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CENTRAL AMERICA -
PANAMA

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OVERVIEW
Wikipedia

For nearly five hundred years Panama has been a transit station. Long before the construction of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century, merchants and missionaries, adventurers and bandits crossed the swamps of Panama ports and to go from the Atlantic to Pacific or vice versa.

Although descendants of the "anusim" or crypto from the Iberian Peninsula, have lived in Panama since the early sixteenth century, there was there a Jewish community that has openly practiced their religion until it took centuries. Jews, both Sephardic (mostly Spanish and Portuguese Jews from nearby islands such as Curaçao, St. Thomas and Jamaica) and Ashkenazi, began arriving in Panama in large quantities until the mid-nineteenth century, attracted by economic incentives such as bi-oceanic railway construction and the California gold rush.

They were followed by other waves of immigration: during the First World War the Ottoman Empire from disintegrating, before and after the Second World War from Europe, from Arab countries because of the exodus caused in 1948 and more recently from South American countries suffering economic crises.

The center of Jewish life in Panama is Panama City, although historically small groups of Jews settled in other cities, like Columbus, David, Chitre, La Chorrera, Santiago de Veraguas and Bocas del Toro, Those communities were disappearing as families were moved to the capital in search of education for their children and for economic reasons. Today Jewish community numbers some 20,000.

Panama is the only country in the world except for Israel that has had two Jewish presidents in the twentieth century. In the sixties Max Delvalle was first vice president, then president. His nephew, Eric Arturo Delvalle, was president between 1985 and 1988. The two were members of Kol Shearith Israel synagogue and were involved in Jewish life.

THE JEWISH STORY IN PANAMA
Wikipedia

For nearly five hundred years Panama has been a transit station. Long before the construction of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century, merchants and missionaries, adventurers and bandits crossed the swamps of Panama ports and to go from the Atlantic to Pacific or vice versa.

Although descendants of the "anusim" or crypto from the Iberian Peninsula, have lived in Panama since the early sixteenth century, there was there a Jewish community that has openly practiced their religion until it took centuries. Jews, both Sephardic (mostly Spanish and Portuguese Jews from nearby islands such as Curaçao, St. Thomas and Jamaica) and Ashkenazi, began arriving in Panama in large quantities until the mid-nineteenth century, attracted by economic incentives such as bi-oceanic railway construction and the California gold rush.

They were followed by other waves of immigration: during the First World War the  from disintegrating, before and after the Second World War from Europe, from Arab countries because of the exodus caused in 1948 and more recently from South American countries suffered economic crises. They all contributed to the diversity of the Jewish population in Panama today.

The center of Jewish life in Panama is Panama City, although historically small groups of Jews settled in other cities, like Columbus, David, Chitre, La Chorrera, Santiago de Veraguas and Bocas del Toro, Those communities were disappearing as families were moved to the capital in search of education for their children and for economic reasons. With some 20,000 souls, the Jewish community is a strong presence in the country despite its relatively small demography in relation to the total population (three million).

Panamanian Jews have their peculiar history of participation in government and in civic and diplomatic functions. Panama is the only country in the world except for Israel which has had two Jewish presidents in the twentieth century. In the sixties Max Delvalle was first vice president and then president. Delvalle is famous for its inaugural presidential address in which he said: "Today there are two Jewish presidents in the world who are the president of the State of Israel and myself." His nephew, Eric Arturo Delvalle, was president between 1985 and 1988. The two were members of Kol Shearith Israel synagogue and were involved in Jewish life

PANAMA

THE FIRST JEWS

jewish virtual library

The first Jews to settle in Panama were Spanish and Portuguese Conversos who were forced to practice their Judaism in secret. At the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1821, Panama became attached to Colombia and at this time several Sephardic Jews from Jamaica and Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe settled in the province. Due to the lack of a strong Jewish community, many of them intermarried and assimilated. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a number of immigrants of Sephardi origin from the Caribbean region, and a few Askenazim from the Netherlands, settled in Panama. The first Jewish congregation, Kol Shearith Israel, was founded in 1876. The congregation now identifies with the Reform movement and numbers approximately 160 families.

After the construction of the Panama Canal, the census of 1911 reported 505 Jews in Panama. In 1933, Sephardic Jews from Israel and Syria established a second community and an Orthodox synagogue, Shevet Achim, now the largest congregation in Panama. Owing to intermarriage, however, the Kol Shearith Israel congregation diminished considerably, and in spite of the immigration of a large number of Jews after World War I, Panamanian Jewry was estimated in 1936 at only 600 people. A third congregation, Beth El, is also an Orthodox synagogue and consists of a small group of Ashkenazi Jews who arrived in the 1930's from Nazi dominated Europe.

Jews have cherished their political rights and held high positions in the Republic. Panama is the only country besides Israel that has had two Jewish presidents in the twentieth century: Max Delvalle Maduro (Vice President 1964-1968; President April 1967) and Eric Arturo Delvalle Cohen-Henriquez (Vice President 1984-1985; President 1985-1988).

