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The vibrant Mexican Jewish community in San Diego

On the heels of Hispanic Heritage Month, we're giving you a look at a lesser-known population, but one that is equally vibrant, the Mexican-Jewish community.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — One of the reasons San Diego is America's finest city is because of our rich culture and diversity. On the heels of Hispanic Heritage month, we're giving you a look at a lesser-known population, but one that is equally vibrant, the Mexican- Jewish community.

Chula Vista resident, Sara Artenstein has an incredible story to tell, one that many people may not know existed.

Jewish people are as diverse as the world we live in. Sara, Mexican Jewish was raised in Tijuana. It's where she met her husband Natan.

Together they had seven children.

"My kids had a great life at the JCC in Tijuana. We had a good life," said Sara Artenstein.

One of Sara's children, her son Isaac, is now a film maker.

"When I graduated from film school, I never dreamed I would be doing a documentary about my Jewish Mexican heritage.

But I got tired of people asking how does an Artenstein come from Mexico," said Isaac.

Isaac created a filmed called Tijuana Jews. It's a documentary and a personal look at a community that blended Jewish and Mexican customs. 

"There were quotas at Ellis Island in the 1920's. People from certain countries couldn't come into the US," said Isaac.

Many Jews fleeing persecution ended up in a predominantly Catholic country of Mexico.

Isaac's family originally from Poland, Greece and Turkey came through Veracruz, Mexico. 

They eventually settled in Tijuana, surrounded by other families with similar backgrounds. 

The Artenstein's proud of their heritage, opened the first Jewish Community Center in Tijuana. 

"I live here for 56 years, but I miss Tijuana. Of course, I miss Tijuana," said Sara. 

In the mid 1960's, the Artenstein's moved to Chula Vista.

Today, they're more than 600 Mexican Jewish families living in San Diego, who are either from Tijuana or Mexico City. 

Rabbi Scott Meltzer of Ohr Shalom Synagogue in Bankers Hill says his congregation is home to many Mexican Jewish families,

"We have a number of congregants whose parents and grandparents were best of friends back in Mexico and they may have come to the states staggered and they've found each other in San Diego and share stories," said Rabbi Meltzer.

And many of those stories live on here, at the Ken Organization. The non-profit is where young Latino Jews learn about their culture, values, and traditions. Yanine Simpser is the current president and says the official language here is Spanish.

"They speak English at school. They were born in the US, they know English. If we don't teach them Spanish, where will they learn it from? Same for Judaism, where do they learn it from? That's why we specialize in that and work hard to strengthen their identity, " said Simpser.

And part of that identity is the rich culture which includes amazing food.

The Artenstein's are not letting me leave without enjoying a delicious meal, chile rellenos, rice and beans.

Isaac says there's a common theme at some traditional Mexican Jewish events.

"The typical menu is lox and bagels, chilaquiles verdes, refried beans, I guarantee you. Vodka and tequila. Both are kosher " he said. 

When reflecting on his culture, Isaac said it really defines who he is.

"It really made me reflect on the whole thing you asked. How does it feel to be Mexican Jewish…And to me it is one thing, it is not a hyphenate. It's a distinct identity," said Isaac.

Isaac continues to make documentaries about Jews. His latest one, “A Long Journey: The Hidden Jews of the Southwest”. You can click here to see some of his work. 

WATCH RELATED: Jewish Family Service of San Diego's Positive Parenting Program (September 2020)

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