A Syrian Jewish family from Mexico finds connection in Pittsburgh
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ProfileThe Jewish community helped them feel at home here.

A Syrian Jewish family from Mexico finds connection in Pittsburgh

“I opened the siddur that has the same exact Hebrew words like the siddurim we have in Mexico," said Yafa Schñadower. "I said, ‘Oh, I am home.’”

The Schñadowers at the 2020 Purim at the JCC event (Photo courtesy of Yafa Schñadower)
The Schñadowers at the 2020 Purim at the JCC event (Photo courtesy of Yafa Schñadower)

One month into a new job, Yafa Schñadower was called into her boss’ office. He wanted to know the Jews’ secret to having money. Yafa replied that Jews like to save; there was no big secret. A lengthy back-and-forth ensued, and the next day, he fired her.

Some people assume all Jews in Mexico are wealthy, and kidnap or rob them because of it, said Yafa, who knows not to show her jewelry or cellphone on certain streets. And some people, she said, still believe Jews have horns.

When Yafa, 38, her husband Eduardo, 37, and her daughter Liora, 5, moved to Pittsburgh four years ago, they thought they had escaped the troubles of Mexico City.

So when she learned of the Oct. 27 synagogue shooting, Yafa was shocked. “I felt as if someone was stealing a candy from a child, that they were robbing all that innocence from these people,” she said. “I know Jewish people that have been kidnapped in Mexico, and it’s terrible and we pray for them. But here, I said, ‘These poor people were not expecting this.’”

Every synagogue in Mexico City has lots of security, she explained. Even on Shabbat, the police are told who is coming, and congregants need to show ID.

“When we arrived here, it was very nice to see that there was no extra security in the synagogues, that everyone could enter just like that,” said Yafa.

But after the massacre at the Tree of Life building, when security in synagogues was increased, “it was very sad for me,” Yafa said. “Like why, why in this magical and amazing place is this happening to all of us?”

The Schñadowers haven’t just seen anti-Semitism here; they’ve also faced Hispanophobia. One time, Eduardo was at the supermarket when a woman, who heard him speaking English in an unfamiliar accent, asked him where he was from. “Mexico,” he replied. She then asked him if he did cement work and was surprised to learn that Eduardo is earning his doctorate in information systems and management at Carnegie Mellon University.

And when Yafa brought her 2-year-old son Daniel to a Torah class, a woman asked her who she worked for. After Yafa said she was confused, the lady realized that she wasn’t the nanny. Yafa is earning her master’s in interdisciplinary design at Chatham University.

Leah Mizrahi, Yafa’s great-grandmother (Photo courtesy of Yafa Schñadower)
Her great-grandmother came from Damascus, her grandfather from Aleppo. His great-grandparents came from Aleppo, his grandmother from Poland and his grandfather from Ukraine, arriving in Mexico alone at 13 only to receive a letter informing him that his entire family was murdered in a forest by anti-Semitic socialists. (His story is documented in the film “Un Beso a Esta Tierra,” or “A Kiss to this Land.”)

Mexico’s centuries-old Jewish community is centered in Mexico City, where there are four main segments: Sephardim from Aleppo, Sephardim from Damascus, Sephardim from Turkey and Ashkenazim, Yafa explained.

Growing up, she went to an Ashkenazi Orthodox school that taught Yiddish and an Ashkenazi synagogue, even though she’s Sephardic, because her family had friends in that community.

After high school, she traveled to Israel with the secular youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, which she described as a Zionist version of Boy Scouts. The following year, Eduardo went to Israel with the youth movement Hanoar Hatzioni and was on the same kibbutz as Yafa’s younger brother. The two met when Yafa visited her brother in Israel, started dating back in Mexico and, in 2012, married.

Eduardo and Yafa Schñadower with their families on their wedding day (Photo courtesy of Yafa Schñadower)

Eduardo wasn’t happy with his job at a Mexican retail chain, and Yafa thought he should have the opportunity to get a doctorate. He needed more financial aid than Mexican universities could give him, and the Schñadowers saw the U.S. as a place with more order and less crime than Mexico. Eduardo applied to CMU (Yafa’s dad is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan) and was accepted. They made the big move.

Eduardo came first. He connected with the Federation’s Mauricio Feldman, who put him in touch with Chabad of Squirrel Hill. There, Gila Dlinn’s son invited him to her Shabbat dinner and, knowing the Schñadowers were coming with almost nothing from Mexico, Dlinn coordinated a furniture donation for them.

When Yafa arrived with Liora, she found a well-stocked apartment. “I will never forget how they filled our apartment with free furniture and free food when we arrived,” she said.

Pittsburgh didn’t immediately feel like home.

“I missed my home and everything, and I went to the synagogue,” said Yafa. “I opened the siddur that has the same exact Hebrew words like the siddurim we have in Mexico. I said, ‘Oh, I am home.’”

The language barrier was tough for Yafa even though she had learned some English in Israel and at her school in Mexico.

“I wished the rabbis could have subtitles all the time because it was hard for me to understand,” she said. “But right now, as long as people don’t have another different accent than the one that I am used to, I understand a lot of things about what they say.”

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh was the first place she really improved her English. At Chabad, Yafa spoke Spanish with two other women and leaned on Eduardo for help with English. But at the JCC, without a Spanish speaker by her side, she was left to talk in English.

“We are crazy about the JCC,” she said. “They always receive us with a smile.”

In Mexico City, the JCC is known as “La casa de todos,” or “The house of everyone,” a name emblematic of the way Yafa feels when she’s there. Mexico City’s JCC hosts events like a weeklong pre-Passover dance festival that brings Ashkenazim and Sephardim together each year. Naturally, Yafa and her kids frequented the JCC pre-pandemic.

The Schñadowers at Chabad of Squirrel Hill’s Purim celebration in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Yafa Schñadower)
Liora is on the autism spectrum. She talks, just not to her parents. “I never know what to do because she doesn’t speak to communicate with us,” said Yafa. Jewish programs help: Liora loves the crafts, snacks, swimming and songs at Chabad, the PJ Library and the JCC.

Their current plan is to return to Mexico after they graduate, Yafa in 2021 and Eduardo in 2022, though they feel connected to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

Yafa sings in the JCC Choral Group along with Barry Werber, a member of New Light Congregation who survived the Oct. 27 shooting. When the choral group next met after the attack, Yafa hugged him, not knowing what to say. The group sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” Werber started to cry, and they all cried with him. PJC

Kayla Steinberg can be reached at ksteinberg@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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