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CENTRAL AMERICA -
NICARAGUA

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HISTORY OF THE JEWS OF NICARAGUA

Jewish Nicaraguans or Nicaraguan Jews (Spanish: Judío Nicaragüense) are Nicaraguans of Jewish ancestry who were born in or have immigrated to Nicaragua. They are part of the ethnic Jewish diaspora.

The first Jewish immigrants were said to have arrived in Nicaragua, they came from France in the 1920s, so it was thought. But they actually arrived much earlier, the exact date may be somewhere early 1800s. One of the first families were the Oppenheimers who did, in fact, come from France. Nestor Oppenheimer was married to Camila (Camille) Winston Lazard. They registered the birth of son, named Rene Salomon Oppenheimer. He was born in Managua, Nicaragua on July 22, 1911. One of the few registered Jewish births. Nestor and his brother Filiberto (Paul) lived in Granada, and Rivas, Nicaragua. Nestor's son Rene Oppenheimer subsequently moved to France from Nicaragua where he was arrested by the Nazi and held at Drancy internment camp in France. Other families included the Dreyfus, Levy, Raskosky, and the Salomons. Another Notable family who appear to be of Sephardi Jew descent is the Rios-Montiel family of Juigalpa. Another wave came from Eastern Europe after 1929.The Jews in Nicaragua were a relatively small community, the majority lived in Managua. The Jews made significant contributions to Nicaragua's economic development while dedicating themselves to farming, manufacturing, and retail sales. The Salomon and Dreyfus families both operated well known department stores in Managua during the first half of the 20th century.

The Congregacion Israelita de Nicaragua was the central Jewish organization until 1979. The community maintained a synagogue and social center, as well as a B'nai B'rith lodge and a Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) chapter. Also, prior to 1979, the small Jewish community had a synagogue but it was later bombed during a street warfare between Somozistas and Sandinistas, and turned into a school. Sometime after, the land where the synagogue and school once stood was turned into a funeral home.

The Jewish community encountered anti-semitism by individuals, the majority who claimed that Nicaraguan Jews were responsible for Israeli arms sales to the Somoza regime. Many of these individuals were part of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). There was much hostility between the Sandinista government, which came into power in 1979, and the Jews. This was mostly due to the Sandinista government's close relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

EMIGRATION

It has been estimated that the highest number of Jews in Nicaragua reached a peak of 250 in 1972. However, that same year a devastating earthquake hit Managua and destroyed 90% of the city, it prompted many Jews to emigrate.

After 1979 the Sandinista government confiscated all Jewish property and imprisoned the community leader, Abraham Gorn, who later managed to escape and flee the country. The Sandinistas also sequestered the only synagogue in the nation, they had it bombed and turned into a school. In fear of persecution and imprisonment by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, all the remaining Jews fled Nicaragua, they went into exile mainly in the United States, Israel, and other countries in Central America.

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY TODAY

After Daniel Ortega ran and lost the presidential elections in 1990 a small number of Jews returned to Nicaragua. The current Jewish population is estimated at around 50 persons. After 1979 the Jewish community had no rabbi or bris. The Jewish community had its first bris in over 25 years when twins Jacob and Jonathan Gould, sons of Dr. Keith and Kathy Gould had their bris performed by Rabbi Trager who flew in from Philadelphia in December 2006. After that there was another bris for the Najman family and then some Bar Mitzvahs. The Jewish community has finally started to recover, however as of 2005, the community does not have an ordained rabbi or a synagogue.

