Couple works to build community in Mexico.
Each year around Thanksgiving, Charles “Carlos” Soberman and his wife, Linda, head south of the border to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a 16th-century city with cobblestone streets nestled in the mountains. The Sobermans purchased a home there in 2005 and have been busy building community there ever since.
“I’m not a person who can relax,” says Soberman, a retired university professor and businessman who sold his third-generation family business, Mercury Paint, in 1996. Soberman took up Spanish while teaching business classes at Wayne State. He and Linda fell in love with San Miguel on their travels to Spanish-speaking countries.
“I got involved with the Jewish community in San Miguel,” he says.
When the Sobermans first moved to San Miguel, the small Jewish community of 15-25 people was meeting for weekly services in the reading room of a local hotel. Calling themselves “Shalom San Miguel,” the group put on cultural and holiday events. “It was more a cultural group than a synagogue,” Soberman says.
A few years later, as Dan Lessner, a retired doctor from New York, and Larry and Carole Stone from Pittsburgh, who taught Hebrew school and knew liturgical music, moved into the area, the services took on a more traditional philosophy. Since the organization has no rabbi, all services are lay led, usually by Lessner, but also by others including Carole Stone and Soberman.
“We needed a new model,” Soberman says. The group incorporated as CHESMA, which stands for Comunidad Hebrea En San Miguel de Allende, an interdenominational Jewish community of about 120 members, a quarter of whom are Mexican natives and the rest expats from the U.S. and Canada.
“About five years ago, non-Jewish Mexicans asked if they could watch our services,” Soberman says. “Some people became spiritually attracted and began attending services and Torah study. Others believed that their ancestors from Spain had been forced to convert. Four years ago, we had our first conversion ceremony for about a dozen people.”
Three Hispanic rabbis now living in the United States presided over the emotional conversion ceremony.
CHESMA’s motto is “one community, many journeys.” The group is an umbrella organization unaffiliated with any specific Jewish movement. It does have a traditional, egalitarian minyan group that has been accepted for membership in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The group’s siddurim include a Hebrew, English and English transliteration version as well as a Hebrew, Spanish and Spanish transliteration version. Both were put together by a committee of members.
A New Home
Although the group began looking for a building to rent that was within walking distance of the center of town, it wasn’t until 2012 that they found a suitable place. Once occupied by the nonprofit Feed the Hungry, which builds kitchens and feeds children in rural communities, the building was suitable for CHESMA, but out of their price range.
“It was $250,000, and we had about $12,000 in our treasury,” Soberman says. “We were able to negotiate the price down and raise a $100,000 down payment from the Jewish community in a matter of weeks.”
Fundraising by the two of them and others since the purchase has continued, and the building will be paid off this fall.
The building is called the JC3 (Jewish Cultural and Community Center). In addition to Conservative, Reform and meditative services, there are Spanish-language classes, Torah discussion groups in English and Spanish, film showings, monthly Shabbat dinners and other community gatherings. Soberman is on the board, is active in fundraising and looks for visiting rabbis. He’s also in charge of the artist/scholar-in-residence program.
Linda Soberman is a renowned artist who is active in San Miguel’s large art community, where she frequently exhibits. She currently has an exhibit, The Empty Chairs, on view at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. The multi-image installation, more than 100 steel chairs cascading from the ceiling from invisible thread, memorializes lives lost in the Holocaust, war and global genocides that continue to this day.
Michael Wolk, the architect of Keter Torah in West Bloomfield who spends part of the winter in San Miguel, introduced Soberman to noted synagogue designer Alex Gruss. Gruss, a native Spanish speaker born in Buenos Aires, who designed the bimah of Keter Torah, enthusiastically offered to donate his services to remodel the JC3 building. He flew to San Miguel last winter and began his preliminary drawings, which were accepted by the board. Bathrooms were added to the building, a former warehouse, this summer. Renovations on the area to be used as the sanctuary are next on the agenda.
This year, the board of CHESMA will ring in the Jewish new year with a brief spiritual service and community dinner on Sunday, Sept. 13. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, there will be an English-dominant Reform service; on the second day, there will be a traditional Conservative High Holiday service. All services are free and open to members, non-members and tourists in San Miguel.
Not content merely with his work with CHESMA — he can’t relax — Soberman also became involved with Feed the Hungry, delivering food once a week to a rural community called San Francisco. Soberman also volunteers for an organization called Computadoras Pro Jovenes (CPJ), which works to put donated computers into rural schools. The computers, which didn’t have Internet access, are loaded with Spanish Windows and other Spanish-language software. CPJ, through Soberman, donated computers to the primary school in San Francisco.
He began teaching schoolchildren how to use the computers, but he became frustrated when he realized “the kids weren’t learning enough.” Working with CPJ, he helped to develop the curriculum for a six-week course. At the end, he would take these rural students to San Miguel where they would eat at a restaurant, enjoy ice cream and get on the Internet — often for the first time.
“I was teaching about four kids every six weeks,” Soberman says, “and getting frustrated. It wasn’t the best situation. Then last year, I came up with a couple of ideas: first to reduce the class to four weeks from six in order to teach more students, and second, to teach mothers to work with preschoolers and kindergarteners. There was soon a waiting list of mothers.”
But where to teach them? It was distracting to teach in the back of a classroom while the teacher was giving lessons. Soberman talked with the principal of the school as well as parents and committed to donating the materials for construction of a classroom if the community would supply the labor. They were willing.
He then raised the money for materials from friends and acquaintances, with the help of Judy Jagdfeld, a friend from Howell, Mich., who also spends part of the winter in San Miguel.
The structure, known as CCC (Community and Computing Center), designed by Michael Wolk, opened March 12 with a celebration, dancing and snacks. The building is now a venue for teaching computing and photography, community meetings and other activities.
The building has 10 laptop computers and tablets connected to the Internet, five digital cameras and printers that members of the community can also use for a nominal fee.
Access to the Internet has opened a new world to the rural community and opportunities that were never before available.
“Families had no photos to display in their homes,” Soberman says. “Now they can print the photos taken on their phones or the center’s cameras at the CCC. It’s a little thing. But it means a lot.”
What’s next for Soberman? “Another village, another computing center next year?” he replied with a smile.
For information on San Miguel, contact Soberman at email@example.com.
By Jackie Headapohl, Managing Editor