A bus trip to visit two Tijuana synagogues this spring provided an irresistible opportunity to learn about two distinctly different Jewish communities in a bustling border metropolis where Jews number fewer than 1 percent of the city's 1.2 million residents.
By far the more unusual of the two shuls was Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, made up almost entirely of converted Mexican Catholics, including its leader, a charismatic non-ordained rabbi, whose resume includes a stint as a Methodist minister. Carlos Salas Diaz, an imposing man in a dark suit, who welcomed us warmly into the temple's brightly lit sanctuary, looks like the successful businessman he continues to be and at least two decades younger than his chronological age of close to 70.
"I have been teaching and serving my community for over 35 years," Salas told the rapt audience of about 40 Angelenos. "And we have never charged one single red cent. Our secretaries also work free of charge, and everyone else in our congregation donates their time. We don't have any mortgage to pay because we built these facilities with our own funds."
The synagogue is in a quiet residential neighborhood in Tijuana's La Mesa section. While graffiti is in evidence elsewhere, none is visible on the long white wall at the temple's entrance, on which the primary ornamentation is a seven-branch menorah set against a baby-blue shingled background.
Since the shul opened, 128 families have been converted to Judaism, Salas said, with many later relocating to San Diego or Los Angeles, a fact which doesn't seem to faze Salas. It is a fact of Jewish life in this border town, where estimates of the Jewish population vary widely from 200 to 2,000, and fluctuating currencies and fortunes send populations surging back and forth across the frontier.
Many of the Jews who came in the 1920s to Tijuana were from Eastern Europe and settled near the border after being denied entry to the United States because of quotas. Others migrated to Tijuana from Mexico City or from South America, where many Jews fled from the Nazis. Most of these Jews are not members of Salas' shul, however -- at least 80 families are affiliated with Congregacion Hebrea. Since the synagogue doesn't have a mikvah (ritual bath), the first group to convert in 1984 went to Rosarito Beach instead and converted in the frigid Pacific in December under rabbinical supervision.
Since then, Salas has brought many of his congregants north to the University of Judaism (UJ) to be converted by the beit din (rabbinical court) operated by the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly (RA). Those who converted "were fairly knowledgeable, and they all seemed to be very sincere," said Rabbi Edward Tenenbaum, chairman of the RA's western states region.
Salas, whose flock often call him "Maestro" rather than rabbi, has played a key role in all of this and his influence on his Mexican faithful cannot be underestimated, Tenenbaum said. "He impressed me as being very charismatic." The pull toward Judaism among his Catholic-born flock wouldn't happen without the influence of the one-time shepherd, he added. "He has an ability to draw people to his own way of thinking."
Salas' own history unspools like a biblical film saga that might star the late Anthony Quinn in his fiery "Zorba the Greek" mode. Born one of eight children near the town of Fresnillo in the north-central Mexican state of Zacatecas, Salas tended sheep from age 5 to 9 to help ease the family's poverty. Although his parents were Catholics, he said he really didn't learn much about his faith "because what kind of religion can you learn when you're taking care of animals?"
He had a deep hunger for religion, which was at first whetted by a Jewish businessman in Mexico City. Later he joined a brother in Buffalo, N.Y., served three years in the military during the Korean conflict, then returned to Buffalo. He married a Cuban-born woman with whom he had five children and whom he later divorced. (He has since added five more offspring and is married to his third wife.)
Meanwhile, continuing to seek a religious identity, Salas entered a Methodist seminary in Buffalo, eventually becoming an ordained minister. He says he went to the Methodist seminary because there was no yeshiva in Buffalo, but that he always intended to become a rabbi.
In 1960, Salas came to Los Angeles and two years later began attending UJ. Along the way, he made his fortune by investing in jewelry shops and other businesses. It is this money that he used to fund his Tijuana synagogue, which he started in 1967, the same year he converted.
