeting point, Chaya sat on a bench enjoying her breakfast cookie, and again pulled out her iPhone to play Candy Crush, which she plays every morning as they wait. Looking like any other American girl waiting for a school bus, Chaya was wearing blue jeans and a white hoodie that read “Hollister California” on the front. 

Tali, now fully groomed for school, didn’t say much as she snacked on her corn nuts.

About 15 minutes later, at 6:55 a.m., the mother pointed to a white van that was approaching. Ezra Torres, a 51-year-old soft-spoken Jew from Ensenada, who has driven the community’s Jewish children to and from school every day for eight years, had arrived.

Inside the van, four more students waited for the two girls and a young man with a notepad to board. Some of the kids looked exhausted. Others were playing on their phones, chatting or horsing around. 

I sat shotgun next to Torres, who greeted me and then turned his attention to the road, focused on getting the van and its occupants to the next location, a Chula Vista shopping center where he picked up two of Polichenco’s children — their family lives in Chula Vista during the week and returns to Tijuana on Shabbat. 

As the van headed onto the 805 Freeway, a young man sitting behind me, Fernando Sur, introduced himself. Working toward becoming a professional actor, he is 15 and a Mexican citizen. He nevertheless sounds American, looks American and dreams of one day living in La Jolla — although his father prefers Santa Monica. 

Fernando summed up the 120-mile difference between the two coastal communities with a smile: “He has his dream place; I have my dream place.”

For a teen like Fernando, a Jewish education is not the only reason he puts so much time into crossing international borders. He needs regular access to the U.S. to move up the acting chain, which may allow him one day to work and live in California.

He currently has a 0-1 visa, which the U.S. government issues to a handful of people with “extraordinary ability” — in his case, acting. The visa allows him to remain in the United States for three months at a time. Fernando is one of the lucky ones. 

Before he received the 0-1, he had a student visa. Polichenco told me that there are many Jewish families in Tijuana who would love to send their kids to San Diego for school, if they could — but they haven’t been able to get visas.

According to the State Department, Mexican citizens who applied before 1994 for permanent visas are only now becoming eligible, two decades later.

Fernando was born in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and is an only child; his family moved to Tijuana when he was 5, and they now live in Zona Rio, an upper-class neighborhood at the north of Tijuana, on a hill overlooking California. 

“People say that the nicest part of Tijuana is actually San Diego,” Fernando joked. “There are some nice parts, but living right next to the border, you can see the difference.”

He is in 10th grade at the all-boys Southern California Yeshiva High School (SCY High), to which he has commuted for the past seven years. 

He said he often stays with friends in San Diego for Shabbat and travels monthly to Los Angeles for shoots and meetings with entertainment professionals.

Fernando doesn’t usually ride to school in the van, opting instead to be driven by his father, who dedicates most of his time to helping his son climb the Hollywood ladder. A more direct commute to school, though, doesn’t buy the 15-year-old much extra sleep — he still has to wake up at around 5 a.m. — but it does give him some time to discuss sports with his dad.

“It’s good to understand that you need to start making sacrifices at this age,” Fernando said. “Once I’m older, I’m just [going to get used] to getting up early to go to work.”

Save for the fact that Fernando speaks fluent Spanish and lives in Tijuana, much of his behavior seems distinctly, well, American. Like his friends in San Diego, he cannot wait to receive his driver’s permit, which will bring him one step closer to getting a car and making the drive from Tijuana to San Diego on his own. 

Behind Fernando sat Raquel Levy and Atenas Machain, both students at Torah High, an all-girls school. Now that Fernando usually rides with his father, the three students no longer see each other every day — but their years of commuting, as well as shared Shabbat meals at the Tijuana Chabad and their participation in the San Diego National Conference for Synagogue Youth, a Modern Orthodox youth group, has kept them close.

We ran into traffic at the Interstate 805 junction with Route 54, after which the van made its first stop at Chabad Hebrew Academy at 7:54 a.m., one hour after leaving San Ysidro and 90 minutes after departing the Tijuana Chabad. It was more than two hours into most of these children’s days. 

Thirty minutes later, we arrived at Torah High, a large, modern school located north of San Diego, between La Jolla and University City. Raquel, Atenas and Sandra got off there.

And finally, at about 8:45 a.m., Torres made his last stop of the morning, at SCY High, where he left Fernando. 

Their binational commute naturally distinguishes these students from their peers, but inside the schools’ walls, any cultural or national divisions seemed nonexistent. 

At SCY High, Fernando wrapped tefillin and prayed, was the center of conversations with his friends, and seemed to be on his Torah teacher’s good side as he designed an illustration of the transition from the story of Creation to that of Noah and the flood.

Considering his commute and challenges he faces, it would seem like Fernando could complain — but he doesn’t.

“I’m learning Gemara, which I never had learned before,” he said. In Uruguay, Fernando attended what he said was a “non-religious” Jewish school. He said that his family is traditional in their home and “comes from strong Yiddish traditions.” His ancestors moved to Uruguay from Russia, Poland and Lithuania.

