I met a man in the Museum of Natural History on the Oklahoma University campus. Often coincidence leads to an interesting story. We were both in Oklahoma City attending a conference. His name was Emilio Reyner and, at the time, he was Cancun’s Director of Public Relations. Almost immediately, my Jewish radar began to buzz. I mentioned that Reyner is not a typical Latino surname and 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.” That’s how this story began; I wanted to find out more about the Jews of Cancun after my visits in 2009 and 2011 and in 2013.
The first Jewish merchants and entrepreneurs arrived shortly after development of the area in 1974. Organized Jewish life coalesced in 1985, when a handful of “settlers” congregated in a private home to celebrate Shabbat. In 1998, a Civil Association was established and donations were obtained to acquire a small community center with classrooms and space for a synagogue, Neve Shalom. Although there is no official rabbi, there is a friendly, intertwined relationship with Chabad of Cancun and its Rabbi, Mendel Druk. Activities at the shul include Hebrew lessons, music, study groups, cultural events, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, weekly prayer services and celebration of all festivals. My favorite is when I learned that Tu’ Bishvat (Festival of the Trees) is observed in the nearby jungle.
While interviewing the enthusiastic and engaging Rabbi Druk, I learned that Chabad’s part time relationship with the Cancun Jewish community began approximately 17 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 gained a permanent foothold in 2007 when Rabbi Druk and his family arrived on the scene. 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 although he takes “appropriate” security measures, especially at Shabbat services.
When asked about his congregation, the Rabbi replied that “every Jew who steps into Cancun belongs to our community.” In season, up to 200 people attend services. About 60 are local and the balance of visitors are from outside Mexico, including tourists and time-share/condo owners. Rabbi Druk estimates that 60%-70% are “Jewishly active” but not religious; they just want to experience and celebrate Shabbat in Mexico. There are an estimated 200+ Jews living there year-round. As you can imagine, they are a diverse group. The population is 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. Only about one-third are actively involved in synagogue life (sound familiar?) There are part-time residents from other Mexican cities, South America, Israel, Europe, Canada, and the United States. The latter two are the most represented. In a recent Skype interview with Rabbi Druk, he mentioned that last year there was a ground breaking for a beachfront Jewish Community Center and Welcome Center in Cancun’s famous Hotel Zone. It is a fascinating, evolving Diaspora tale with a Mexican twist.
Mayan Symbol Similar to the Hebrew Letter “Hey.”
During one of my visits to Cancun, Emilio and I met again and caught up as we strolled 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 the Jews of Cancun. Ken yehi ratzon (may it be so).
Travel Notes: When necessary, both Chabad and Neve Shalom provide assistance to the Israeli Embassy and Jewish tourists. For further information about Cancun tourism, go to www.cancun.travel/en. Some of my favorite places to stay in Mexico are the RIU Hotels and Resorts and, of course, there is one in Cancun. Logon to www.RIU.com to find out more.
Enjoy the journey and safe travels…..
*Travel Journalist Finalist (4th. Place) Award Winner in 2013 Annual Writing Contest.