PRESENT-DAY COMMUNITY

The three different Jewish communities, together with several organizations such as B'nai Brith, WIZO, and various social and sport associations are all united under the umbrella of the Central Jewish Community of Panama (Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panama).

In the mid-1990's an estimated 7,000 Jews lived in Panama, including 1,000 Israelis, mostly in Panama City, but there are also communities in Colon, David and the former American Canal Zone. Most Jews in Panama are traditional in their Jewish practices. A reportedly 85 percent of households keep kosher, and there are eight kosher restaurants in the country. There are two restaurants at the community center, one dairy and the other meat. There is one meat restaurant at the kosher supermarket, and two more in a shopping center located near where many members of the jewish community live. In Punta Pacifica mall, there is another dairy restaurant called Tel Aviv, and there is another meat restaurant, called Mukis, located in the Marbella neighborhood. The 8th one is located in the area were people go at night to have fun and is called Darna, dairy and fish. There are also several businesses that provide breads, cakes, cheese, and anything kosher you might need. In Panama City, there is a kosher supermarket, "Super Kosher." This 1,500 square meter supermarket sells close to 10,000 different kosher products made in Israel, the U.S., Europe and in Panama. This store is reportedly the largest kosher emporium outside of Israel!

There are three Jewish day schools from primary through high school in Panama City. The most recently opened school is the Escuela Isaac Rabin is affiliated with the Reform community. The other two institutions are orthodox, the Instituto Alberto Einstein, which was founded in 1954 is the eldest of the three and is modern orthodox. Finally, the third school is the Academia Hebrea de Panama. The schools have over 1,300 students enrolled. At this time they are also building a Yeshiva.

RELATIONS WITH ISRAEL

Relations between Panama and Israel are cordial, especially after 1960, when the two countries first exchanged ambassadors. Panama has consistently supported Israel in the United Nations. In May 1980, the Panama Hall in the School of Education of the Hebrew University was dedicated, and the ambassador of Panama to Israel presented the university with fifty volumes on the literature and history of the Republic. Since 1948, 180 Panamanian Jews have emigrated to Israel.

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF PANAMA, CRYPTO AND MORE
Boquete Panama Guide by Lee Zeltzer November 19, 2013

While living in Arizona I fell across an article about the Crypto Jews of Mexico. I had no idea what a Crypto Jew was. This led to curiosity about the Crypto Jews of Panama.

Some History

Near the beginning of the eighth century, an army, made up largely of Moors and some Arabs, invaded and conquered nearly the entire peninsula. During the next 750 years independent Muslim states were established and the entire area of Muslim control became known as Al-Andalus. Meanwhile the Christian kingdoms in the north of the peninsula began the long and slow Christian recovery, a process called the Reconquista, which was concluded in 1492 with the fall of Granada. Wikipedia

The Spanish Inquisition (Inquisición española), was established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile.

The Inquisition was originally intended in large part to ensure the orthodoxy of those who converted from Judaism and Islam. This regulation of the faith of the newly converted was intensified after the royal decrees issued in 1492 and 1501 ordering Jews and Muslims to convert or leave. Those Jews who converted but retained their Jewish traditions in the privacy of their homes are called Crypto Jews.

Many Jews and Muslims, Crypto and practicing,  left Spain, some fled to what is now called Latin America where they become a significant part of the culture and economy.

Although descendants of the “anusim” or crypto from the Iberian Peninsula, have lived in Panama since the early sixteenth century, there was also a Jewish community that has openly practiced their religion. Jews, both Sephardic, mostly Spanish and Portuguese Jews from nearby islands such as Curaçao, St. Thomas and Jamaica) and Ashkenazi, began arriving in Panama in large quantities until the mid-nineteenth century, attracted by economic incentives such as bi-oceanic railway

CONSTRUCTION AND THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH. TIMELINE OF JEWISH IMMIGRATION TO PANAMA.

Jewish Immigration (post-marranos):

• 1876: immigrants from the Caribbean founded the Kol Sherith community (now Reform)

• 1911: 505 Jews lived in Panama (Canal construction period)

• 1933: Jews from Syria and Israel founded the Sephardi community

• 1930s-1940s: Jewish European immigrants founded the Ashkenazi community

• 1947: Jewish exodus from Syria produced large immigration waves into Panama

• 1990-2000s: another wave of immigrants (both Jews and non-Jews), who came mainly from Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina due to these countries particular situation at the moment.  (source)

They were followed by other waves of immigration: during the First World War when the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating, before and after the Second World War from Europe, from Arab countries because of the exodus caused in 1948 and more recently from South American countries suffering economic crises. They all contributed to the diversity of the Jewish population in Panama today.

The center of Jewish life in Panama is Panama City, although small groups of Jews settled in other cities, like Colon, David, Chitre, La Chorrera, Santiago de Veraguas and Bocas del Toro. Those communities are largely disappearing.  Families moved to the capital in search of education for their children and for economic reasons.

