My hair was still wet from snorkelling when I walked into the Chabad House of Cozumel, following the Star of David sign off the busy beachside road.
Inside, Rabbi Shlomo Peleg and his wife, Noy, both in their mid-20s, looked happy – but not surprised – to see me. “We get so many Jews coming here,” he confessed as he showed me around the synagogue, lounging area, small gift shop and administrative offices.
It was the Jewish family at the helm of the retail giant Diamonds International that first suggested Chabad come to the Mexican island of Cozumel. “They told us there’s a Jewish community here and they need programming,” Rabbi Peleg explained. He arrived four years ago and quickly expanded from his first small premises to a larger, 200-square-metre space upstairs in the central village courtyard.
One by one, people living on or visiting the island stepped forward to help furnish the space. One volunteered the floor tiles, another the ceiling fans and a third offered a second air conditioner. Mexican Jews donated two sefer Torahs, held in an Aron Kodesh whose shape mimics the design of the home of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
On a recent trip to New York, as Rabbi Peleg made panicked calls trying to borrow a copy of Megillat Esther for Purim, his path crossed that of an American Jewish woman who had recently visited Cozumel. “Wouldn’t it be better to own your own copy rather than have to borrow one?” she asked him. It would, he agreed, but as usual, money was a challenge. A new Megillah would set Chabad of Cozumel back $1,000. “I’ll pay for it,” she had declared immediately.
As we talked, a group of tired-looking Israeli backpackers walked into the room, relieved to set down their backpacks and grateful for Rabbi Peleg’s warm welcome and offers of cold water and advice on where to stay. “We have relationships with hotels who give our travellers a good deal,” he confided to me later. The island also boasts a kosher restaurant, Jerusalem, where Chabad staff serve as the mashgichim.
Some travellers come to put on tfillin and pray, but many seek out Chabad of Cozumel for a sense of community and connection when they’re far from home, Rabbi Peleg said. “Last Rosh Hashanah we had 280 people show up for dinner!” he says. An average Shabbat dinner will bring between 60 and 80 through the doors.
Many visitors come to dive famous reefs like Cozumel’s Palancar Reef, though the day we sped through town, dive operators had cancelled all outings due to high winds. Instead we headed to a beach inside Chankanaab Park, a nine-acre tourist park where visitors can learn about Mayan culture and history, swim with dolphins, zip through the air in a zipline and glimpse crocodiles in captivity. Then they peel off their sweaty clothes and snorkel out to a nearby reef to inspect the beauty below Cozumel’s turquoise, picture-perfect ocean. Above us, large frigate birds soared on the thermals, while below magnificent rainbow fish swam within touching distance before darting away.
“The white beach you see here will be filled with turtles laying eggs in May,” said our guide, Ignacio Cureno, who has lived on Cozumel for 35 years. He’s seen tourist numbers increase since the cruise ships began arriving in ever larger numbers after 9/11. He’s witnessed first-hand the destruction caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the rebuild that followed and the most recent trend: the construction of high-rise beachside condominiums, many of them purchased by Americans and Canadians.
We’re standing at Punta Sur, the island’s southernmost point, marvelling at the long expanse of beach from the zenith of the Lighthouse of Point Celarain. A conservation park for birds, turtles and crocodiles, the rocky shores on the south coast of Cozumel are forbidden to swimmers for their large swells and undercurrents, but under the governance of Cozumel’s Parks and Museum Foundation, they’re a great sanctuary for wildlife. While other parts of the island are increasingly colonized by hotels and retail, this is an area of peace and refuge. And on an island where tourist numbers continue to boom, it’s a place of peace and solitude, one where you can still find a quiet spot on the beach to gaze at the extraordinarily blue ocean and watch the waves crash on the rocks in a state of meditative bliss.