Life’s not always a beach for first Chabad reps in Cancun

Mexican resort city offers opportunities, challenges to its pioneering ultra-Orthodox emissaries, a family of five with roots in Detroit and Brooklyn

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

The Druks, a family of Chabad emissaries to Cancun (photo credit: courtesy of Chabad Cancun)
The Druks, a family of Chabad emissaries to Cancun (photo credit: courtesy of Chabad Cancun)
The Druks, a family of Chabad emissaries to Cancun (photo credit: courtesy of Chabad Cancun)
The Druks, a family of Chabad emissaries to Cancun (photo credit: courtesy of Chabad Cancun)

CANCUN, Mexico — “Thank you for showing my children their daddy isn’t crazy,” Rabbi Mendel Druk told fellow celebrants at Shmini Atzeret, the holiday marking the end of Sukkot. The energetic Israelis who danced with Torah scrolls and the rabbi’s kids made for an experience “we wish the children could have every year,” his wife, Rachel, said. “Sometimes the children watch their dad dance on his own, like a crazy person. When there are others doing it, they understand it’s a Jewish — not a crazy — thing. Something others do.”

A few days earlier, in the middle of Sukkot, Druk had sat down with The Times of Israel for a talk about the life he and his wife chose for themselves, and for their children, six years ago. Living as the only ultra-Orthodox Jews in Cancun, Mexico, is “not always easy, but it’s what we need to do,” he stated simply. Like thousands of other Chabad emissaries around the world, the two have a sense of purpose: “We’re on a mission.”

Chabad Cancun's truck-mounted Sukka (photo credit: coutesy of Chabad Cancun)
Chabad Cancun’s truck-mounted sukkah (Photo credit: Courtesy of Chabad Cancun)

“A wise man once told me that if I want to succeed in my job, I need an office, but that I should spend most of my time out of it,” he said, and apologized for arriving a few minutes later than he had hoped. “I was at the hotel zone, where Jewish tourists and workers wanted to use the sukkah and Arba Haminim” (Four Species).

The sukkah, it should be noted, was mounted on a truck so it could be driven around the city.

A life-changing decision

When Mendel and Rachel Druk arrived in Cancun, they had many ideas about how to act as Chabad emissaries. Today, many of their plans have been realized: classes for local families and businessmen, meals for visitors, a summer camp and providing assistance for travelers in need. Behind the scenes, however, things aren’t always simple — though helping people get out of a Mexican prison can be interesting.

Originally, the two planned on journeying to Chengdu, China, but a letter signed by a handful of Jews from the coastal Mexican city caused them to change their plans. At the beginning of 2006, they, with baby Mushka, moved and opened Cancun’s Lubavitch Jewish Center, where they “could help and teach Jews and non-Jews” in the popular party town on the Caribbean shore.

Living as a family on shlichut — the Hebrew phrase used by Chabad for the job, literally meaning “mission” — was always a given for the couple. “Though it wasn’t the first question, we spoke about it in the first hour of our first date,” Mendel, a 30-year-old from Detroit, said.

He recalled the first days in their new home: “Our [shipped] container — holding about 1,000 Jewish books and all the furniture for our home — was held unjustly after arriving at the wrong port. Even though it was paid for, they demanded more money.” Years later, they still don’t have those items. In addition, “the oven exploded on the Wednesday before the first Shabbat, and Rachel was rushed to hospital. Thank God, she wasn’t hurt badly.”

Nonetheless, with plastic chairs from a nearby supermarket and a very basic amount of food, they prepared to welcome the Jewish day of rest. That was when a group of about a dozen Israelis arrived to celebrate the Friday night meal with them. “It was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said.

One family’s stories provide insight into the lives of the thousands of Chabad emissaries around the world

Rachel, Mendel and their three children have stories that provide insight into the lives of the thousands of Chabad emissaries around the world. These families give up the comfort of “normal” life in order to spread the ideas and spirit of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the seventh leader of Chabad.

The first emissaries were sent to Morocco in the early 1950s, and thousands have embarked on their own journeys since. “Everything — making a kitchen kosher, conducting a wedding, teaching, hosting meals — we do it all,” said Druk.

At the organization’s annual gathering next week in Brooklyn, some 5,000 Chabad emissaries, from all around the globe, are scheduled to meet. “There is no hall large enough to seat us all,” Mendel said with a smile. “The [Troop C] Armory is cleared out and turned into a nice place. It’s the only place that can host the gathering.”

The decision to become emissaries is lifelong. “No shaliah [emissary] has ever been replaced. Once you have a community, it’s a bond for life,” Mendel explains.

After a moment, he corrects himself: “There were a few who changed location, but I can count them on my fingers. Most of them were old, and their communities had emptied out of Jews.”

Raising ultra-Orthodox children in Cancun

Fulfilling a dream and moving to places considered the end of the world by many Orthodox Jews may sound like fun, but it’s not always simple for the couple. “One of the most serious questions revolves around the children,” Druk said. Educating them in an environment “very different” from the family’s lifestyle “can be hard and complicated.”

‘I wish Gavi would get to see a sukkah at another family’s home,’ Rabbi Druk says

There are no other families in Cancun who keep kosher to the level practiced by Chabad, so the Druk children don’t eat in other homes.

“It was very hard at first,” Druk said. With time, other parents “started making sure that at birthday parties, there would be something for Mushka, but it’s still difficult.”

Still, last month, Cancun’s first kosher restaurant opened: a fish-and-chips place named “Dag Dag” and run by a British couple and supervised by Druk.

It’s not only “technical” matters that make raising a family hard here. There is no school fit for 5-year-old Mushka or 3-year-old Gavriel Noach. “Chabad stepped up to this challenge and provided a very good online school,” their father explained.

