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The Jews of Cancun

The Jews of Cancun


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
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.

Howard Hian is an award winning travel writer who lives with his wife, Susan (also his in-house editor), in La Jolla, CA. His stories can be found at
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Myrna & David YUDENFREUND BOCA RATON, FL April 20, 2017

We have been going to Cancun for over 30 years. It's our favorite vacation spot. About 10 years ago we read about Rabbi Druk and his family bringing "yiddishkeit" to Cancun.
We then started going to services on Friday night at his home where he welcomed people from all over the world. A wonderful Shabbat it was and we have been going there whenever we are in Cancun.
Their children are a delight. So far...3 beautiful girls and a wonderful boy who will soon be a young man! Rachel, the rebbitzen is beautiful, wonderful, kind and so nice to be with as we see her care for her children and assist Rabbi Mendel in his tasks.
Last year, we spent Pesach at the "synagogue" where we had prayers and dinner each night. The Jewish women participated in the cooking and feeding of more than 50 people.

We will soon be returning to Cancun and can't wait to see Reb Mendel, Rebbitzen Rachel and the darling children!

The warmth and love generated by all of the Druks is a real blessing.
Shlalom! Reply

Mushka Druk Duh! Cancun, Mexico January 22, 2016

My parents! That baby, Mushka Druk, is now nine years old!
I know because...
it's me!
They really are special.
I like living in Cancun (sometimes)
Being a shlucha is hard, but I know I can do it.
Hi, nine-years-ago-article! Reply

Mr. Jay Telles May 8, 2010

Felicitaziones I always knew Mexico was a welcoming country for Jew. I am a Sephardic Jew living in North Carolina, USA. Its nice to know we are safe, at least in Cancun. Reply

Mark Schwartz Tel Avi, Israel November 21, 2009

Refreshing! I love the way this was written. It has been presented to me that this congregation is making it on its own. I saw no mention of the Mexico City Jewish community and evidently the Cancum chevra is quite independent, and I find this wonderful. I am so proud of Chabad to go to places other groups would not dare!

כל הכבוד!!!! Reply

Chani Benjaminson, November 18, 2009

Chabad of Cancun It's best if you contact Rabbi and Mrs Druk in Cancun directly, they'll be able to give you the most updated information. Reply

Georges Balladares Montreal, Canada November 18, 2009

Felicitacion I live in Montreal-Canada, in March I will traveling to Cancun, after that I will flight to Cartagena-Colombia, I will like to have the address of the temple so I can visit them
Toda raba
Shalom Reply

Stephen Shlomo Brody roslyn harbor, ny March 16, 2009

Jews in Cancun A Rose is a Rose is a Rose!
A Jew is a Jew is a Jew!
What a wonderful story...that give realtime meaning to the fact that when a Jew is born no matter what he does or says or what a parent might do or say, your Jewishness is eternal, just so as that Divine spark within you is eternal.
Thank you for sharing this, better tham a bowl of wheaties to start the day : ) Reply

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