Rejected at God’s Door in Mexico City
In the last 20 months of travel I have found myself without a place to go many times: sometimes in a city, sometimes in the country, sometimes in the rain, and usually at night. But every time I found myself in need, someone stepped up and opened their home to me. I have felt welcome and warm so many times, but I am sad to say that on one chilly Shabbat in Mexico City was not one them.
It had been a while since I had gone to a synagogue, but that need to reconnect or rediscover the Jewish community was upon me – which is a natural impulse for a Jew, regardless of religiosity or spirituality. In 3 months I haven’t even seen a Jew, let alone a synagogue. Mexico is a Catholic country through and through, and only makes the occasional foray into Evangelism, so synagogues are not part of the normal religious fare. But I knew that Mexico City had a Jewish community, and small as it may be, it is the biggest in Central America, and I was very curious to see what it was all about.
I arrived, a good hour before the start of Shabbat, at a building which had no outward sign of being a synagogue. The only reason I stopped was because Google maps indicated that that is where it should be. I was doubtful as Google is often wrong south of the border, so I approached one of the two security-looking gentlemen to ask if this was the synagogue. I couldn’t remember the name at first, so I stumbled a bit, trying to get him to help me out, but he just kept asking for what I was looking, and what I was looking to do. I eventually remembered the name, Ramat Shalom, but they still refused to confirm that that is where I was.
Eventually I dismounted my bike, gave the man my ID, and waited for him to write down my information and call someone from the “organization”. I sat on the curb waiting as people slowly began to arrive – the kippah’s gave away where I was.
About 15 minutes later a young man showed up, greeted me in a friendly way but didn’t say Shabbat Shalom. He started asking me about what I was doing, where I was from, where I was going, why I wanted to come to shul… we talked like this for a while and then he asked me to fill out a form, an application or questionnaire of sorts. It looked like a job application which also asked about my synagogue and Rabbi. I stood, leaning against the wall of the building, filling out this form. The young man then took the form and told me he is going to check with the leaders, or board, and will return momentarily.
Is anyone appalled yet that I had not been invited inside to do this? Is anyone shocked yet that, upon seeing that I am pretty obviously Jewish, have a Magen David on my neck, an Israeli flag sticker on my bike, AND want to come inside on Shabbat, I am still standing outside waiting for permission? If you are not that’s fine, because when he came back 15 minutes later, I was informed that I was not allowed to enter.
How about now?
I’ve been to mosques and churches with my Star of David dangling around my neck. I was welcomed to Hamas and Fattah homes in the West Bank, complete strangers have given me food and places to stay, even the Zapatistas allowed me to spend a night in one of their villages (which is unheard of without permission from the Central Committee). I have been on the road now for 35,000km and 20 months, and the only rejection I have known came from a synagogue, on Shabbat.
The young man apologized, said that if it were up to him he would let me in, and that he would give me a call the following week, after they had more time to “check my references”. That call never came.
Mexico City is not the safest place in the world but it is not Iran or Syria. It’s true that there has been violence and racism of one kind or another against Jews in the past, but nothing so serious or recent, nothing, in my opinion, that should prevent a Jew, clearly a Jew, from coming inside, especially on Shabbat. I felt more welcome in a Palestinian home than I did at Ramat Shalom.