Marvin Berk was wrapping up a successful career as an award-winning graphic designer in New York when his partner (now husband) brought him to San Miguel de Allende for his birthday ten years ago.
“I fell in love with it,” he recalls now. Mexico’s expat mecca 180 miles northwest of Mexico City “seduced” them with “huge blue open skies, colonial architecture and the feeling of being grounded in history,” Berk says. “This was a place to enjoy, relax, sit on rooftops under open skies, and talk to people in cafes. It had everything that appeals to us…New York is so much about money.”
And there was one extra add-on not typically found in expat nirvanas—the Jewish Cultural & Community Center, known locally as JC3. JC3 is not a synagogue. There is no rabbi. Rather, it strives to be all things to all Jews, whether tourist, full-time retiree, or local Mexican convert. Berk found welcome at the center and today, at age 73, is on its board of directors and manages all its communications, including the website and newsletters. “The Jewish community in San Miguel offers an opportunity to grow your social connections and your mind,” he says.
Much like the town in which it’s located, JC3 is freewheeling, nonconformist and unabashedly unaffiliated. Attending services is only one item on the menu of activities. “There are plenty of Jews here but not all are interested in services,” says Dan Lessner, the principal founder of JC3 who estimates the number of Jews in San Miguel at around 1,100. Lessner himself teaches Hebrew at JC3 and conducts Conservative (“traditional/egalitarian”) services in Hebrew, Spanish and English. Special programming might include poetry readings, Cuban-style dance instruction, a panel discussion on antisemitism, yoga or a Yiddish film festival.
The brick-and-mortar building, formerly a warehouse for a food-distribution charity, has been open since 2014. Services on Shabbat and holidays take place there (and via Zoom, occasionally). Torah study is broken down into English and Spanish groups. One boy recently became a bar mitzvah, and five more children are in the pipeline. JC3 maintains the only Jewish cemetery in the region. There are about 45,000 Jews in all of Mexico, about 75 percent in Mexico City.
The first Jews in Mexico were conversos, sometimes referred to as crypto-Jews because they had been forced to convert to Catholicism but practiced Judaism in secret. After expulsion from Spain in 1492, many came to Mexico and helped conquistador Hernán Cortés subdue the indigenous population. One of them, Hernando Alonzo, designed and built the boat Cortés used to conquer Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). After Alonzo was accused of secretly practicing Judaism, he was burned at the stake. Hundreds, if not thousands, met a similar fate—especially after the establishment of an Inquisition court in 1571.
Jews only began to come out into the open after Mexican independence in 1821. But the new nation declared Catholicism to be its official religion, and Mexico denied citizenship to Jews until the reformist presidency of Benito Juarez in the second half of the 19th century.
Jewish immigration to Mexico was more of a trickle compared to the torrent that came ashore north of the border. Sephardic Jews from Syria had established themselves as trades people in Mexico City and elsewhere. But after Congress passed the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe who might have gone to the United States arrived in Mexico instead. The numbers intensified with the rise of Hitler in 1933 and the start of World War II six years later.
San Miguel de Allende dates back to 1542, but was an economically depressed village of 7,000 when Isaac Cohen Shalom arrived in the late 1920s with his wife, Raquel Turquie Tambal. Depleted silver mines had cut the town’s population to a quarter of its high point in the 18th-century.
Both Isaac and Raquel grew up in families that had emigrated from Damascus. They married in Mexico City and moved to San Miguel to open a clothing store (later turning it into a hardware store), a short distance from the town’s central square, the Jardin (garden) and close by the Parroquia San Miguel de Arcangel, the vaulting sandstone Catholic church that dominates the town’s skyline.
Eventually, the family added on a floor to their store and placed Stars of David above the second story windows. The stars are still visible today, although the property is now a boutique hotel and food court.
“Our family was the first Jewish family here, but we never had any problems because of this,” said their daughter, Elvira Cohen, in an interview for Voices of San Miguel: An Oral History, by Kris Rudolph, published in 2017. With only one car in town, all the children played together in the streets. The family practiced Judaism at home, closing the store on major holidays. Elvira’s brother, David, celebrated his bar mitzvah at home.
