Couple creates Jewish community in Mexican resort town
But Jewish fellowship? That may have been a problem when the Bornsteins started coming here 29 years ago. Now, thanks largely to their own efforts, Puerto Vallarta has a cohesive and growing Jewish community with well-attended events to observe the major holidays.
My wife, Amy, and I spent a day with the Bornsteins last month in Puerto Vallarta during a stop on a Mexican cruise.
We had visited the area for a full week several years ago and enjoyed its main attractions – a charming Old Town with colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, the 11-block seaside malecon, or boardwalk, known for its unique sculptures including the iconic bronze figure of a boy riding a sea horse, and Mismaloya Beach, where the 1963 movie “Night of the Iguana” was filmed.
It was that movie, starring Richard Burton (Liz Taylor came along, which attracted hordes of paparazzi), that helped put Puerto Vallarta on the tourism map, transforming a quiet fishing village into what is now a teeming resort destination with a population of more than a quarter-million people.
On this visit, we hoped to revisit some of those same sites, but also wanted to learn what it’s like to be Jewish south of the border. Are kosher foods available? What about anti-Semitism? Can Jews from different places and varying levels of observance come together to form a community?
It was easy to get in touch with Mel. Before we left, I did a quick Google search of “Jews in Puerto Vallarta” and came across several references to Mel and the events he organizes. We made arrangements to meet when we disembarked the cruise ship. He and Barbara were kind enough to show us the city, including their lovely home, take us to one of their favorite restaurants for fish tacos, and tell us why they spend so much of their time organizing Jewish events.
“It started because no one wanted the responsibility and that made it a challenge for us,” said Mel.
Added Barbara, “We’re keeping our Jewish ties, which are very important to us.”
Mel estimates that 200 Jews live in Puerto Vallarta during the busy winter season, most of them Americans or Canadians. A Hanukkah dinner he organized last month at a local restaurant attracted 148 people. They lit Hanukkah candles, sang songs and feasted on beef brisket, roasted chicken, more than 500 latkes and rugelach for dessert.
For Passover last year, Mel brought in two Chabad rabbis from Brooklyn, N.Y., rented out a local restaurant and had kosher food shipped in from Mexico City. The seder was attended by 88 people. A Chabad rabbi from Guadalajara officiated at High Holiday services last fall, which were held at the Puerto Vallarta Holiday Inn.
Mel keeps Jews in the area informed about upcoming events via a 400-name e-mail distribution list. “You know Schindler’s list? He has the Bornstein list,” joked Barbara.
He regularly gets e-mails from observant visitors wanting to know if kosher food is available. While there are a few items for sale at the local Costco and Sam’s Club, most kosher food is shipped in from Mexico City, where there are 23 synagogues and about 37,000 Jews.
“You order it today, and tomorrow you have it in Puerto Vallarta,” said Mel.
Indeed, Mel is the go-to guy for all Jewish needs in Puerto Vallarta. Need a minyan to say the mourner’s Kaddish? No problem, Mel can organize it in a hurry. Looking for a mohel? Mel knows where to find one. He was even asked to locate a klezmer band. If Mel can’t find it, he’ll find someone who can.
As to the reaction of the local Mexican population, Mel said they have accepted the Jews with open arms. “There is no anti-Semitism here,” he said. “There are no fears of terrorism. It’s a good safe place to be.”
There are a few Mexican Jews living in Puerto Vallarta, some of whom have taken part in Mel’s events and learned more about their Jewish identity. “There are Mexicans who are Jewish who are coming out of their shell now,” he said. “They didn’t know why they were supposed to light candles on Friday night. Now they know why.”
Mel refers to the group as the PVJC – Puerto Vallarta Jewish Community. But he wants to add another “C” to the end of the acronym – Center. He’s trying to raise money to buy a building so that Jews will have a place of their own for religious services, weddings and b’nai mitzvah, social events, classes in Judaism and kosher meals.
But he needs a benefactor to step forward if a Jewish community center is to become a reality. “We are open to offers from anybody who wants to name it after themselves, their father or some other family member,” he said.
If you’re looking for a warm and sunny place to retire with a backyard overlooking the sea, Mel makes a strong case for Puerto Vallarta.
“People who are thinking of retiring to Mexico should know that there is a fellowship of Jews down here and that as time goes on, there will be more and more Jews,” he said. “With the ocean and the scenery and the people, there is no place in the world that we have ever found that compares.”
Editor’s note: I’m sad to report that Mel passed away in 2013. Donna Feldman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now organizing Jewish events in Puerto Vallarta.