With 10,000-20,000 members depending on the source the Jewish community is a strong presence in the country despite it’s relatively small demography in relation to the total population of three and one half million.

Panamanian Jews have their peculiar history of participation in government and in civic and diplomatic functions. Panama is the only country in the world except for Israel which has had two Jewish presidents in the twentieth century. In the sixties Max Delvalle was first vice president and then president. Delvalle is famous for its inaugural presidential address in which he said: “Today there are two Jewish presidents in the world who are the president of the State of Israel and myself.” His nephew, Eric Arturo Delvalle, was president between 1985 and 1988. The two were members of Kol Shearith Israel (reform) synagogue and were involved in Jewish life.  Wikipedia

There was a book published in 1987 by Aristides Ivan Hassan R. called the Holocaust in Panama. It is controversial with some saying it was Noriega propaganda and others claiming it to be true. Since it effected the history of Panama with impact in both Boquete and Volcan in particular I have been curious about it for years. It claimed that before WWII, President of the Republic of Panama, Arnufo Arias, under instruction from Hitler,  ordered the assassination of  Jews in Panama. It alleges that there was a massacre in both Volcan and Boquete.

I cannot find a copy, I do not know if it is true. I do know whether the events happened or not. I do know many in the Jewish community at time of Arnufo Arias,  did believe they and their families where at risk.  He was anti American and Anti Semitic in Country that had a strong US presence.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with some 20th century Crypto Jews in Panama. Catholics who were baptized by their parents during the era of Arnufo Arias to protect them from the perceived threat. They are still alive, they walk the line between being raised Catholic with full knowledge their parents were Jewish. Their traditions are a hybrid of the two religions. They are to the outside world Catholic but in their homes they still practice many jewish traditions.

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY TODAY:

Panama has the largest Jewish community in Central America, with ~8,000 Orthodox Jews (the vast majority Sephardi), ~500 Reform Jews and ~1,000 Israelis. However, Jews are only 0.27% of the 3.3 million population. About 80%-90% of the Jews are Sephardi and they originally come mostly from Syria. Therefore, Syrian traditions and costumes are predominant. The community is very affluent and has little assimilation.

There is a strong business culture in the community, as a large part of the Jews work in trade, buying and selling merchandise in the Free Zone area (Colon) and in Panama City. There is, in fact, constant interaction and very little friction with Arabs, including Palestinians (3,500 Muslims in Panama).

INSTITUTIONS:

The two orthodox communities, Shevet Ahim (Sephardi) and Beth El (Ashkenazi), offer full religious services. There are three synagogues, two Sephardi and one Ashkenazi, as well as two schools (1,300 students) and a yeshiva. Macabi, Bnai Brith, WIZO, and some other institutions are very active in Panama. Likewise, the reform community (Kol Sherith) has one synagogue and a school.

Panama has the largest kosher supermarket outside of Israel (1,500 sq meters) and it sells more than 10,0700 products. This is not surprising as ~85% of the Jews in Panama keep kashrut, at least at home. There are also eight kosher restaurants and a Jewish country club/events hall, where most events take place. There is a Jewish country club and events hall. ” Source

To witness the economic influence of the Jewish community in Panama you just need to visit any shopping center in Panama on a Jewish holiday. Many businesses will be closed in observance.

As a non observant Jew myself I find the history of Jews in Panama of academic interest and something I plan to investigate further.

WORLD JEWISH CONGRESS

HISTORY AND DEMOGRAPHY

Most of the Jews live in Panama City, but there are also communities in Colon, David, and the former American Canal Zone. In the last two decades, immigration has tripled the number of Jews in the community, which includes more than 1,000 Israelis.

COMMUNAL AND RELIGIOUS LIFE

The representative body of the Jewish community is the Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panama. Panama has active B'nai B'rith and WIZO chapters. The community has three synagogues-including a Reform congregation. The largest is the Sephardi (Orthodox) Shevet Ahim, which also has a mikva on the premises. Kosher food is readily available and there are five kosher restaurants.

CULTURE AND EDUCATION

There are two Jewish high schools with a total enrollment of 1,300 students. The Hebrew cultural center in Panama City sponsors many communal cultural and sports activities.

ISRAEL

Israel and Panama have full diplomatic relations. Aliya: Since 1948, 180 Panamanian Jews have emigrated to Israel.

Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panama

Apartado Postal 55-0882, Paitilla

00001 Panama,

Tel. 507 229 37 33

Embassy

Edif. Grobmaes, 5 piso

Calle Manuel Maria Icaza 12

Apartado 6357, Panama City 5

tel: +507 208 47 00   fax: +507 208 47 55

email: info@panama.mfa.gov.il

website: http://panama.mfa.gov.il

LINKS

Kosher Delight
The Jewish Community of Panama, Crypto and more
Panama: More than just a canal   Jewish Chronicle
The Jews Of Panama: Small Numbers, Great Impact  B’nai B’rith International By Taylor Schwink 11/25/2014

THE

INCREDIBLE

STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE



Jewish Population
in the Americas