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THE CARIBBEAN -
THE JEWS OF THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

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HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
From Wikipedia

The first Jews known to have reached the island of Hispaniola were Spanish.

When the island was divided by the French and the Spanish, most Jews settled on the Spanish side which would later become the Dominican Republic. Eventually, Sephardim from other countries also arrived. In the 19th century Jews from Curaçao settled in Hispaniola, although they did not form a strong community. Most of them hid their Jewish identities or were unaffiliated with Jewish tradition by that time. Among their descendants were Dominican President Francisco Henríquez y Carvajal and his issue Pedro Henríquez Ureña, Max Henríquez Ureña, and Camila Henríquez Ureña.

The Dominican Republic was one of the very few countries willing to accept mass Jewish immigration during World War II. At the Évian Conference, it offered to accept up to 100,000 Jewish refugees. The DORSA (Dominican Republic Settlement Association) was formed with the assistance of the JDC, and helped settle Jews in Sosúa, on the northern coast. About 700 European Jews of Ashkenazi Jewish descent reached the settlement where each family received 33 hectares (82 acres) of land, 10 cows (plus 2 additional cows per children), a mule and a horse, and a US$10,000 loan (about 161,000 at 2016 prices) at 1% interest. Other refugees settled in the capital, Santo Domingo. In 1943 the number of known Jews in the Dominican Republic peaked at 1000. The Sosúa’s Jewish community experienced a deep decline in the 1980s due to emigration during the touristic boom of Sosúa when most Jews sold their land to developers at exorbitant prices. The oldest Jewish grave is dated to 1826.

HISTORY

The Sephardic Jews that were exiled from Spain and the Mediterranean area in 1492 and 1497, coupled with other migrations dating from the 1700s and during the second world war  contribute to Dominican ancestry.

 Some of the Sephardic Jews still presently reside in Sosúa while others are dispersed throughout the country. The amount of known Jews (or those with genetic proof of Jewish ancestry and/or practiced Jewish customs/religion throughout generations) are close to 3,000; the exact number of Dominicans with Jewish lineages aren't known, however, because of intermarriage between the Jews and Dominicans over a period of more than five centuries.

COMMUNITY

The current population of known Jews in the Dominican Republic is close to 3,000, with the majority living in the capital, Santo Domingo, and others residing in Sosúa. Since Jews mixed with those already living in the Dominican Republic, the exact number of Dominicans with Jewish ancestry isn't known. In spite of the Jews intermarriage with the Dominican people already living there, some spouses have formalized their Judaism through conversions and participate in Jewish communal life while other Sephardic Jews converted to Catholicism, still maintaining their Sephardic culture. Some Dominican Jews have also made aliyah to Israel. There are three synagogues and one Sephardic Jewish Educational Center. One is the Centro Israelita de República Dominicana in Santo Domingo, another is a Chabad outreach center also in Santo Domingo, and another is in the country's first established community in Sosúa. Beth Midrash Nidhe Israel , the Sephardic Educational Center, caters to those Jews who are descendents of the Sephardic Jews that migrated to Hispaniola in colonial times and later. In addition, they also provide kosher meat in the Beth Yoseph style, and supervise a small-scale kosher bakery. An "afterschool" at the Centro Israelita is active on a weekly basis and a chapter of the International Council of Jewish Women is also active. The Chabad outreach center focuses on assisting the local Jewish population reconnect with their Jewish roots and (because Chabad is of the Chassidic Jewish tradition) it is a source for traditional Judaism in the Dominican Republic. In Sosua, there is a small Jewish Museum next to the synagogue. On the High Holidays, the Sosua community hires a cantor from abroad who comes to lead services.

RESEARCH

A great deal of research on the subject of Dominican Jewry was done by Rabbi Henry Zvi Ucko[14] who had been a writer and teacher in Germany until political conditions and growing anti-semitism forced him to emigrate[when?]. His travels eventually took him to the Dominican Republic, where he organized a congregation in Santo Domingo (Ciudad Trujillo) and began researching the history of Jews in the country. His research covered much of the history of the Sephardic Jews there and documented the assimilation that the population went through (and was going through) during his time. Included in his research is correspondence with Haim Horacio López Penha, a Dominican Jewish writer, who encouraged Ucko to write a history of the Jews in the Dominican Republic. President Rafael L. Trujillo Molina, pledged the interest and cooperation of the government in support of Ucko's research. More recently, the publication of the paperback book "Once Jews" has made easily available information on many early Jewish settlers in the Dominican Republic.

