Focus on Mexico

The Frustrations of a Founder, Ignacio Castelán Estrada

(Editor’s Note: Kulanu’s Rick Kulick last visited this community on May 31, 1994, bringing with him 30 kipot and cash donations for 20 siddurim. This article is translated by Mr. Kulick)

I was born in 1943 in Mexico City, as the eldest son of Eligio Castelán Calderón and Juana Estrada Méndez. In those years they identified as Catholics, and a few months after my birth we moved to the provinces to live with my paternal grandparents, Ignacio Castelán Herrera and Juana Calderón Carcamo. There we lived until I was 18 years old, and I learned some of the Jewish dietary laws, not to eat pork, observing the Sabbath on Saturdays, and some of the other festivals of the Torah. One day my father informed me that he had gone to Mexico City to talk with a rabbi, to arrange for my conversion, but I heard nothing more after that, as he told me that the requirements for conversion could not be fulfilled at that point.

When I arrived in Puebla to study engineering, I encountered a group called the Church of God Israelite, in which my grandparents were also believers, and was told that they followed the Jewish people in many aspects. However, after some time in association with this movement, I began to understand that they actually had very little to do with the Jewish people, and so I decided to leave the organization (at this point, I met my wife Mary, who then was a professing Catholic). In the intimacy of our home, with our children Ada, Abner, Yemima and Hartus, we have always practiced Jewish ritual: receiving Shabbat and lighting candles, guided by some Jewish books I purchased in Mexico City such as the Shulhan Arukh.

Under these conditions, we began visiting other persons of our ancestry who knew of our desire to serve the Eternal, and also understood the meaning of the Shema, and we began meeting in each others’ homes to celebrate Shabbat. Some time after this, as we became better integrated as a group, we acquired some land, where we have constructed a modest synagogue. However, at this point I felt some degree of disquiet with the degree of support I was receiving from my community, and did not feel that I was developing sufficient Jewish background with the books of Torah I had, so I made contact with the offices of Keren Kayemeth in Mexico City.

Meanwhile, our small community was growing with ceremonies for births, marriages, deaths and illnesses all falling on my shoulders to conduct, which I accomplished as best I could in my ignorance. Finally, I managed to make contact with the director of Keren Kayemeth, then Isaac Saad, and I spoke of my community’s situation. He then attempted to put me in touch with Rabbi Abraham Bartfeld of the Nidche Israel Ashkenazi synagogue, but I never managed to make contact with anyone other than his secretary, who provided me with some books the rabbi had written.

In another meeting with Mr. Saad, he recommended I meet with Rabbi Abraham Palti of the Monte Sinaí synagogue, who received me with my son Abner. We spoke of our community’s need for spiritual guidance, and while he said he thought the situation of our group was interesting, nothing more happened than a second meeting. I later returned to Keren Kayemeth to make a donation to support Israel during the Gulf War.

I attempted to meet with Mr. Saad one more time, but could not make contact, but I did meet Manuel Levinsky, president of Keren Kayemeth in Mexico, who set a date to visit with us in Puebla. He also put me in touch with Rabbi Samuel Lehrer of the Beth Israel Community Center, who met with me that afternoon. Rabbi Lehrer asked me many questions, and also set a date to visit with me in Puebla.

Mr. Levinsky and his family then visited our community for Shabbat on May 29, 1993, and an article about this was published in Mexico City’s Jewish weekly newspaper, Kesher. Many blessings on Mr. Levinsky and his family!

However, the greatest moment in my life as a Jew joined with the house of Israel was being able to receive Rabbi Lehrer in my humble home. May God bless him and keep him in good health! This meeting took place on Sunday, January 30, 1994, or 18 Shevet 5754, here in Puebla. Rick Kulick from KULANU was also present.

We hope to construct a new synagogue building for Beth Schmuel, Puebla Community, in the near future. We have a total of 12 families in our community, including 36 adults and 23 children. At this point we don’t have enough financial resources to have a budget per se, but we do have a funding committee, chaired by my daughter Ada, which equitably distributes any resources which we may come across.