“In reality, we had it good,” Elvira said. “San Miguel is a privileged place.”
In 1937, a young itinerant graduate of Princeton named Stirling Dickinson arrived in San Miguel and was immediately awestruck. “There was just enough light for me to see the parish church sticking out of the mist,” Dickinson said, according to a 2010 account in Smithsonian Magazine by Jonathan Kandell. “I thought, my God, what a sight! What a place! I said to myself at that moment, ‘I’m going to stay here.’”
Dickinson’s father was a successful lawyer, and his grandfather was a prosperous grain broker and vice president of the Chicago Board of Trade. But Dickinson had little interest in Chicago’s social elite and traveled to Mexico with a college friend in a Model A Ford, searching for adventure. A so-so painter who had attended the Art Institute of Chicago after Princeton, he envisioned a thriving arts community amid quaint colonial surroundings, Along with a Peruvian artist and exiled diplomat, Felipe Cossío del Pomar, Dickinson founded the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes in an old convent. After World War II, Dickinson harnessed the GI Bill of Rights to recruit hundreds of American veterans, Jews among them, to study art at his school, which became the Instituto Allende in the 1950s.
Dickinson’s vision of an art colony gained traction. Beat generation luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady became habitués. Cassady, the model for wild Dean Moriarity in Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road, died in San Miguel at age 41 in 1968 and is buried there. Victims of 1950s McCarthyism and blacklisting also gravitated to San Miguel.
Today, many American expat purists turn their noses up at San Miguel, saying it is way too Gringo-ized. But in most regards, the retiree visitors and expats blend in with the Mexican families strolling the Jardin, listening to Mariachi serenades, or going inside the Parroquia on Sunday as a lone sexton yanks a bell rope.
Dan Lessner, now 66, was a successful family practitioner in Sag Harbor, New York, who had visited San Miguel several times and thought of it as a retirement possibility. But at age 48, he grew tired of the pressures of “managed care” and the HMO-inspired bid to drive down healthcare costs. He checked his property tax assessment and realized his home on the upscale eastern end of Long Island—the Hamptons—could help him afford an early retirement.
Although a “red diaper baby” whose leftist parents eschewed traditional Jewish learning, Lessner embraced Conservative Judaism and hoped to foster it in San Miguel. He found an existing ad hoc Jewish community that held a community-wide Passover seder and conducted services at a local hotel or a friendly Episcopalian church. Lessner procured a donated Sefer Torah and brought it down to San Miguel. A minyan formed and in 2012 evolved into CHESMA, the Spanish acronym for Hebrew Community in San Miguel de Allende, an ‘Asociacion Civil’ that gives it legal non-profit status in Mexico.
JC3/CHESMA is the umbrella organization that, the JC3 brochure informs, is not affiliated with any branch of Judaism. Under the umbrella is Kehilla Shalom San Miguel, the conservative minyan started by Lessner that meets in the JC3 building and is a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism of North America. Also in the umbrella is Chavurat Shalom, the “fellowship of peace” that offers “non-traditional joyful gatherings” at the JC3 building. The entire entity is affiliated with the Central Committee of the Jewish Community in Mexico.
The community bought the warehouse and paid off the debt within two years. The Torah is stored in an ark in a room used for services. Congregants sit on stackable chairs. There is space for a meeting room and a library on the second floor.
Not long after, Lessner was surprised to see Mexicans knocking on the door and asking about JC3—and expressing interest in conversion. He had attended medical school partly in Tampico on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, so his Spanish fluency helped Mexican inquirers understand Judaism. Many said they felt an affinity with Judaism, that maybe they had Jewish ancestry and hadn’t been told about it.
JC3 has channeled about 90 Mexicans to a lengthy Conservative conversion program, directed by Spanish-speaking rabbis in the U.S. About half of the convert population is no longer active, however. “A lot of converts become like other Jews and they don’t bother to come to synagogue,” Lessner says with a laugh. “But as far as I know, no one has reverted to Christianity.”