The Jewish community, although small, has had a couple of Jewish Nicaraguans in high ranks, most notably in politics. Herty Lewites was the former mayor of the capital city, Managua, and presidential candidate; and his brother, Israel Lewites was a Sandinista leader, they both joined and supported the FSLN. Lewites's son, Israel Lewites is involved with the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) political party. The Lewites brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrant from Poland; their mother was Ana María Rodríguez, a Nicaraguan who raised them in Catholicism. Herty Lewites while being a mayor was also named the Stewardship (some sort of an honorary clerical priest) for the catholic yearly celebration of Santo Domingo de Guzmán. Nicaraguan Jews, although few in numbers, are diverse in practice, ranging from the observant Najman to secular Jews with little knowledge of Jewish prayers

On December 16, 2007, Nicaraguan Jews welcomed a new Torah after 28 years. On the following day, the Torah was used for the first time in a minyan at a Bar Mitzvah of a local Nicaraguan Jew.

RESURRECTING THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF NICARAGUA
Kulanu  By Rabbi Gerald Sussman, 2014

The work that Kulanu does in assisting emerging, returning and isolated Jewish communities is perhaps the most thrilling and significant work I have been involved with in the almost 35 years I have served as a rabbi. As Kulanu volunteers, my wife Bonita and I have journeyed to India, Cameroon, Central America, and even New Guinea, in the service of the Jewish people. The place where I believe we have made the most immediate impact was the Jewish community of Nicaragua.

Our work there began in early 2012 when Kulanu received an e-mail from Kurt Preiss, president of CIN, Congregacion Israelita de Nicaragua. Kurt had previously met Daneel Schaechter, a Kulanu board member and coordinator for Latin American communities. The email asked for Kulanu’s help in arranging for the conversion of members of his community.

In June of that same year, Rabbanit Boni and I decided to take the three hour flight from Miami to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, to evaluate the situation. What we found was a gracious and hospitable community led by Kurt Preiss whose parents had been Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. At its peak, in the early 1970’s, the community had numbered about 250 members and had a lovely synagogue in the center of Managua. The congregation included some of the leading businessmen in the country, most of whom were descendants of Central and Eastern European Jews who had immigrated to Nicaragua beginning in the 1920

As a result of Nicaragua’s long civil war (1970-1987), the community was decimated. Community members scattered, most finding refuge in South Florida. During the war, the synagogue was torched and subsequently lost to the Jewish community. With the advent of free elections in 1990, which led to the ouster of the revolutionary government, a small revival of the Jewish community began. Some former residents returned. This group was joined by a small stream of Americans, mostly retirees and small businessmen.

When we arrived, we found a community of about 50 members with few children or young people, and very little hope for the future. However, the community did have some pluses going for it. The first was president Kurt Preiss, a generous, dedicated, and capable community leader. The second was Carlos Peres an educated Jew of Converso descent who had received his Jewish education in yeshivot in the USA and Israel. Carlos was a gifted teacher who offered his family’s country home to members of the community for gatherings and celebrations. Third and most importantly, there was a group of people who, while not Jews according to Halacha (Jewish law), identified strongly with the Jewish community and were welcomed to its functions as participants rather than as members. These individuals, whom I call Jewish enthusiasts, were invited to all community functions but could not receive aliyot (blessings during the Torah reading) or be counted as part of the minyan of ten Jews needed for communal prayer. These friends of the congregation were, for the most part, the children and grandchildren of Jewish men who had married local women. Many of them had recognizably Jewish surnames.

What these families wanted desperately was to be considered integral members of the Jewish community and of the Jewish people. They had been preparing for an eventual conversion for some time without knowing exactly how and when it would take place. Carlos regularly conducted classes in Judaism, a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) was built, and some of the men and male children had undergone circumcision. We were deeply moved by their sincerity and love of Judaism and the Jewish way of life. We were determined to help.

The following November 2012, after a delay caused by Hurricane Sandy, we convened a Beit Din (Jewish court) of three Orthodox rabbis and traveled to Nicaragua. During this visit, we converted 14 individuals including two children. The conversions were followed by four weddings for what now were Jewish families. The joy and the excitement we witnessed was so exciting and enriching, not only for the newly minted Jews, but for us as well. One year later, in January of 2014, we returned with the Beit Din for a second conversion. Professor Tudor Parfitt, Distinguished Professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University with a specialty in Jewish studies, joined us and was welcomed warmly by members of the community.