The online school serves thousands of children in the same situation. “Mushka learns with children from a number of countries. They’re not only classmates, but also friends; they talk over Skype and email each other,” Druk said.

Even though it’s not the same education given in Brooklyn or central Israel’s Kfar Chabad, “the Internet and technology make that part of our decision easier.”

“I wish Gavi would get to see a sukkah at another family’s home,” Druk said, a few days before thanking the Israelis who danced with his children. The toughest part about the job is that “you’re always doing things on your own.” For a couple who chose their lifestyle because of community-shaped childhood experiences, trying to re-create those feelings for their children is a daily task. Especially when the holidays are the time they’re needed most in the community.

Helping — and rescuing — Jews

Some of the most interesting stories told by Druk involve the rescue of a Jewish girl from a rural Mexican village, and knowing the right people to help Israelis and Jewish-American tourists when they are hassled by the authorities, or even arrested.

‘There is a lot of ignorance about Israel,’ the rabbi says. ‘People don’t know much, and what they know is usually wrong and distorted’

“You can really save lives,” the rabbi said when retelling one such story.

“Without going into details,” he went on, “one Jewish-American was released after almost five months in a local jail.”

To protect those involved he didn’t use names, but said he’s “lucky to have non-Jewish friends who are willing to help.”

Most of the days are more routine, and involve working with those who live in the city year-round. “There are a few hundred Jews in Cancun. Some of them are from the [50,000-strong] community in Mexico City, and others are from around the world.”

One community member is a doctor who provides Jewish travelers with good medical treatment. “It doesn’t matter what time of day — I can call him and he’ll help,” Druk said. “If he can’t help, he’ll make sure the right doctor does.”

There are others who help the Druks, and they are grateful. “Every Chabad house funds itself,” he explained. Nothing is a given, and everything is based on donations and the kindness of others. “One local Jew won’t say a single blessing or do anything that has to do with Judaism, but he’ll always help me when I need to get something done,” Druk said.

Rachel Druk (at the head of the table) gives a class at home for the local Jewish children (photo credit: courtesy of Chabad Cancun)
Rachel Druk (at the head of the table) gives a class at home for local Jewish children (Photo credit: Courtesy of Chabad Cancun)

Rachel takes care of baby Sara and runs a school for Jewish children, which more than a dozen students attend on a regular basis. “One mother lives with her child on an Island three hours from Cancun, but makes the journey almost every week,” the 26-year-old from Brooklyn explained, then stressed that “for those who want a Jewish education, it’s the only option.” In addition to the weekly class, the couple ran a camp this summer with some 30 children.

The Druks also work with the adults who live in town. There are classes on a range of  topics, for men and for women. The rabbi also has a weekly session with someone who wants to study Talmud. “There are others with whom I study as well. Some of them like reading the texts with me, while others use the text as an excuse to talk,” he smiled.

Rachel talks with the women, and teaches them about the Jewish rituals traditionally taken care of by females, such as lighting candles before Shabbat. Ahead of holidays, she also helps them make traditional food, or bake challah. “During the past month, I baked over 200 rolls of challah” for her own family and many guests, she laughed.

Working with non-Jews

A significant amount of the rabbi’s time is spent with non-Jews. He gives classes at schools about Judaism and Israel. “On the eve of Sukkot, I gave a class at a Christian school,” he said. “I forgot to cancel it in time, but then I was happy to talk to them. The holidays of the Tishrei [the Jewish month in which the high holidays fall] are ones that people of all backgrounds can relate to . . . The students were fascinated.”

“There is a lot of ignorance about Israel. People don’t know much, and what they know is usually wrong and distorted. I try to change that when I speak at schools,” the rabbi said. At home, in addition to studying Jewish texts, he makes a point of reading about the history of Israel and biographies of the country’s leaders, such as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. When he talks at the Shabbat table, Druk tells stories about them alongside tales about Schneerson.

Rabbi Mendel Druk teaches Catholic Mexican students about Israel and Judaism (photo credit: courtesy of Chabad Cancun)
Rabbi Mendel Druk teaches Catholic Mexican students about Israel and Judaism. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Chabad Cancun)

Druk also works with non-Jewish adults. “Mexico is a very Catholic country, and they want to learn about the Jewish traditions,” he explained. “One of my friends opened a house for teaching about the seven rules of the sons of Noah.” According to rabbinic tradition, the descendants of Noah — meaning all of humanity — are obligated to fulfill seven practices, such as not eating the limb of a live animal and building a just legal system.

A minyan by the Coco Bongo

While six years on the job may sound like a long time, Mendel and Rachel Druk know that it’s just the start. “There are people in their 60s and even 70s doing this job, and they’ve been doing it for decades,” he said.

At the moment, they have an agreement with a few hotels in the city where they rent space for events. On Rosh Hashanah, they hosted more than 150 people, but the largest holiday in Cancun is Passover, when the place overflows with American and Canadian tourists. “We usually have three hotels with their own seder,” the rabbi said. “We can’t host the hundreds in one room, and there are enough to spread them out.”

In the future, they hope to finish building their own place. Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi, Shlomo Amar, was the guest of honor at a ceremony unveiling the cornerstone of the planned Chabad center. “It will be a few stories high, and have a synagogue, mikveh, large kitchen, dining hall and guest rooms,” Druk said. “It will also be our new home, with our own rooms, ” to make life easier for the family.

While the center’s location, at “the bend” in the hotel zone, is ideal for its proximity to tourists, one cannot help but wonder whether there is symbolism in erecting such a building only a few minutes from the world-famous Coco Bongo, a club that many say is a modern “Sodom and Gomorrah.”

The Druks smile unconcernedly when they talk about the two places and the very different cultures and ideas they represent. “Many people go to the Coco Bongo,” the rabbi said. “Maybe they’ll help us with a minyan on their way.”

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