My husband, Stuart, and I have been vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for years. We typically go over winter break so our grandchildren can join us and take advantage of the lovely beaches, the whale watching, the zip-lining, and the charming towns surrounding the city. Some years, our trip has overlapped with Hanukka and the family missed celebrating the holiday with friends. This past year we found a vibrant community with whom to celebrate the Festival of Lights.
Last year I had to say Kaddish for my mother, so I went on-line to look for a community center or a synagogue. I found a monthly Friday night service at the Genius of Paco Art Gallery in Puerto Vallarta’s Romantic District. Paco, it turns out, was formerly Frank Rubin from Brooklyn. The service was outside, under the stars. It was beautiful and healing. My mother travelled the globe, so she would have loved the idea that I was saying Kaddish so far from our home in Manalapan.
We met wonderful people at the service. Most were snowbirds who have been coming to Puerto Vallarta for at least 10 years. We felt exactly as comfortable as we do in our own synagogue, Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen. This year we arrived just before the beginning of Hanukka. I contacted some folks from last year, and found The JewWish. I was stunned. Who would believe that I’d be at a Hanukka celebration in Puerto Vallarta? Mexico’s Jewish centers are primarily in Mexico City and in Guadalajara, miles away from Puerto Vallarta’s magnificent Banderas Bay.
The JewWish (www.thejewwish.com) is a new business created by Israeli entrepreneurs Saul Groman and Yossi Elkayam. Both are thirty-somethings who met by accident, although both believe there are no accidents in life. They met at Rosh Hashana services two years ago, shortly after Elkayam moved to the area. Groman, happy to welcome another Israeli, has lived in Puerto Vallarta for nine years.
They started a real estate business in town, and have been doing well. Then they realized how many snow birds are Jewish and how large the full-time Jewish population is.
According to Groman, “Many Jews live here year round, working in the hotels and at other businesses. In the winter, we are inundated with Jewish snow birds.”
Their goal is to build a Jewish center in Puerto Vallarta, something my husband and I — both long time Monmouth County federation activists — can identify with.
Their first event was a Hanukka celebration held in a penthouse with breathtaking views and the first kitchen to be certified kosher in Puerto Vallarta. About 100 people gathered to light candles, chant the blessings, sing traditional songs, and eat. And what food: falafel, latkes, and sufganiot (Israeli-style jelly donuts) in abundance, along with some Israeli salad and crudites. The baked goods came from Puerto Vallarta’s famous Pie in the Sky bakery, which is now also kosher, and even has pareve hallah on Fridays.
“Our mission,” said Elkayam, “is to make Puerto Vallarta a reasonable option for Jews seeking to celebrate a holiday or a simha in an unusual yet welcoming location.”
They are currently organizing groups for Passover at the all-inclusive Grand Turismo resort. “All the food will be prepared according to the highest standards of Kashrut,” according to Groman. What a place to have a Seder!
Although I love Puerto Vallarta, I’m not ready to think about Passover yet. I’m still high from enjoying Hanukka and Shabbat with the friends we’ve found in Puerto Vallarta.