This second group consisted of family members of the first group, as well as a few individuals who claimed no Jewish background but simply had fallen in love with Judaism. I was most impressed with Pablo, a gentleman almost 60 years old with major medical problems, who underwent circumcision because he wanted to live fully as a Jew. This time we converted ten adults and four children. This was followed by four more Jewish weddings. The excitement and joy of both the brides and grooms, one set of whom were grandparents, on being married as Jews was almost palpable.

Since our first visit, the community has grown to include the first Jewish baby born in Nicaragua in decades. There will soon be a Bat Mitzvah. One of the young men from the community went to Israel to participate in the Maccabiah games. Another milestone was the gift of a piece of land by a community member for the construction of a new synagogue. With the unexpected and unfortunate passing of Carlos Peres, Akiva Simcha, a young medical student who hopes to eventually attend rabbinical school, teaches a weekly schedule of classes on Jewish subjects.

There is no longer any fear that the Jewish community of Nicaragua is destined to disappear. But rather, there is optimism and hope for the revitalization of a dying community, or what Kurt Preiss called an extinct community born again.

This experience has taught me how in all corners of the world there are Jews who courageously and joyfully, and sometimes at considerable sacrifice, are determined to live Jewish lives. It has shown me the power of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. I feel honored to have played a part in this story.

TINY NICARAGUA JEWISH COMMUNITY DOUBLES IN SIZE AS 114 CONVERT
Mass conversion, 22 Jewish weddings performed by three Orthodox rabbis from Israel, US; at least half of whose participants claim Jewish ancestry.
Times of Israel, by Josefin Dolsten, August 2, 2017

Over the course of just a few days, the tiny Jewish community in Nicaragua more than doubled when 114 people converted to Judaism.

Last month, community members answered questions before a beit din, or religious court, of three Orthodox rabbis from Israel and the United States and immersed in a newly built mikvah in Managua, the Central American country’s capital. Male converts underwent circumcisions or symbolic circumcisions if already circumcised.

On July 23, following the conversions conducted at the Managua home of a community leader, 22 couples wed according to Jewish tradition in a Managua social hall rented for the occasion. Kulanu, a New York-based nonprofit group that supports communities around the world seeking to learn about Judaism, had facilitated the conversions.

“There was a great amount of trepidation in their faces and anxiousness because it was so important to them, and when they emerged from the mikvah the glow on their faces was amazing,” said beit din member Rabbi Mark Kunis, who was ordained at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and works at the Shaarei Shamayim synagogue in Atlanta. “It’s inspiring; the excitement that it engendered was phenomenal.”

From left to right, Moshe Omar Cohen-Henriquez speaking with beit din members Rabbi Mark Kunis, Rabbi Andy Eichenholz and Rabbi Marc Phillips in Managua, Nicaragua, July 20, 2017. On the far right is Even Centeno, a convert who traces his ancestry to Sephardi Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. (Bonita Sussman via JTA)

At least half the candidates claimed Jewish ancestry, and most had been studying Judaism for at least five years — with some pursuing Judaism almost their entire lives, Kunis told JTA. All the candidates except one family were accepted for conversion, and one of the beit din rabbis served as a Spanish translator, since most of the candidates could not communicate in English, he said.

“I feel at home,” Even Centeno, 21, told JTA of having officially become Jewish. “This was for me like a dream.”

Centeno is among the converts who trace their ancestry to Sephardi Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition.

Centeno, who converted along with his parents and sister, said he was aware of his family’s Jewish ancestry since he was a young child and started learning about Judaism at the age of 11.

The conversions bring a significant influx of Jews to Nicaragua. Jews have been living there since the 18th century, but the community numbered only about 50 in 2012 and was comprised mostly of American retirees, according to the Nicaraguan Israelite Congregation. That year, Kulanu helped facilitate the conversions of 14 people, most of whom claimed ancestry to Jewish men who had married non-Jewish Nicaraguan women. Another 14 converted in 2015, but the recent group is the largest to date.

