Welcome to Puerto Vallarta, Where Jewish Life’s Warming Up

by Karen Schwartz – Chabad.org

Rebecca Rabinor’s son Samuel is turning 11, and thanks to the arrival of a Chabad couple to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, he has a rabbi to help him study for his bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Shneur and Mushkie Hecht, co-directors of Chabad of Puerto Vallarta, came to the resort city in late September with their two young children a week before Rosh Hashanah. They put ads in a newspaper when they arrived, rented a room at the Hilton and were thrilled when 40 people showed up to celebrate the holiday, including about a dozen kids. They held Yom Kippurservices and an elaborate break-the-fast meal, and slowly but surely, started meeting the area’s mix of local residents and travelers.

Rabinor, who moved with her family to Puerto Vallarta about a decade ago, heard about the High Holiday services from friends in her building. She, her husband Zachary, Samuel and her younger son, 7-year-old Nathaniel, have been part of Chabad’s Jewish community ever since.

Judaism had mostly been a private affair before the Hechts came to town, with people celebrating Shabbat and holidays at home. In fact, Rabinor says she believed that they were “the only Jewish family in town.”

Now, they go to the Hechts and other Jewish families’ homes for holidays. Her older son and two other young people are learning with the rabbi. She’s part of a WhatsApp chat group with other community members and has taken part in a women’s group started by Mushkie Hecht that includes conversation, crafts and classes. The Hechts are also in the midst of formulating an array of Jewish programs, including those for short-term visitors.

“They made the community; they have brought the community together,” Rabinor says of the Hechts. “They’re helping those in Puerto Vallarta fulfill what we all want to do in the process of raising our families Jewishly—and that wasn’t available to us before.”

The rabbi estimates that between 200 and 300 Jewish residents live there year-round, with a huge boost between November and April that measures into the thousands, drawn by the beaches and warm weather. The Hechts are working on improving the selection of kosher food; though already, they have made a variety of kosher meats and fresh kosher meals available for residents and tourists through the Chabad-run www.koshervallarta.com. The rabbi has hopes for a kosher restaurant. In the meantime, another big idea has come to fruition: kosher weddings.

“Kosher weddings are now something that people can do in Puerto Vallarta,” announces the rabbi. “We had our first one on Sunday, coordinating with a local caterer and an out-of-town mashgiach [kosher supervisor].”

Four other Chabad-Lubavitch emissary couples serve Jewish communities in Mexico: one in Cancun, one in Playa del Carmen, one in Cabos San Lucas and one in Guadalajara.

Marketing Their Wares

The Hechts are also weekly features at the Puerto Vallarta farmers market on Thursdays, where they set up a table along the marina, and sell specialty challahs and kosher baked goods.

Passers-by stop to see what the “Kosher Vallarta” sign is all about. “I definitely stick out physically in dress and beard, so people come over to me, which has resulted in many, many conversations,” says the rabbi, who is originally from Chicago. “Every week is different. Every week is a chance to invite new guests for Shabbat dinner. And every Shabbat, we sit with Jews from all corners of the earth, and we instantly feel like family.”

(One local challenge, they note, is the language barrier: Neither Hecht speaks fluent Spanish yet, which makes for some very interesting communication.)

Mushkie Hecht, a native of London, came up with the idea to take part in the farmers market, and makes four or five batches of challah—anywhere from 24 to 30 loaves a week, from one small oven. The toppings, which include jalapeño, olive, sesame, pesto and mushroom, are definitely part of the draw, she says, adding that “jalapeño’s always sold out first.”

“But besides the challah, people can see that there’s someone here for them,” she says, “and we want them to come join us at some point and connect with their Jewish roots.”

As they enter the snowbird season, they expect the number of visitors to grow exponentially. “Many of them are searching for a Jewish community while they’re here,” notes Rabbi Hecht. “And now, they’ve got one; they have somewhere to go.”

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