In Mexico City, finding a cohesive, timeless Jewish community

Members of Tucson’s Next Generation Men’s Group atop the Teotihuacan Pyramid in Mexico City. Top row (L-R): Rob Glazer, David Goldstein, Hillel Baldwin, Stuart Gross and Bobby Present. Center: Jeff Kay, Marty Waldbaum, Peter Marcus, Jeffrey Katz, James Wezelman and Steve Silverman. Bottom: Terry Perl, Danny Gasch, Tom Warne, Larry Gellman and Barry Weisband. Not pictured: Stuart Mellan, Gary Kippur, Dan Asia, David Hameroff and Jeff Katz. (Courtesy Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona)

Jeffrey Katz of Tucson, a retired physician, just came back from Mexico City and what he saw made quite an impression.

“The most unique part (of the trip) was seeing how closely knit a Jewish community exists,” he says. “We were at what is described as a secular Jewish day school, meaning it was certainly about Judaism and holidays and Jewish life but it was not into any particular Reform or Conservative or Orthodox traditional prayer and so forth. I’ve never experienced something where 95 percent of the children go to Jewish day schools where the kids’ parents are graduates of the very same day schools. Then they spend their afternoons when they are out of J school at the JCC getting all the other things that kids would want. It’s very much a Jewish life.”

Katz and 20 other men, members of the Next Generation Men’s Group, all visited as part of the trip the group takes every other year to a Jewish community in a foreign land. This year the group journeyed to Mexico City, where some 45,000 Jews live, with almost all of their children attending one of about 13 Jewish day schools, according to Barry Weisband, vice president of planning and marketing at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. They returned April 10 from the five-day trip.

“We had a wonderful trip,” Katz says. “We saw lots of sites. We heard great music. We ate great food, but seeing how coherent the Jewish community is was the highlight of the trip.”

The Jewish community center in Mexico City is the second largest in the world, Weisband says, and comes in at 800,000 square feet. By contrast, the Tucson Jewish Community Center is 110,000 square feet. Children’s activities at the Mexico City facility include gymnastics, swimming, academics and competitive sports, to name a few.

Peter Marcus came away from the trip thinking about the Mexico City J.

“I was moved by the JCC,” Marcus says. “Especially what I remember is as we were leaving it seemed like all these minivans and SUVs were pulling up and the doors would open and kids would spill out and everybody was excited to be there. There was just a real energy at the JCC that you could really feel, It was exciting to see that and to feel that.”

“Everybody goes to the J after school,” Weisband says. “Kids are everywhere and it’s a very secure place and parents feel more than comfortable about dropping kids off, kids running in and out of cars into the J. It could be 3, 4 o’clock and parents pick them back up at 7.”

The Jewish community there  differs from the Jewish community here in a significant way.

“It seems like the Mexico City Jewish community stopped in time,” Weisband says. “In the states, we’re used to our Jewish communities being somewhat transient. Back in the ’50s and ’60s Jews in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati or Dallas, they would stay as a unit of family, of community and go to the same synagogues and that has changed over time, where it’s become much more dispersed. The Mexico Jewish community, I don’t think there are planned marriages but you go through a Jewish day school, and that’s pre-k through Jewish high school … and then they look for a significant other in that community. There are a very small percentage of intermarriages. Very few people pick up and leave … As a community, they’re very tightly knit.”

“They’re insulated by design,” Marcus says. “And the result of that is that the Jewish population has remained pretty steady over the generations.”

Members of the board of the Mexico City J hosted the Next Gens for lunch. Friday night they went to a Conservative synagogue in the city, Bet El, for Shabbat services followed by dinner with several of the congregation members.

“Our time in the Jewish community was short; it was only about a day and a half,” Weisband said, “but it was really an amazing opportunity to learn about much of what they do and how they have established a very strong community and foothold throughout Mexico. One example that gives credence to that is that 11 percent of Mexico’s GDP (gross domestic product) is held by the Jewish community in one way or another. ”

The balance of the time was spent visiting Mexico City’s tourist sites, such as the governor’s palace, the anthropological museum and the pyramids in the city center. But what really made an impression is the Jewish community.

“I enjoyed all of those things,” Marcus says. “I thought the trip was planned really well and it was just the right blend. I really enjoyed seeing all of it.”

Although visiting Jewish communities in other countries is important, there is another, underlying motivation to taking these trips.

“This group has been to four or five different communities, which started off with Israel, and then they went to Morocco, Argentina, Cuba and now Mexico City,” Weisband says. “It really is to give us some perspective as to what other Jewish communities do, how they bond together. It (also) helps us in keeping a strong, vital men’s group together as part of our lay leadership.”

Weisband says they are already thinking about the next trip for the group.

“The very next will probably be Israel,” he says. “And then some guys have said, ‘Well, we want to go to Sao Paulo,’ because that’s where the largest JCC in the world is. There are about 75,000 Jews in Sao Paulo.”