While attending the 2008 annual conference of the North American Travel Journalists Association, I met Cancun's Director of Public Relations, Emilio Reyner. Almost immediately, my Jewish radar began to buzz. I observed that Reyner is not a typical Latino surname. He smiled and responded that his family was originally from Hungary. I asked rhetorically, "So, you're Jewish?" He looked at me and said with a straight face, "No, but my aunt in New York is." I laughed and told him, "Emilio, you are Jewish" and that's how this narrative began. I was about to get a glimpse of Jewish life in Cancun.
Within a few months, a trip was arranged and I had an opportunity to meet and chat with Ari Rajsbaum, the volunteer president of the Jewish Community in Cancun. Ari stated that the history of the Jews of Cancun began when the first merchants and entrepreneurs arrived shortly after development of the area started in 1974.
Chabad's part time relationship with the Cancun Jewish community began approximately 13 years ago.
However, organized Jewish life coalesced in 1985, when a handful of "settlers" congregated in a private home to celebrate Shabbat. Temple life has slowly evolved from that small dedicated group into its present form. In 1998, a Civil Association was established and donations were obtained to acquire a small community center, which included space for a synagogue and rooms for educational purposes. Although there is no official rabbi, there is a friendly, intertwined relationship with Chabad of Cancun and its Rabbi, Mendel Druk. Even though the membership spans a wide religious spectrum, services are traditional, including a mechitzah. Activities at the synagogue, Neve Shalom, include Hebrew lessons, music, study groups, cultural events, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, weekly prayer services and celebration of all festivals (Tu' B'Shevat is observed in the nearby jungle).
When interviewing the enthusiastic and engaging Rabbi Druk, I learned that Chabad's part time relationship with the Cancun Jewish community began approximately 13 years ago. At that time, rabbinical students were sent from the United States to officiate at high-holiday services. At the urging of American and Canadian émigrés who wanted a more formal Jewish education for their children, Chabad began a permanent relationship in 2007 when Rabbi Druk and his family arrived. While he is involved with his rabbinical duties, his wife, Rachel, teaches, coordinates the ritual requirements of the Mikvah and handles the challenges of kashrut; quite formidable given the limited local availability of kosher food. When asked what it was like to be a Jew in a Catholic country, Rabbi Druk's answer was most interesting. He stated that it was very difficult to find any anti-Semitism. However, stereotypes relating to Jews and wealth endure. The incongruity is that both he and Ari mentioned that a significant percentage of Jews in Cancun struggle economically.
When asked about his congregation, the Rabbi replied that
"Every Jew who steps into Cancun belongs to our community."
"every Jew who steps into Cancun belongs to our community." Recently, on Friday night, there were 270 people in attendance for services. About 60 were local and the balance were visitors from outside Mexico including tourists, time-share owners and a few Israeli backpackers. Rabbi Druk estimates that 60%-70% were "connected Jewishly" but not necessarily religiously; they just wanted to experience and celebrate Shabbat in Mexico.
Rabbi Druk helps a tourist put on Tefillin
The overall population of Cancun is approximately 450,000. There are an estimated 500 Jews representing 150 families living there and they are a diverse group. The demographics are heavily skewed toward residents who migrated from Mexico City. The ethnic background is 40% Ashkenazi, 40% Halebi and Shami (Syrian and Lebanese) and 20% Sephardi from Turkey and the Balkans. There are part and full-time residents from other Mexican cities, as well as from South America, Israel, Canada, Europe and the United States. Only about one-third are actively involved in synagogue life (sound familiar?). It is a fascinating, evolving Diaspora tale with a Mexican twist.
A few days before we were to leave, Emilio joined me for a stroll through town. At one point, he stopped to take an incoming call. After he hung up, Emilio looked at me and smiled broadly. He had spoken to his daughter who told him that she was excited to be a guest of her boyfriend's family for Shabbat dinner. Emilio was clearly pleased. Reflecting back on Emilio's comment about his Jewish aunt in New York, my thought was that perhaps their family roots had taken hold in a new generation, reaching from Hungary to Mexico and the community of Jews of Cancun.
Travel Notes: When necessary, both Chabad and Neve Shalom provide assistance to the Israeli Embassy and Jewish tourists. Chabad of Cancun is located across the street from Le Meridien Hotel in the Hotel Zone and they offer a discount to visitors who mention Chabad. The hotel was recently named the #11 resort in Mexico by the 2008 Conde Nast Travelers poll.