Though the Nicaraguans converted together, they follow two different leaders, said Bonita Sussman, vice president of Kulanu.

The majority, including Centeno, are inspired by Hasidism and follow a local leader named Akiva Simja Fernandez, who converted to Judaism in 2012 with the help of Kulanu. Fernandez follows some Jewish customs that he learned from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which does not have a presence in Managua but caters to Israeli tourists in the beach town of San Juan del Sur.

Fernandez and many of his followers — some of whom claim Jewish ancestry — wear black velvet kippahs and wide-brimmed black hats, and sing and dance to Hasidic music during celebrations.

A second group with 38 members of one extended family heeds Moshe Omar Cohen-Henriquez, who traces his ancestry to Jews from Curacao who were forced to convert to Christianity. The group adheres to Sephardi customs and has access to a mikvah, or ritual pool, adjacent to Henriquez’s home. The men wear big crocheted kippahs.

Prior to deciding to become Jewish, Sussman said, the converts identified with Christianity or messianism, a movement that infuses Christian belief with some elements of Jewish ritual practice.

This isn’t the first mass conversion facilitated by Kulanu. Last year, the group brought rabbis to Madagascar to convert 121 people, building a Jewish community where none had existed.

Sussman noted how the members of the Nicaraguan community relate to their Judaism.

“These two are unique in that one is a Sephardic and descendants of anousim and the other tends towards Hasidic kabbalistic practice,” she said.

“Anousim” is a Hebrew term for Jews who were forced to abandon Judaism against their will.

Though the Madagascar community also follows Hasidic traditions, the Nicaragua group that follows Simja is distinctive in the fact that it follows customs learned from Chabad, Sussman added. (Chabad has no official ties to the converts or Kulanu.)

Sussman sees the conversions as part of a larger phenomenon.

“This is a new trend in Jewish history,” she said. “In the last 100 years we have seen the Holocaust, the destruction of all Jewish communities in Arab lands and the rebuilding of a Jewish homeland. We are now entering an era of rebuilding the Jewish people.

“In general, while there may be some hot spots of interest in Judaism in the Western countries, for the most part serious interest in religion is a thing of the past. Today, however, the interest lies in Africa, South America and India. As Jews we must be part of this exciting new development.”

Kulanu is planning to send equipment to the Nicaraguans to perform kosher ritual slaughter.

“The big need is for kosher meat. We’re planning to get them shechitah knives,” Sussman said. “They haven’t eaten meat, some of them for years. They eat vegetarian and fish.”

The dietary restrictions didn’t seem to be a problem for Centeno, who was getting ready to cook for Shabbat, when he would be hosting 70 community members.

“[A]ll the community will be in my house, we’ll do a Shabbaton,” he said. “Today I’m preparing all the food.”

WORLD JEWISH CONGRESS

HISTORY AND COMMUNITY

The community reached a peak in 1972 with approximately 250 members, most living in Managua. But in the aftermath of an earthquake that destroyed much of Managua in December 1972, many Jews emigrated. The Sandinista government sequestered the synagogue and other Jewish property and also imprisoned the community leader. He managed to escape and fled the country together with most of the Jews. The Congregacion Israelita de Nicaragua was the central Jewish organization until 1979. The community maintained a synagogue and social center, and there was a B'nai B'rith lodge and WIZO chapter. Since 1979, however, the Jewish community has been dormant.  (See video above - from 2014 - looks like it has restarted)

ISRAEL

With the ouster of the Sandinista regime, Israel and Nicaragua have restored diplomatic relations. Israel is represented by its ambassador in Guatemala City.

COMMUNITY

Nicaraguan Israelite Congregation
Kurt Preiss - Board President   Tel: (505) 88431089   reptinic@yahoo.es

The Jewish World: Nicaragua

World Jewish Congress  (2.06)

THE

INCREDIBLE

STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE



Jewish Population
in the Americas