MEMORIES FROM A FADING TROPICAL ZION
W
hen the world closed its borders at the Evian Conference 75 years ago, one improbable nation stepped up to save a few hundred Jews from Nazi Germany: the Dominican Republic

By YANIV SALAMA-SCHEER, The Times of Israel, December 20, 2013

As soon as we are seated, a waiter heads toward us with two cups of Santo Domingo, the locally produced coffee. Joe Benjamin, 73, pours two sugar packets into his rich, dark cup of coffee and gathers his thoughts; his memories are as bittersweet as his coffee.

“What we were, the community that was here, it was unique. It was special, but it’s in the past. The next generation will know us as a chapter in a history book,” says Benjamin. He takes a sip of coffee, and adds a quick, “And that’s ok.”

Benjamin came to Sosua, now a town of some seventy thousand people on the north shore of the Dominican Republic, with his parents in 1947 via Shanghai.

Originally from Beslau in Silesia, the Benjamins were among 800 recipients of visas issued by the Dominican government in the 1940s to come to this impoverished island to work the land and develop its lagging agricultural system.

Earlier this year, Sosuans marked the 75th anniversary of the Evian Conference, sponsored by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to facilitate the resettlement of political refugees (in other words Jews) once the Nazi’s racial laws worsened the humanitarian condition in Europe. By 1938, discriminatory practices in Germany and Austria had given way to violent intimidation and sparked a refugee crisis.

The conference has been called, to paraphrase the Roman historian Sallust, “honest in face but shameful in heart.” Western Democracies across the globe shut their doors to Jews seeking asylum from the Nazi terrors in Europe, despite public expressions of sympathy by their governments at the horrors they were undergoing.

The United Kingdom, according to one diplomat present at Evian, declared that his island was “not a country of immigration,” and was “already sufficiently populated.” British colonies were deemed “inappropriate” for settlement, and Palestine at the time was off the table due to “local and political considerations [which] hinder or prevent any significant immigration,” according to “Dominican Haven” by Marion A. Kaplan.

France declared it had already reached its point of “saturation” regarding immigrants. Australians explained that because theirs was a relatively young country, they did not have a race problem and “were not desirous of introducing one.”

Industrial powers Canada and the United States, as well as needy developing countries Argentina and Brazil, found crafty reasons to not accept any refugees, despite expressing moral outrage at the situation. Some countries toyed with the idea of accepting refugees who were strictly “agriculturists,” but that too never went further than conjecture.

The most germane observation regarding Evian came from Holocaust historian Henry Feingold, who lamented, “Representatives of the Jewish organizations despaired, as hope for immediate actions was drowned in a sea of Latin eloquence.”

Enter one of the more unsavory and insidious figures of the 20th century.

The hero of Evian was not the revered Roosevelt, whose wife would come to be known as one of the greatest humanitarians of her time, but rather Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to1961. Here was a man regarded by the rest of the world as an impersonal and violent dictator whose good deeds were fueled more by opportunism than statesmanship.

While Trujillo offered to absorb 100,000 refugees, only 800 received visas between 1940 and 1945. But neither the numbers, nor his politics, mattered much to the Jews who settled in Sosua. The Jewish community didn’t get involved in politics, Benjamin explains: “Whatever Trujillo was, [if] you asked the Jews, for us he was a savior.”

Denny Hertzberg, 75, grew up in Sosua and worked for the government overseeing industries formerly owned by Trujillo until the dictator’s death by assassination in 1961. He agrees with his old friend Joe Benjamin.

“Looking back, saving one Jew is one more Jew who would not have been sent to the gas chambers. Many more could have been saved,” says Hertzberg.

On a cold gray afternoon in 1940, Dezider Scheer sat on the docks of a shipyard in Brindisi, Italy, gazing out toward the empty Adriatic Sea, desperately searching the horizon for signs of the Greek ship that would sail him to a better tomorrow.

He describes that moment as the loneliest in his life: His eldest brother had made arrangements for him to get to Palestine through the Czech underground, but as the day turned to night, it became clear the boat was not coming and he was out of options.

