Before moving to Mexico, Michael Zimmerman gave a lot of thought to the idea of uprooting 35 years of living in San Anselmo. For 20 of those years, he was an active member of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, where he led discussion groups, helped organize a learner’s minyan and watched his step-daughter become a bat mitzvah.
For more than 50 years, he had been visiting Mexico, and in the late 1960s, he lived in the inland city of Guanajuato for a year. During that time, he became familiar with and fond of Mexican culture.
In November 2015, he bid farewell to friends and family and headed to Lake Chapala, an inland retirement destination in the central state of Jalisco called “home” by thousands of other retirees — many hailing from the Bay Area.
“I decided to move to Lake Chapala for three reasons,” Zimmerman says. “The Jewish community, the affordability factor and the sunny weather. Marin became too expensive a place for me to retire.”
Being part of a Jewish community is of utmost importance to Zimmerman.
“Knowing that [the area] had a Jewish community, I knew I could connect to my tradition and not feel alone,” Zimmerman says. “It didn’t matter what persuasion that organization took, I knew I’d find like-minded people.”
Settling into his new home in Ajijic, he became involved with the Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation. With its own building, a Torah and a lay leader, this progressive, egalitarian synagogue uses the Reconstructionist prayer book for its services.
Congregants can attend Friday night or Saturday morning services on varying weeks, or a Shabbat potluck when a service isn’t scheduled. There are High Holy Day services every year, and this October’s schedule includes a decorating event for Sukkot and a potluck in the sukkah. A Hanukkah party has been penciled in for Dec. 17, the sixth night of Jánuca … or is it Janucá? … or just plain Januca, with no accents? Yes, spelling inconsistencies for the Fiesta de las Luminarias also exist in Mexico.
During the spring and summer months, membership at the congregation hovers around 65, but the population swells a bit during the winter due to the influx of Canadians and other cold-weather visitors. Ajijic and Chapala are the two towns on the shores of Lake Chapala (Mexico’s largest freshwater lake) favored by expatriates.
Donald Aitken is another Bay Area expat who retired to Lake Chapala, in 2007. While living in Berkeley, he and his wife Pia spotted an ad in International Living magazine for a home for rent near Ajijic. So they rented it for six months.
“We wanted to find an area where we could afford to retire,” Aitken says, “and thought Mexico could be the answer.”
They moved on a Thursday and found out about the congregation from their Jewish landlord. They attended Shabbat services the next night. From that moment on, the Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation became their hub for community and close friendships.
Pia joined the board and they both joined the constitution committee to help modernize the synagogue’s bylaws. In addition, Aitken played the piano at services, and Pia played the flute and sang for Kol Nidre, until her death two years ago.
It was Pia who was instrumental in Aitken’s interest in Judaism. After she brought her non-Jewish husband into the fold, they joined Beyt Tikkun in Berkeley, where they were active until their move to Mexico.
Aitken received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, where he worked as a research physicist. Also an environmental activist and speaker, he was the second president of the Committee for Green Foothills, succeeding Stanford professor and author Wallace Stegner. Moreover, he was one of the co-founders, along with environmentalist David Brower after he split with the Sierra Club, of Friends of the Earth. Because of these two organizations, San Jose State University invited Aitken to create one of six environmental studies departments in the United States.
“I gave up my tenured professorship at Stanford to become a full-time professor at San Jose State,” he says, “where I taught for 21 years and was chairman of the Environmental Studies Department.”
At the end of their six-month trial period in the Lake Chapala area, they found the house they wanted to buy and put in a bid after returning to Berkeley. As new owners, they moved in during the summer of 2007 and created the first all-solar home in the Lake Chapala area. (The current number of solar homes is more than 2,000.)
“I love the area, the Mexican people and my Jewish community,” Aitken says, “and have no regrets having moved to Mexico.”
Services at the Lake Chapala synagogue are led by another ex-pat, David Rosett, who travels approximately 35 miles by bus from his home in Guadalajara to lead morning and holiday worship.
Like others of his generation, Rosett lost interest in Judaism for many years, returning to the practice when he joined a Conservative synagogue in Guadalajara. In 2013, while observing a Jewish service during one of his visits to the Lake Chapala area, he liked their open-mindedness, progressiveness and inclusiveness.
Rosett also works as a full-time professor at the University of Guadalajara, teaching courses in history and literature to students training to be English teachers.
“What I miss about the Bay Area,” says the 76-year-old Zimmerman, “is the abundance of rich Jewish culture and activities, the educational opportunities, the natural beauty and, of course, family and friends. Now that my life is in Ajijic, I don’t want to divide my time between the two places as much as I did early on.”
In Mexico, he enjoys golfing, playing bridge, swimming, taking yoga classes and visiting the small, coastal town of La Manzanilla (not to be confused with the coastal resort of Manzanillo) during the winter. At the congregation, Zimmerman is on the board of directors and the executive board, and he recently accepted the role of treasurer.
“I am slowly learning how to use an Excel spreadsheet,” he point out.
Occasionally he leads Friday night services, and every year he sells ads for the synagogue-sponsored Ajijic Jewish Film Festival, which is popular with the area’s non-Jews, as well. The 2017 festival, the eighth annual, featured Jewish-oriented films on nine consecutive Sundays in January and February; some of the offerings were regulars in festivals around the world, such as “Dough” (in which a failing kosher baker takes on a young Muslim apprentice), while others were off the beaten track, such as “My Mexican Shivah” (a 2007 comedy in Hebrew, Spanish and Yiddish).
Several times a year, Zimmerman returns to Marin to visit his children and grandchildren, often showing up for services and events at Kol Shofar. But he’s in Mexico for good. In fact, he is planning to purchase a burial plot at the small Jewish cemetery reserved for synagogue members.