Under the umbrella of Jewish Healthcare International (JHI), I recently visited MexicoCity. JHI, which I served as a medical director, was founded in 2000 by the late Dr. Steve Kutner with a mission to enhance health care by providing medical services to underserved communities throughout the world. This NGO no longer exists as a financial entity, but I have continued two of its volunteer programs.
Recently I was made aware that a tiny, free-standing, Jewish community-supported hospital in Mexico City was “on its knees.”
Hospital OSE, founded by the humanitarian organization 75 years ago with support from the city’s Ashkenazi community, thrived for many years, but demographics dealt OSE, also known as Children’s Aid Society, a challenging hand: The Jews moved away. Even with a dedicated board of directors and generous donors, by 2012, OSE was treading financial water.
With Robert Goodman, a JHI volunteer with a record of salvaging hospitals, I went to Mexico City to investigate how JHI might help. Through the dedication of the Mexican-Jewish community, we shepherded a partnership with the city’s outstanding ABC Medical Center to bring much-needed financial stability to OSE.
In the course of my visit, I was introduced to the labyrinthine politics, tribalism, and extraordinary success and cohesion of Mexico’s remarkable Jewish community.
Approximately 40,000 Jews reside in Mexico, the overwhelming majority in Mexico City. They are divided — I emphasize divided — into “Beth Israel,” “The Ashkenazi Community Council,” “Bet-El Community of Mexico,” “Magen David,” “Monte Sinai Alliance,” and “Sephardi Community.” Each group is fiercely attached to its own community, with its own social center, synagogue, and charitable institutions. Marriage between individuals of each community is socially taboo.
Yet each group has regard for any Jew in need. More than 200 free or low-cost programs provide a plethora of services. In spite of the tribal divisiveness, they created an institution to integrate all community services. The formation of the Central Committee brought about efficiency and avoids duplication.
For this community, the concept of “Acheinu kol beit Yisrael” — “We are all the House of Israel” — is paramount.
Does it work? Ninety-one percent of all Jewish children attend Jewish schools, 34 percent on scholarship. Not all schools are religious; 27 percent of Jews in Mexico are not observant, 27 percent are described as “very religious,” and about half are “traditional.”
There are pockets of great wealth in Mexico City, but the average monthly income in the Jewish community is only $3,500, and 30 percent earn just $1,500. Since the requisite income for a family of four is about $4,000, many need support — yet no one goes hungry or without health care.
Mexico’s universal health-care policy means in practice that within the Jewish community most everyone has some sort of insurance, but not every health-care need is covered. The Central Committee provides payment for such ser-vices that are lacking.
Intermarriage is under 6 percent (and 74 per-cent of non-Jewish partners convert). The Central Committee is actually developing a plan to increase intermarriage — between Sefphardim and Ashkenazim.
The Jewish community also has the Sports Club, which offers classes in every imaginable sport and a vast array of equipment and Olympic pools, a comfortable place to daven and study, kosher restaurants, full-time medical staff, and spectacular grounds. Membership fees are about equivalent to those of a JCC here, but scholarships abound. The director told me his motto is “Pay what you can, no questions asked. No one is ever turned away; it’s for the Jewish community.”
How has this community provided such a plethora of services, sustained such a high rate of in-marriage, and maintained the integrity of their Jewish identity? They do have one advantage: It is within the law to exclude non-Jews from the Sports Club, so children go to school and play at the center only with other Jewish children.
Do they have more and wealthier donors, more focused on support of Jewish causes? Is there a higher level of anti-Semitism that keeps intermarriage down? No. The ADL reports two anti-Semitic events in Mexico in all of 2012 and the government’s posture is clearly that such behavior is unacceptable. Recently the foreign minister compared anti-Mexican bigotry in the United States to international anti-Semitism, something to be condemned and abjured in no uncertain terms.
Mexican-Jewish children grow up in a community that values every single Jew and ensures that every child has a Jewish education, an example that strengthens the younger generation’s bond to their people.
Why do more Mexican-Jewish children attend day schools? Why is the intermarriage rate so low? Why does their community offer easier access to cost-free health services?
I have an inkling that our community has quite a bit to learn from our brothers and sisters south of the border.
Tikkun olam is not just a “suggestion.” Through my years with JHI, I am saddened to say, I noticed that richer and poorer Jewish communities abroad appear to exert greater effort and achieve better successes in their services by and to their communities than we do here in the United States. Our “best” efforts pale in comparison to that which communities with fewer resources offer and provide. We should do better.