It would have seemed inconceivable to him in those despondent war-torn days in Brindisi that a few months later he would be enjoying the smiles of 100 schoolchildren, all under his care as schoolmaster, playing gleefully in the tropical sun. He eventually met some fellow Slovaks who were hiding out in the upper story of a brothel near the port. That’s where the representatives from the Dominican Republic Settlement Agency (DORSA) found them.

“It was a paradise for us,” he says about the early days in Dominican Republic in a remorseful and apologetic tone as we share tea and cake. “We didn’t know what was going on Europe. We stopped thinking about it. We were living in a paradise, and they were dying in that hell Auschwitz. Peres, Ben-Gurion, they would have been proud of us. We were farming, planting, building. But what did my brothers think about it, that I was here enjoying my life?”

The life that was created in the Dominican Republic has come to be known as “Tropical Zion.”

While Jewish communities in Europe disappeared into the gas chambers of Poland, the Jews in Sosua lived a rich, cultural, Jewish life, completely removed from what was happening to their families and friends in Europe. Life, almost exactly as they had known it before the Nazis came to power, continued.

We had a Jewish education class once a week, given by Dr. Rubcheck. Coincidentally, it was taught in German,” Benjamin says. “There were Germans who were told to leave [Germany] because of their Judaism. Here they still did very German things, but we were also all in the synagogue on Friday night and on holidays. Even Israeli holidays after 1948.”

But the Jews of Sosua were not the only ones enjoying the German culture brought over from Europe to the Caribbean. Many non-Jewish Germans began immigrating to Sosua in the late forties and early fifties, seeking a better climate and opportunities not yet available in early Marshall Plan Germany.

“They were real-working class Germans, not sophisticated types. They didn’t know us and they didn’t know Hitler. They were just grateful to find a German speaking community with theater and music and so on. They weren’t apologetic, but they weren’t indifferent either,” says Benjamin.

Those Germans, and their children, are still here on semi-retirement, spending their days in the cafes and cigar shops that line the main street. But today, unlike the early days of the settlement, the Germans outnumber the Jews by a wide margin.

Jewish life is fading fast in Sosua. Much of the community has left for Florida, where the standard of living is far better. The most visible members of the Jewish community in Sosua today are locals who have converted to Judaism in the past decade.

Rabbi Ancel Solomon flies in from Toronto to spend half the year here, and tends to the Jews in the area. His biggest undertaking is protecting his flock from the well-financed Jews for Jesus church on the opposite end of town. Solomon will also perform the rare circumcision or tropical destination wedding.

While there are services every Friday night in the original town synagogue, there is rarely a minyan and the cantor is an Italian doctor who lives on the opposite end of the island and manages to come and lead the congregation sporadically. None of the remaining original members of the community attends services.

Hertzberg laments the loss of European ambiance. Leaving services on Friday night, when the sun is comfortably out of sight, the changes in Sosua become most apparent.

The cultural life so dear to Hertzberg has given way to the predictable underbelly tied to a thriving tourism industry, and Sousa has become a typical Dominican town.

There has also been a large migration of Haitians to the north shore of the island following their devastating earthquake in 2010. (Even though the two countries share the same island, the Dominican Republic was largely unaffected.)

Many on the poorer north shore of the island are trying to make money by any means necessary so they can send something back to support their families, which has caused the growth of two of Sosua’s more profitable side businesses: sex tourism and drug trade.

Back in Benjamin’s day, on a Friday night it would have been commonplace to see families to walk down Dr. Joseph Rosen Street arm in arm, singing and full of good humor. Today upon exiting the synagogue and walking down the street, those seen locked arm in arm are mostly middle-aged white men, or a few college age kids, headed to a quiet room with exotic prostitutes.

The homes that once belonged to the settlers which lined the main road, the last of which belonged to Luis Hess who died last year at the age of 100, have been converted into overcrowded bars and sweaty discotheques. Gangs of motorcyclists man their assigned intersections, peddling everything from cocaine to Viagra.

Herzberg is unimpressed at what his boyhood home has become. “The good old days are in memory only.”

LINKS

History of Sosua, Dominican Republic

The Holocaust:

Dominican Republic as Haven for Jewish Refugees Jewish Virtual Library by Lauren Levy

Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa by Allen Wells

Sosua Virtual Museum

Chabad of the Dominican Republic

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