Among those who knocked on the door is Daniel Torres, a psychologist at the local public health clinic. He grew up Catholic in nearby Moroleon, which like San Miguel is in the state of Guanajuato. He describes himself as an inquisitive, searching youth who alternated between atheism and wanting to enroll in the seminary. “Sometimes my father used to say ‘you ask too many questions,’” Torres, who is 37, recalls. “He didn’t like that about me!” As a psychology student he read Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, an intellectual study of Moses, fatherhood and Jewish identity. Gradually his intellectual appreciation of Judaism grew into a desire to become Jewish. “Judaism is a state of mind, a way to see and experience life,” Torres says. “That’s the thing I like about it. There’s not just one interpretation.”
When Torres first visited JC3 with a work colleague, he says, “I was fascinated with all I found here and all the people we met. They were open, warm and welcoming.” He began studying remotely with a Spanish-speaking rabbi in the United States and converted after four years. He now serves as president of CHESMA.
Lessner recalled a Mexican Jew converted at JC3 who moved to Mexico City, where a Conservative rabbi rebuffed his attempts to join a synagogue. On his next trip to Mexico City, Lessner sought out the rabbi and questioned him. The young convert, Lessner said, had a certificate signed by three rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, a Conservative entity. “And you’re telling me he’s not Jewish?” Lessner implored.
“No, no, no, I would never say he’s not Jewish,” the rabbi answered, according to Lessner. “What I’m saying is the board doesn’t want converts as members.”
The Jewish population of Mexico City is stratified. In addition to the usual divides of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, synagogues are divided by geographic origin, with one synagogue for Jews from Damascus and one for those from Aleppo (both in Syria). There’s one for Jews from the Balkans and Turkey, and a few for Ashkenazim. One Conservative synagogue was founded by Americans in 1954. Overall the culture is insular, with about 90 percent of marriages within the faith, according to a 1991 study cited by the Jewish Virtual Library.
By contrast, the Jewish community of San Miguel sees itself as open and welcoming. Torres says he was “lucky to knock on the door of a Jewish community” that accepted people like him.
Women have also found JC3 to be comparatively welcoming. Kayla Fine, a self-described “baby feminist” (meaning a lifelong believer in gender equality), was recruited from bilingual public schools in New York to serve as director of four Jewish schools in Mexico City’s Syrian-Jewish community. But she found that women were treated as second-class citizens. “It was a model out of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States,” she says. “I was really disheartened by the Jewish education of girls. At bat mitzvahs, they didn’t read Torah and there was no place for them on the Bima.”
Fine explains that she and her husband Elliot, 71, gravitated to San Miguel in 2018, because in Mexico City she “could have no role as a Jewish woman other than serving coffee at the kiddush.” By contrast, she recalls being called up for an aliyah on their first visit to JC3.
After five years in San Miguel, Fine, 63, directs membership and education at JC3 and has led the Chavurat Shalom non-traditional service. Her husband Eilliot is vice president and head of programming. “Nothing about our moving here was rational,” he says. But once they started visiting from Mexico City, it all fell into place. “I remember sitting under a jacaranda tree, and realizing ‘I could live here.’”
Like most every other institution, JC3 took a hit during COVID as part-time residents stayed home and didn’t pay dues ($180 annually for an individual, $250 for families). Nor was there any income-generating programming. “We laid low,” said Fine. Recovery has been steady but gradual. Membership hovers around 100, still a bit down from its pre-COVID high of around 120.
Geographic secrets are never well-kept, and San Miguel in some ways is a victim of its own success. The quaint artist galleries and hangouts are subject to being overridden by buses disgorging tour groups at five-star hotels. Toward the end of his life (he died in 1998), Stirling Dickinson was said to be disturbed about the wave of tourists washing over San Miguel.
Yet Fine says she has talked to American Jews fearful about the future of Jewish life at home who wonder if moving to San Miguel might be the answer. She believes the town will continue to draw Jews who are attracted to culture. San Miguel, she says, “is like a college town in the United States, only with better food and real estate.”
“If it’s getting overrun anyway,” she says, “yeah, we would welcome more Jews down here.”