A Rabbi in Tijuana?

Vince Beiser last wrote for the magazine about ibogaine as a treatment for drug addiction.

Sure, he went from being a barefoot shepherd in Mexico to a wealthy businessman in Los Angeles. And yes, it's true that he spent time along the way with Che and Fidel during the Cuban revolution. He also was ordained as a Methodist minister, but later converted to Judaism. But what Carlos Samuel Salas really wants to talk about is the thriving little congregation of Mexican Jews that he has brought into being in Tijuana--almost all of them Catholics converted under his tutelage.

"I think that I am fulfilling a commandment every time I teach," says Salas in his accented but near-perfect English. "We have almost 100 members now. The congregation is flourishing."

At 71, Salas is a stocky, handsome man, elegant in a 1940s way. He favors dark tailored suits, sports an impeccably trimmed Clark Gable mustache and combs his graying but still abundant hair smartly back. He steps up to the bimah to preside over a recent Saturday morning service with the easy smile and inviting charisma of a posh nightclub bandleader.

The Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California sits in a modest residential neighborhood of Tijuana, miles from the tourist discos and tequila bars of the border zone and even further from them in temperament. The worshippers--mostly middle-class men and women in their 30s and 40s, along with a handful of children--kiss the mezuza on the sanctuary's door frame as they enter, bidding each other a friendly "Shabbat shalom." Most have brought their own yarmulkes and prayer shawls. Per orthodox tradition, the 35-odd men and women sit on separate sides of the low-ceilinged, brightly lighted room, which is decorated with pink Spanish tiles, menorahs, Stars of David and the flags of Israel and Mexico. Salas leads them through a two-hour service, the roomful of former Catholics chanting the Hebrew prayers with impressive fluency.

This may be the only synagogue in the world that is composed of people not born into the faith. Judaism does not encourage proselytizing, and converts make up only a tiny percentage of Jews worldwide. Congregacion Hebrea's very existence is testimony not only to Salas' dedication, but also to his formidable powers of salesmanship. He never misses a chance to plug the synagogue, its programs and plans. Before answering a single question for this story, he burst into an excited spiel about the rabbinical school he plans to open early next year, for which he has persuaded a synagogue in San Diego to donate about 2,000 books. He clearly believes deeply in the faith he's promoting--after all, he's been doing it for 35 years without pay.

Salas was born near the central Mexican town of Fresnillo, the youngest of eight children in a family so poor that at age 5 he had to work tending sheep. He was 9 by the time he went to school for the first time, but worked extra hours to catch up. At 18, he joined a brother in Buffalo, N.Y., where he was employed in a steel plant. Two years later, he was drafted into the Army and sent first to Korea, then Alaska.

This is where Judaism came in, or perhaps back is more appropriate. As a child, Salas had seen his grandmother and mother light candles every Friday night and recite strange prayers over them. "I'd ask them why, but they'd say, 'Never mind, it's just a tradition, and it's dangerous to ask too much about it,' " he says. In the Army, Salas met some Jewish soldiers, and in talking with them discovered that his mother's mysterious rites were actually Jewish rituals. Her family, he now believes, were descendants of what are known as Marranos--Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism under the Spanish Inquisition, but had secretly held on to and passed down Jewish practices.

Salas was intrigued; he had never been too crazy about Catholicism anyway. "As a kid I saw people being forced to make contributions to the Church, even if they were very poor," he says. "The priest in my neighborhood lived in the best house, had the best clothes. I always thought that wasn't right."

Back in Buffalo after his discharge, he says he wanted to learn more about his mixed religious heritage, but there were no local Jewish seminaries. So he enrolled in a Protestant Methodist seminary, which taught both Old and New Testament theology, and eventually received ordination. He also planted a foot firmly in the secular world of business, opening a small hotel as well as a Spanish-language newspaper.

It was through his journalistic work that he found himself literally camping out with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in the 1950s, writing a series of articles for a New York newspaper about the Cuban revolution. "I'm no socialist, but I have great admiration for Castro," he says now. "If you could have seen the poverty in Cuba before Castro, you would have cried."

Salas moved to Los Angeles in 1960, where he got into the wholesale jewelry business and pursued his interest in his Jewish roots by enrolling in courses at the University of Judaism in Bel-Air. This ultimately led to his conversion in 1967. "I became convinced that I couldn't believe in Jesus, or Buddha, or anyone but the God of Abraham," he says. "I guess I had it in my blood."

In the years that followed, compelled to "properly instruct" his own people about his newfound faith and buoyed by the proceeds from his lucrative jewelry business, Salas founded his synagogue in Tijuana. At first, he advertised it as a place that offered free Bible classes. Although there are Jewish communities in Mexico City and a few of the nation's other urban centers, the deeply Catholic country has not been especially hospitable to Jews. As a Spanish colony, Mexico had its own inquisition beginning in the late 16th century that burned Jews at the stake. The image of Jews as world-controlling Christ-killers still holds considerable sway. "People used to break our windows morning, noon and night," recalls Salas cheerfully. The synagogue is now surrounded by a high gray wall.

Nonetheless, curious locals started coming, drawn by Salas' growing reputation as a spiritual teacher. Although he's not officially ordained as a rabbi, his congregants often address him by using the title, in the broad historical sense of a scholar and teacher of Jewish law. By 1984, nearly two dozen had become sufficiently learned in the ways of Judaism that a tribunal of rabbis from California arrived to formally convert them. Many more have since been converted at the University of Judaism.

Rafael Gamliel Hernandez, for instance, a dignified-looking man in his 40s with a full black beard, was sent to a Catholic seminary as a child. "The fathers told me I'd never be a priest, because I was always questioning things," he says. So he left and studied other religions until he heard about Salas' congregation. "When I came to study Judaism here, I thought, 'This is the real God,' " he says. He converted after three years--and one by one, so have his father, wife, three sisters and all of their children.

This story especially pleases Salas, whose three marriages have produced a sizable family of his own--including several sons active in his congregation. None of his family members keep their faith hidden the way his mother did. "My children and children's children now wear the Star of David. They are open, proud to be Jews," he says. "I used to dream about this."

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