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Strong Jewish Communities Aren’t a “New” Thing in New Mexico

Exterior view of Congregation B’nai Israel of Albuquerque (photo by Rachael Landau)

Beyond the beautiful scenery and photo-worthy mountains, the state of New Mexico has a hidden secret. Nicknamed the “Land of Enchantment,” New Mexico is home to a flourishing Jewish culture—something that may have been unknown to outsiders before it was recently brought to light by the documentary, “Challah Rising in the Desert: The Jews of New Mexico,” which celebrates the long history of Judaism in the desert.

While the documentary may still be new—it’s been shown at film festivals around the country throughout the past year—Jewish communities have long been a stronghold in New Mexico, dating back to the middle of the 19th century. One of the temples featured in the film was Congregation B’nai Israel, which opened 98 years ago. The film brought a sense of gratification for many in this Jewish community, including President Elect Elynn Finston. “There was a lot of pride seeing our synagogue featured in the film,” Elynn says. “For us, it illustrated that Jewish life here in the southwest is flourishing and vibrant. Jews from all walks of life can find a home here.”

Congregation B’nai Israel of Albuquerque; interior view of main sanctuary (photo by Rachael Landau)

For one reason or another, those living outside of New Mexico have been surprised to hear about the state’s rich Jewish culture. “When we tell people that we are from New Mexico, they still don’t often realize that we are a state and not another country, so it’s understandable that many don’t realize there’s a strong Jewish presence here,” Elynn says. “New Mexico has the largest converso population—Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism in order to avoid persecution from the Inquisition, so many families are returning to their Jewish roots, and the Albuquerque Jewish community is welcoming them back to their Jewish heritage. This is a phenomenon that you won’t find anywhere else in the country, and the film emphasizes that.”

Produced and directed by Isaac Artenstein (Director/Producer), Paula Amar Schwartz (Producer) and Mel Schwartz (Executive Director), the film uses the five-strand braid of challah bread to symbolize the five different waves of Jewish community settlement that took place throughout New Mexico’s history—the conversos fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1500s, German Jewish pioneers of the Santa Fe Trail in the 1800s, scientists and doctors of the 1940s at Los Alamos, the counterculture of the 1960s and those who currently live here today.

To Rabbi Jack Shlachter of HaMakom in Santa Fe, the film showcased the fact that Jews are truly all around us. “There are Jews in the strangest places and the film sends a message that we Jews are truly everywhere,” says Rabbi Schlachter, who was featured in the film. “I’m glad to have filmmakers take an interest in the ‘Land of Enchantment’ and I’d love to have people come visit and experience Southwestern Judaism with us.”

Home Cookin’ in the Desert

Besides your traditional challah, New Mexico’s kehillot (Jewish communities) enjoy a wide range of unique, chile-fused recipes. Green chile knishes, shakshuka mixed with chile and falafels with green or red chile sauce are regularly on the menu at Congregation B’nai Israel’s kosher kitchen. “We prepare traditional delicacies with local flavor and we’ve all embraced the local cuisine and made it our own,” Elynn says. “The Jewish community has worked hard to integrate itself into the existing cultures, so our Judaism is flavored with a taste of Spain, Mexico, New Mexico and Native American pueblo cultures.”

Interested in trying these dishes yourself?

­-Green chile falafel recipe

-Green chile latke recipe

-Green hatch chile shakshuka recipe

 For more information on HaMakom, visit here.

 For more information on Congregation B’nai Israel, visit here.

 To learn more about “Challah Rising in the Desert: The Jews in New Mexico,” visit here.

 

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