Up in the hills of Mexico, amid the chickens, donkeys, artists and musicians, are two shluchim with dreams of growing a Jewish community.
Rabbi Daniel and Raizel Huebner, Lubavitch emissaries, operate the Chabad House in San Miguel de Allende and fervently hope that Jewish travelers and residents consider it a welcome respite.
Creating a remote spiritual sanctuary for Jews was long on the Huebners’ minds. Raizel and Daniel, a former student at Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, discussed the idea at length while dating. Finally, after marrying in 2014, and moving to Brooklyn, the Huebners began narrowing their sights.
In 2018, the Huebners homed in on San Miguel and Beersheba — two cities separated by 7,777 miles.
Both places had communities seeking a young Lubavitch couple who could spark Jewish engagement. But the situation in each city, the Huebners said, couldn’t have been more different.
Of the nearly 175,000 people in San Miguel, fewer than 2% are Jewish, Daniel estimated. Of Beersheba’s 209,687 people, approximately 86% are Jewish, according to City Population, an online resource.
Visiting San Miguel and Beersheba in winter 2018 offered clarity.
“We decided absolutely not San Miguel,” Daniel, 32, said.
Living an observant life, where easy access to Jewish day schools and kosher food are paramount, seemed untenable in central Mexico, so the Huebners began the process of making aliyah. But then they decided to visit San Miguel once more.
What they discovered, Raizel, 28, said, was that the same reasons that almost drove them away from the Mexican city proved to be its ultimate selling points.
San Miguel doesn’t have a kosher grocery store, a mikvah or a Jewish day school. What this means on a day-to-day basis, Raizel said, is that apart from co-directing the Chabad House, she has to shepherd most of her children’s educational and spiritual needs.
Before moving to Mexico, those responsibilities seemed “daunting,” but after speaking with a friend in Puerto Vallarta, who made a similar decision, Raizel realized the incredible opportunity at hand.
“If I chose to [reorient] my perspective from ‘this is what I need to do’ to ‘this is what I get to do,’ then it makes a really big difference,” she said.
Raizel connected with mothers from across the Lubavitch world. She heard tales of people who homeschooled their children when traditional brick-and-mortar institutions were less than a mile away. She discovered resources for creating curricula and befriended other women who educated their own children.
The challenges that many Chabad families faced decades ago, when they first went out as emissaries, were very different, Raizel explained: “I have a complete network — mothers who are five to 20 years ahead of me in this process. We have professional help, teachers, therapists, psychologists. There is a really great support system for homeschooling within Chabad.”
While in Beersheba, the family “would have kosher food and Jewish schools, Daniel said, “there wasn’t as much of a void as in San Miguel. We kept thinking about need.”
While relative to Beersheba, San Miguel seemed lacking in Jewish amenities, it wasn’t entirely deficient. Even before the Huebners and their three children — all then under the age of 3 — arrived in San Miguel in November 2018, the city had some of the trappings of an active Jewish life.
Its community center, JC3/CHESMA, serves as a non-denominational space for spiritual, educational, social and cultural programming (former Pittsburgher Carole Stone serves on its board of directors).
Kehilla Shalom San Miguel de Allende (KSSMA), a separate legal unincorporated religious entity, which is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, offers lay-led services on Shabbat mornings. Rabbi Juan Pablo Mejía Restrepo of Oklahoma City serves as KSSMA’s honorary rabbi and has officiated the conversion of several San Miguel residents.
And even without a full-time resident spiritual guide, KSSMA hosts life cycle events throughout the year.
The Huebners credited San Miguel’s Jewish community with making their choice to relocate so clear.
San Miguel is gorgeous, but after meeting so many people who call it home it was hard not to “fall in love,” Raizel said.
“It’s just amazing to see how many people are there — their different walks of life — and how each person has a unique way of relating to Yiddishkeit,” Daniel said.
Since moving to San Miguel in November 2018, the Huebners started a Hebrew school, organized concerts of Jewish music and held numerous social events. But the most frequent communal experience is Shabbat, which occurs each week within the Huebners’ home. As a lead-up to Friday night, Raizel cooks for dozens. The courtyard of their rented house can seat 30. When the crowd grows larger than that, the Huebners reserve space at “the hotel down the block,” Raizel said.
Much of their food is bought locally, but meat, chicken and several dairy products come from Mexico City — located 146 miles southeast — Daniel said.
The closest airport is 90 minutes away, and it takes three-and-a-half hours to get to the mikvah, but everything is manageable, he continued.
COVID-19 created difficulties when it came to connecting with Jewish residents through formal prayer or learning, but “we started doing social services and food distribution to the larger community,” Daniel said.
Two years after shutdowns went into effect, the Huebners have started welcoming participants again for classes, services and Shabbat meals.
Given San Miguel’s climate — average daily highs in the warm season are 82 degrees and 74 degrees in the cold season — programming occurs outdoors, Daniel said.
The Huebners said they’ve noticed growth but would like to see more.
The couple aims is aiming to buy a home for themselves and create a proper permanent place for Chabad. They dream of building a mikvah, kosher grocery store, cafe, library and artists’ gallery — a place where “all your Jewish needs are met,” Raizel said. “We are obviously going to have to start small, but we are hoping to build something small and as we grow something will grow with us.”
San Miguel has long been praised by expats and tourists. The Huebners hope more Jewish travelers discover the southern treasure.
“The reason why we are there in the mountains, in Mexico with the chickens and donkeys and thousands of Jews is because we want to have a home where Jews can come and have a bowl of chicken soup or a Tanya class,” Raizel said. “We want people to know that they are wandering the world but they are not wanderers — they are there with their family — and they’ve found a Jewish haven in the middle of the mountains in Mexico.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.