Fernando’s parents see the time and money they put into giving Fernando access to the United States as investment, not sacrifice.

“We are making an investment on his future, on his person, on his values. A sacrifice is something that you make with pain. That’s not pain — that’s a pleasure,” Fernando’s mother, Vivian Sur, said.

“The values of Judaism he will receive at home,” she continued, “we think it’s not sufficient at home, so he needs more than we can give him.”

The word Vivian used most often wasn’t “success” or “career,” but “mensch.” Giving Fernando the Jewish education that Tijuana doesn’t offer will, she said, help him become a mensch.

When I sat in on a 10th-grade U.S. history class at Torah High, I watched Raquel and Atenas, who seem an inseparable pair, listening to their teacher discuss integration of blacks into American society after the Civil War. The girls timidly covered their faces and giggled when I tried to take photographs of them.

Next door, in another U.S. history class, Marione Vigdarovich, also from Tijuana, jokingly asked her teacher to “not go in alphabetical order” as she returned quizzes — after spending so much of the morning in a van, the patience required to wait for her teacher to get to “Vigdarovich” was just too much for Marione to bear.

But for the most part, for Marione and the six other Tijuana kids, the time challenge is just a fact of life, despite being required to complete the same amount of schoolwork as their American peers. Often, their long commute offers the best time to complete homework, essays and take-home quizzes. 

Sometimes, parents let their children stay with friends in San Diego overnight, to save time, to stay late for soccer practice or simply to do something fun.

Their challenges are not lost on the administrators. Charlene Stanley, principal of Chabad Hebrew Academy, said she sometimes wonders how much the Tijuana students can handle.

“It’s really hard to balance with our teachers and our students how much homework is appropriate for them,” Stanley said as she showed me the school’s grounds. “Can we really expect them to do the same amount of homework as a student who doesn’t have to commute that many hours?”

The answer, ultimately, has to be “yes.” The Mexican students aren’t held to lower standards than their American peers. They take the same exams, do the same homework, the same classroom work and play on the same sports teams.

Their daily three-, sometimes four-hour trips are simply the cost of learning about being Jewish for children who aren’t able to live on the U.S. side of the border.

Cognizant that children, particularly these children, get tired and lose focus as the afternoon wears on, Chabad Hebrew Academy’s administrators schedule physical education as the last class of the day. 


Yaakov Levy, a Tijuana resident and seventh-grader at Chabad Hebrew Academy, plays a hybrid game of flag football and Frisbee during P.E. class. 

At 3:30 p.m. — the end of the school day, Tali and Yaakov Levy, Raquel’s cousin, a seventh-grader who is also from Tijuana, played a hybrid game of flag football and Frisbee. “Sometimes you can tell that they are tired; that their day has been long,” Stanley said. It wasn’t showing on this day, as Yaakov sped past as his friends who were trying, in vain, to grab his flags.

Occasionally, but not often, the students encounter legal and paperwork issues at the border, said Chabad Hebrew Academy executive administrator Cindee Sutton. Vivian Sur said that when Fernando was a student at Chabad Hebrew Academy, the school made their lives much easier by assisting with the annual paperwork that the U.S. government required for Fernando to renew his student visa.

When there are legal issues at the border, the fix is usually simple  — a call to Polichenco tends to patch things up with the authorities — but it’s the students who suffer academically when things like immigration law get in the way.

“If they can’t come for a couple [days], we are going to make accommodations,” Stanley said. “Maybe have them sit out of P.E. or an elective to meet with their teacher.”

And as much as these students’ parents sacrifice to give their children a Jewish education, Stanley wishes she could meet with the parents more often. But the distance, and the border, makes that tough.

As P.E. wrapped up and the school day neared its end, Torres, the driver, waited at the front of the school. 

At the end of the day, leaving Chabad Hebrew Academy, we stopped back at Torah High to collect the final three students. As everyone settled in, and Fernando, Raquel and Atenas discussed typical high school topics — namely, other boys and girls — Rezi, the youngest Polichenco, was ecstatic when a bag of lollipops was passed her way.

Then, as Torres turned the key in the ignition, something went wrong — a strange clunking sound was coming from under the van’s hood. After trying without luck to start the car, Torres spent the next 90 minutes on the phone with Polichenco, GEICO and a local Russian mechanic Polichenco knows.

As the kids waited for the mechanics, they chatted, laughed, complained and walked around in the chilly dusk air. Eventually, Polichenco sorted out that a tow truck would drive the broken van to the Russian mechanic, while another van from a San Diego Chabad would be dropped off so Torres could drive the group back across the border, hopefully in time for the community’s celebration of little Elimelech Polichenco’s third birthday.

When the replacement van finally pulled up, the irony was palpable — after a day spent in the country where most of these children and their families hope to one day live and work, there was nothing but relief when our ride out of America and into Mexico arrived. 

Arrival time back in Tijuana? Around 7:30 p.m.

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