Let me begin with a big “thank you” to Carrie Hoops, who for the past three years served as the Executive Director of Jewish Family and Child Service. When I first moved to Portland, Carrie was serving as the Executive Director of the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. She taught me a great deal about the nonprofit community here and has been an incredible colleague ever since. Carrie will be leaving JFCS to become the Executive Director of the William Temple House, a leading social service provider, and we wish her only continued success and fulfillment. And, we welcome new interim JFCS Executive Director Kathleen Sullivan.
Today is the 5th of May – better known as Cinco de Mayo. Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. That holiday takes place in September. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, the Mexican army’s (outnumbered by a battalion double its size) victory over the French during the Franco-Mexican War in 1862 (sounds a little like Chanukah!).
In the early 16th century, Spain banned Judaism and forcibly converted Jews to Catholicism. Seeking religious freedom, many “secret Jews” from Spain immigrated to “Neuve España.” Don Luis de Carvajal, a well-known Portuguese-Spanish nobleman who was born to Jewish conversos, or forced converts, became Governor of the new territory. Carvajal welcomed both Jews and Catholics into his land. His nephew, Louis Rodriguez Carvajal, embraced his Jewish identity in the new kingdom, and encouraged other secret Jews to do the same.
The Spanish Inquisition, which forbade any Jewish practice, spread to Mexico in 1571. Many of the new territory’s Jews fled to neighboring Peru. Jews who chose to remain faced torture and execution if it was discovered that they continued to practice their faith. This was in effect for close to 300 years.
In 1864, and despite Mexico winning the Battle of Puebla, the French remained in command. Their emperor, Maximilian I, issued an edict of religious tolerance and invited German Jews to settle in Mexico. This separation of Church and State continued to be enforced under Mexican rule years later, and Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms and religious persecution made Mexico their new home.
Jewish refugees began to pour in to Mexico. Ashkenazi Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe came in the 1880s, establishing Mexico’s first synagogue in Mexico City, in 1885. Sephardi Jews soon followed, fleeing persecution in the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
The peak of Jewish immigration to Mexico happened in 1924 when the President of Mexico issued a public statement extending a friendly invitation for Jewish immigration to Mexico. This invitation made a tremendous impact on Eastern and Central European Jewry and sharply increased the number of Jewish immigrants during 1924-1926 to almost 500 Jews per month. In the 1930s, fewer immigrants arrived, yet most were Jewish women coming to marry the young settlers who preceded them. Much of the support of these immigrants to get to Mexico was provided by Jewish Federations of North America and its overseas partners.
Mexico today has close to 40,000 Jews, the third largest Jewish community in Latin America after Argentina and Brazil.
Approximately 95% of Mexican Jews are affiliated with the Jewish community, and 90% of children attend Jewish day school. Intermarriage rates are among the lowest in the world where 94% of Mexican Jews marry other Jews (74% of the non-Jewish partners eventually convert to Judaism). Incidents of anti-Semitism remain low and Mexico passed a law in 2003 that forbids discrimination, including anti-Semitism.
Most of the Jewish population is centered in Mexico City. They have an incredible Jewish communal infrastructure, and just six weeks ago laid the foundation stone for their new $5 million Jewish center, Kehilla Ashkenazi.
According to the World Jewish Congress, there are 30 permanent synagogues and an additional 20 places of worship during the High Holidays in Mexico. There are no Reform or Reconstructionist communities or synagogues. There are 16 Jewish day schools. considered among the best schools in the country. And, there is a Jewish Sport Center, founded in 1950, that has more than 28,000 members and is the center for sports activities, as well as many social and cultural.
The structure of the community is based on “Communal Identity.” These distinct Communities were founded according to the origin of the immigrants (Damascus, Lebanon, Central and Eastern Europe, Aleppo, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, etc.). Each Community provides virtually all the services that their members need from birth until death: religious, educational, social, cultural and welfare. Poor Jewish families are helped with any needs they have: food, health care, medicine, rent, scholarships, etc.
Aside from the services provided by the Communities to their members there are several programs and services that are handled in an inter-communal basis:
• Preventative work against drug and alcohol addiction
• Services for people with special needs
• Vocational services
• Domestic violence prevention and counseling services for victims and their families
• Senior retirement home and assisted living, as well as in-home services
• Medical facilities (non-surgical and operation recuperation) and pharmacy for people in need in the Jewish community
What you may not know is that our community is connected through our partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) who created a Tikkun Empowerment Network (a global initiative that brings together Jewish young adults from around the world to work and learn together in impoverished communities worldwide) in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2013. Oaxaca has suffered several natural disasters. The volunteers live on a coffee and cocoa plantation and work in full partnership with Mexico’s Committee for Natural Disasters and Emergencies. Together they train young community leaders, help local farmers market their products, provide English and math tutoring, and promote ecosystem regeneration through water recovery.
Today is a day of celebration - so, Happy Cinco de Mayo to our mishpocha in Mexico and Shabbat Shalom.