Growing Up Jewish in Mexico

by Dina Buchbinder Auron

Can I speak about Jewish life in Mexico?

I once heard Mexico’s Jewish structure described as, “a community of communities.” This is because in Mexico there are several Jewish communities that make up the larger Jewish community.

There are approximately 50,000 Jewish people in Mexico, the majority living in Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara.

So … in telling you a little bit more about Jewish life in Mexico, I decided to share with you what I know most: my Jewish life!

I guess I am not the “average Jewish person,” but really, who is?

I am perhaps less mainstream in that, for example, I live in the south part of the city while most Jews live in the north; I attended a non-Jewish school while most went to day school, and I am not married and do not have children yet, while most of my friends are married with children. Beyond that, many of my fellow Jews are more traditional in terms of observance than I since I don’t consider myself a very religious person, and perhaps am more of a secular Jew. However, when I think about my Jewish life and how I am surrounded by Judaism in so many ways I am sure it has contributed strongly into making me who I am today.

My parents met in Bar Ilan University in Israel when they were both studying for their B.A. degrees. My dad is from Uruguay and my mom is from Mexico.

When my brother and I were growing up, our parents frequently spoke Hebrew to each other and we were very fortunate to visit our family in Israel practically every year. So the sounds of Hebrew have always been familiar to me and the love I feel for Israel goes a long way …

My maternal grandparents were born in Russia (Ukraine) and Poland and my paternal grandparents were born in Poland. So, as you can tell, I am very Ashkenazi!! I was lucky enough to have known my four grandparents, although today only my grandma from my mom’s side is alive. Her name is Clara, or Jaike, and I call her abu.

Even though I did not attend a Jewish school, I was involved in all sorts of activities throughout my whole life. For example, all through childhood and adolescence I went to the Jewish Community Center (Centro Deportivo Israelita) and practiced many sports and activities there including gymnastics, swimming, tennis, rikudei am, to name a few. I danced in a rikudim (Israeli dance) festival, the Aviv Festival, every year of my life until university! For many years this JCC was the central gathering place where all the Jewish communities come together to celebrate the best of our culture.

When I was 9, I went to Camp Ramah in New England, where I met many Jewish kids from different places across the U.S.

I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah in the Bet-El community, which is a Conservative Ashkenazi community, and there I met many Jewish friends, even my first boyfriend! Having my Bat Mitzvah was a turning point in my life. I truly felt I entered the next stage with a more meaningful and grounded set of values that made feel happy and whole.

I also belonged to a Jewish youth movement for four years in Mexico. To belong to this movement meant a whole range of learning and discoveries that I still appreciate today, such as community teamwork and promotion of values that enrich our culture as Jewish people. There I tasted the beautiful experience of leadership while I was the madricha (counselor) in charge of the group of 6 and 7-year-olds. Through activities and creativity their minds opened up to new ideas and questions, thus, I was in direct contact with their development and growth as good people.

During high school, I volunteered for a group of disabled young people called KADIMA. This experience also fulfilled my sense of community integration and of diversity, acceptance and connection to other realities.

When I was 15, I went to a JCC in Houston, Texas, to be a counselor at a day camp over the summer.

When I finished high school, at 18, I spent one year living in Israel. I lived and worked on two kibbutzim and took part in a two-month course at the army called Marvah. This was an amazing experience and apart from learning many new skills I learned Hebrew! And I love it! Every time I hear it, my heart beats!

During my time at University, I organized the Jewish Week to share with students what it meant to me to be Jewish. As part of this successful event I organized conferences, featured a gastronomic sample of delicious food, invited several Israeli dance groups and gave away a free ticket to Israel. Mostly, I wanted people to see, taste and hear another perspective about Israel and Jewish life.

I have had the opportunity to learn from many Jews around the world. In 2004, I lived in Singapore and was very close with the small but vibrant Jewish community there. In 2008, I was selected to attend the Nahum Goldman Fellowship in Uruguay. I was recently selected to attend the 2011 ROI summit in Israel with young Jewish leaders from around the world and in 20 days (23-27 November 2012) I will attend Latin American ROI in Argentina.

When I sit on a plane and I see a familiar face it’s a funny feeling, when you just know the other person is Jewish and suddenly you have a world in common even if you are from very different countries or even if I’m Ashkenazi and he or she is Sefaradi! It doesn’t matter, we are still Jewish.

Today, I work very hard and am incredibly passionate about what I do. Over the past four years I have run an educational and civic program for children to become better citizens through games and sporting activities. It is called Deport-es para Compartir or Sports to share. We have reached 44,000 children from 18 different States in Mexico, mostly children from indigenous backgrounds from marginalized communities. This semester we are working for the first time with a Jewish School (Colegio Hebreo Monte Sinai). This is very important and special to me.

While I wouldn’t really say I have much of a spiritual life, however, when I visit my abu for Shabbat and she lights the candles, I get a beautiful feeling of belonging. When she tells me stories of when she left Russia, came to Mexico and how she grew up here, I feel this is also an important part of who I am. We also have some traditions, such as my abu cooking all those delicious dishes that my great-grandmother used to prepare for her and now I can also enjoy as she and my mother and keep making them. When it’s Yom Kippur and I go to shul, I get that feeling of belonging, too. When I go to shul for Shabbat with my dad I also feel happy and enlightened because of what it means to me.

I think every step I have taken in my life has built my identity and it’s also created my Jewish life in Mexico. I wonder how other people would describe their “Jewish life” wherever they are or whatever community they are part of …

For me, it’s a matter of traditions, feelings, culture that I love and that make me feel proud. I am proud to be a Mexican young Jewish woman.

I love having so many Jewish friends and non-Jewish friends with whom I can also share who I am and what makes me feel proud of being Jewish aswell as learning from their backgrounds. I guess you could say that I am still trying to figure out Jewish life in Mexico really looks like …

Dina Buchbinder Auron, age 29, founded Deport-es para Compartir (a play on words meaning ‘sports to share’ and at the same time, sports are for sharing), a civic and educational program that teaches children about values and important global issues through games and sports. She lives in Mexico City.