San Miguel de Allende plays host to CHESMA, a group catering to expat Jews and conversos

San Miguel de Allende plays host to CHESMA, a group catering to expat Jews and conversos

Former doctor Dan Lessner has been the driving force behind the growth of the CHESMA organization.
Photo by Carol Saline
Former doctor Dan Lessner has been the driving force behind the growth of the CHESMA organization. Photo by Carol Saline

It’s a warm Friday evening in San Miguel de Allende, an historic colonial town about four hours north of Mexico City that’s become a popular destination for American and Canadian ex-pats and tourists.

As the weekend gears up, most of the town’s 1,000 or so resident Jewish foreigners are headed out to a restaurant, a concert or one of the town’s ubiquitous art openings.

But a dozen of them have trekked up a steep road to attend Shabbat services in a nondescript two-story building that is the official home of CHESMA, the Comunidad Hebrea en San Miguel de Allende. With prayer books in their laps, they sit in a semicircle on black folding chairs in a whitewashed community room where tomorrow an art historian will deliver a lecture on Marc Chagall. The Shabbat candles sparkle in a brightly painted Mexican candelabra. The Torahs rest in a locked wooden cabinet nearby.

All the men in the room have gray hair except for Dan Lessner, a tall, slender 60-year-old who joyfully leads the service, singing in a slightly off-key voice. He pauses often between prayers to interject a bit of Talmudic wisdom.

Lessner, the driving force behind CHESMA, is not an ordained rabbi; he’s a retired family physician from Long Island who embodies the definition of rabbi as teacher. Sans credentials, he’s carved himself a comfortable niche as prayer leader. But he’s so much more. Were it not for Lessner, CHESMA would probably not exist.

You know how it goes with Jews. They migrate one by one into a secular community, and, when there are enough of them, they create a little Jewish world. That’s how it started 30 years ago in San Miguel, when foreigners first discovered the town as a cheap and charming place to spend the winter or, better still, sell the house in the suburbs and relocate to a sunny place that wasn’t Florida.

One of those foreigners was Lessner.

He had grown up actively involved with Judaism, attending Yiddish school as a kid and participating in Hillel while in college. When he opened his family practice office in Sag Harbor, he helped start a Conservative congregation, learned to read Torah and often subbed for the rabbi who lived in New York City and couldn’t come out to Long Island every week.

Lessner had done his first two years of medical school in Mexico and fallen in love with San Miguel on a holiday visit. He promised himself that someday he would return — and 12 years ago he did.

At 48, sick of fighting with insurance companies, Lessner sold his practice and two buildings he owned, scoring enough of a profit to chuck medicine and retire comfortably to San Miguel. He planned to volunteer, providing free medical care at a clinic a few days a week, but he wasn’t licensed in Mexico and that didn’t work out. But coming from a life run at 90 miles an hour, he wasn’t ready to spend his days reading under a shady tree.

Instead, he got involved with a small group of like-minded Jews who met every Friday for Torah study. Lessner soon was leading a short prayer service before the study group, which slowly grew into a more formalized Saturday Shabbat service. That led to holiday parties at Purim and Chanukah that began attracting more and more expats looking to recreate a slice of the Jewish life they’d left behind in Chicago or Montreal.

Over time, the core group swelled to several dozen regulars and a steady stream of visiting Jewish tourists.

Two years ago, fed up with meeting in a local hotel that willy-nilly canceled its events for fiestas or weddings, Lessner heard that a local nonprofit was moving to larger headquarters and was desperate to sell the building it was leaving behind for the irresistible price of $175,000. He jumped on the opportunity, and, relying on the generosity of the community he’d helped create, the mortgage was paid off in two years.

CHESMA had a home of its own.

Today, it is an official 501(c)(3) umbrella organization that includes three entities: a Kehilah Shalom minyan group that has recently been admitted to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; a smaller cohort of Reform Jews led by Carol Stone, originally from Pittsburgh; and a meditative group devoted to Buddhist teachings, referred to colloquially as JewBu.

But study and prayer are only a part of CHESMA’s mission.

“Most of the Jews who live or visit San Miguel are secular and not all that interested in religion,” Lessner said. “I realized to be relevant to them I had to expand our mission to be primarily a Jewish cultural center with programming that would also attract a non-Jewish audience. We show Jewish movies, have weekly art lectures, classes, concerts, play readings, monthly interfaith roundtables” — and, of course, Shabbat services for those of their 120 members who show up somewhat irregularly.

Eric Kaplan is a typical CHESMA member. A retired New Yorker who moved to Mexico seven years ago, he considers himself a secular Jew.

“But I feel strongly Jewish,” he said, “and I wanted a connection to a Jewish community that I found at CHESMA. I love it here — the holiday celebrations, the camaraderie, the friends I’ve made. It’s all great.”

But there are other members who don’t fit the mold at all, people such as Mexican local Heriberto Guitierrez Fontana, who showed up one morning at services because he had a vague sense from his father that something in his background was Jewish, and he was curious what that meant.

The Jewish presence in Mexico dates to the Inquisition, when some of the Jews expelled from Spain found their way to South and Central America, where they typically became Catholic to blend in. But even with inter-marriage, these beni anusim maintained a sprinkling of Jewish beliefs and traditions, like the ritual of circumcising male sons along with baptism.

Fontana initially came to CHESMA out of curiosity about his mythical Sephardic roots. He liked the people at the service and was welcomed into a study group. Soon, other friends with similar backgrounds joined him, and one day, after a few years of Torah study — to the delight of Lessner — five of the Mexicans asked to be converted.

In the last five years, 30 more local Mexican men and women have found their way to CHESMA and become conversos, or converts to Judaism. Many of them are young people with families who’ve injected the exuberance of life-cycle events like bris and baby-naming and bar mitzvah into this group of aging white ex-pats.

“I always wanted a bilingual congregation,” said Lessner, who speaks fluent Spanish. “But even better, I now can be sure of having a minyan because the Mexicans really get into the religion part. They believe you can’t be a Jew if you don’t practice Judaism.”

He’s even translated the prayer book into Spanish.

“If we prayed in English, the Mexican conversos wouldn’t understand,” he said. “And if we prayed in Spanish, the gringos wouldn’t understand. So we pray in Hebrew and nobody understands.”

A rabbi comes from the States to do the conversions; a mohel comes from Mexico City when there’s occasion for a bris. A hot springs on the edge of town serves as a mikvah while a real one is being built, and construction is underway on a Jewish cemetery.

“When these are completed,” Lessner said, “we will be a real Jewish community.”

Then he’s off to schmooze at the kiddush luncheon that follows every Saturday service. The kids run around speaking in Spanish. The adults converse in either English or Spanish or both. And everybody raves about the kugel.

Carol Saline is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.