For five years Salas took courses at the UJ, eventually renouncing Methodism and converting to Judaism. He made a decision not to become ordained, which he defends passionately. "I took all the courses to become a rabbi, but I never did wish to be ordained by any of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist (movements)," he explained. "I have never belonged and I don't care to belong to any of those four movements or to any movement." It is enough, he said, just to be a Jew, to pray, to go temple, to observe Jewish law. "When people ask, 'What are you?' I say, 'We are just Jews.' "
The synagogue uses a Conservative Spanish-Hebrew prayer book and a Ladino-Spanish-Hebrew haggadah, he says. Some members believe that their ancestors were descendants of Marranos who emigrated to Nueva Espagna (New Spain) to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Zulema Ruiz, who has been studying with Salas for 27 years and converted 13 years ago, says she was born a Catholic, but never felt at home in her faith. "Probably I have some Jewish blood. My father's name is Israel, and Zulema means Shulamit."
The synagogue hopes to open its doors to a large influx of Indian Jews from Venta Prieta in the state of Hidalgo near Mexico City. Salas explains that they are a small township of more than 6,000 people (some accounts have pegged the number at a fraction of that number, perhaps only 200) who claim to be descendants of the Marranos or Crypto Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition. "Everybody thought they were Indians because they didn't understand what they were saying. In fact they were speaking Hebrew," Salas said. Some have shown an interest in migrating to Tijuana since the largely Orthodox congregations of Mexico City question their Jewishness and are reluctant to accept them, Salas said. "We have welcomed them without questions."
At the center of a poor neighborhood, the synagogue has excellent relations with its Christian neighbors, gathering groceries weekly to feed the poor. The local priest helps distribute the goods to the needy. "We're extremely close in our relationship," Salas said. "We were born in the same country and have a complete understanding."
After introducing his wife, who converted to Judaism last year, and three of his children, Salas shows off the shul's four Torah scrolls inside their hand-carved cedar ark and an Israeli flag which he insists is not just for show. "We feel very Jewish. If Israel needs our young people, we will do whatever has to be done. We are proud to serve in any way, shape or form."
In another part of town, our tour bus pulls up in front of a white building with green awnings shielded by iron bars. In contrast to the Hebrea Congregacion, there is no external sign that this is a Jewish building, the Centro Social Israelita, Tijuana, until we enter the building. Greeting us is the president of the synagogue, Sofia Model de Segal, and Rabbi Mendel Polichenco, the Argentine-born Chabad rabbi who leads the congregation. The Centro claims to have 100-plus families who "belong to us," with many commuting across the San Diego border, Salas says.
Some are members of the Ashkenazic Jewish community that helped build the synagogue in the 1970s under the leadership of Max Furmansky. A trained cantor and a Conservative Jew, Furmansky led the primarily Orthodox membership in the '70s, presiding over Shabbat services, organizing classes in Jewish law and history and inaugurating a Jewish summer camp which attracted children from Mexico City and Guadalajara, as well as Tijuana.
In the early 1980s, a schism in the synagogue between Sephardic and Ashkenazic practice drove membership down to about 50 or 60 families and left the synagogue without a regular spiritual leader. The falling value of the peso also sent many Jewish-Mexican Tijuana families north of the border to San Diego, with the Centro's loss proving to be the gain of several San Diego synagogues, according to an account by writer and National Public Radio commentator Alan Cheuse.
Polichenco, a short, stocky, bearded man dressed casually in jeans and an open-neck shirt, arrived at the Centro fresh from the Orthodox seminary. The first Chabad rabbi authorized to work at a Mexican synagogue, he married an Orthodox Jew from a large Italian family and, with his wife, helped to build a strictly Orthodox facility, with three kosher kitchens, a "kosher" mikvah, a day school that goes through third grade and a daily minyan. In the Latin American tradition, the synagogue also aims to be a social gathering place, including a small outdoor pool with a Mogen David at the bottom and a somewhat neglected, looking play yard.
In contrast to Salas, who makes a show of proud financial independence, Segal makes no bones about asking the American visitors for contributions. "It's so important to have a Jewish presence here," she said.
The two synagogues, a mile or two apart represent two poles of the dynamic and ever-evolving Mexican-Jewish experience.
The next Tijuana bus tour will take place Sun., Oct. 28, through Jerry Freedman Habush's Jewish LA Tours. For information, call the University of Judaism Department of Continuing Education at (310) 440-1246.