Election of the First Woman and First Jewish President of Mexico! 👠

The Historic Synagogue Justo Sierra 71 | Synagogue Nidjei Israel, in Mexico City

Something really incredible happened this week. Maybe since it happened in another country, or because we are so inundated with the noise and strife in our own political world, we didn’t take much notice of it. What I am referring to is the election of the first woman and first Jewish President of Mexico, an overwhelmingly Catholic country which, is also not short on a culture of “machismo.” Yes, women in Mexico have been in positions of power and leadership for some time. Still, the first woman president who also happens to be Jewish, was elected to the highest office in Mexico in 200 years? Pretty amazing.

Turns out, I have a familial connection to the country near our southern border. When my father’s oldest brother Saul was about to be drafted into the Polish army in the 1920s, my grandmother in Vilna sent him off to Costa Rica where there were a few family acquaintances, and immigration was more accessible than it was to the United States. As work was scarce, however, in Costa Rica, my uncle found his way to Mexico City, started a business and raised a family. My two female cousins (Mary and Raquel) and my Uncle Saul came to spend Passover with us one year, and I recall how unusual it was that the language spoken at our Seder table along with English and Yiddish, was Spanish. As a young college student, I travelled to Mexico City where I visited my family and learned a bit about the history of Mexican Jewry. I remember attending synagogue with my relatives on Shabbat and being struck by how heavy the security was-something that didn’t quite exist yet, in the same way, here in America.

Mexican Jews were and are a small percentage of the population (about 60,000 today) and yes, there is antisemitism in that part of the world. Still, the Jews have been part of the Mexican story since at least the 16th century.  The first “Conversos” or “Marranos”-Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism and then subjected to the Spanish Inquisition, or those who hid their Jewish identity, arrived on Mexican shores in 1519 when things were not quite as heated as they were for the Jews in Spain and Portugal. Over time there was greater religious tolerance in Mexico, and more and more Jews came from countries where there were political tensions or worse. The Jews who settled in Mexico are either Ashkenazic Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, or Sephardic Jews, mainly from Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Syria. Today there are many synagogues, Jewish community centers, and Jewish schools in Mexico. The Jewish community consists of Jewish leaders in every field. My own cousins became professors in math and sociology at one of the universities in Mexico City and are published authors. They have always been proud of both their Mexican and Jewish heritages.

The newly elected President, Dr. Claudia Sheinbaum states that she did not grow up religious, nor is she anything like a practicing Jew. Yet I find her story, her academic achievements, her values and goals as a public servant, to be very Jewish indeed.

Her grandparents fled fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s-on her father’s side, escaping pogroms in Lithuania, and on her mother’s side, fleeing Bulgaria at the start of the Holocaust. They came to Mexico when Mexican President Lazao Cardenas de Rio, who served from 1934-1940, was actively accepting refugees.

Dr. Sheinbaum is a scientist with a Ph.D. in Energy Engineering, who was part of the United Nations panel of climate scientists that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. She served as Mayor of Mexico City, population nine million, focusing on economic inequality, doubling the minimum wage, and working hard to provide a sturdy social safety net for all. In many ways, her stated goals, whether she knows the term or not, are very connected to “tikkun olam”-“the repair of the world.” She has done this through expanding social programs, extracting people from poverty, addressing environmental issues, building a safer Mexico, and altogether providing a better quality of life for her fellow citizens.

Ilhan Stavens, a Jewish-Mexican scholar commented that “Dr. Sheinbaum’s sheer arrival to the Presidency will generate interest in the rich history of Jews in Latin America, who have lived in the region for hundreds of years.” May it be so, and may it lead to stronger interfaith connections throughout Latin America and beyond.

Shortly after her victory was confirmed, President Sheinbaum offered these words, As I have said on other occasions, I do not arrive alone. We all arrived, with our heroines who gave us our homeland, with our mothers, our daughters and our granddaughters. What a generous, humble and Jewish thing to say.

Con Bendiciones, Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor Rita