The Jewish immigration to Puerto Rico began in the 15th century with the arrival of the anusim (variously called conversos, Crypto-Jews, or Secret Jews and marranos) who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage on November 19, 1493 to the so-called "New World". It is believed that Luis de Torres, who spoke Hebrew among other languages who accompanied Columbus as his interpreter, was the first "converso" Jew to set foot in Puerto Rico. .
An open Jewish community did not flourish in Puerto Rico because Judaism was prohibited by the Spanish Inquisition, however many migrated to mountainous parts of the island, far from the central power of San Juan, and continued to self-identify as Jews and practice Crypto-Judaism.
When the Crypto Jews arrived on the island of Puerto Rico, they were hoping to avoid religious scrutiny, but the Inquisition followed the colonists. The Inquisition maintained no rota or religious court in Puerto Rico. However, heretics were written up and if necessary remanded to regional Inquisitional tribunals in Spain or elsewhere in the western hemisphere. As a result, many secret Jews settled the island's remote mountainous interior far from the concentrated centers of power in San Juan and lived quiet lives. They practiced Crypto-Judaism which meant that they secretly practiced Judaism while publicly professing to be Roman Catholic. Still, since Jews weren't permitted to worship, the Crypto Jews eventually intermarried Catholics so that Puerto Rico virtually had no Jewish history.
It would be hundreds of years before an open Jewish community would be established on the island. Very few American Jews settled in Puerto Rico after the island was ceded by Spain to the United States under the terms of the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish–American War.
The first large group of Jews to settle in Puerto Rico were European refugees fleeing German–occupied Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The second influx of Jews to the island came in the 1950s, when thousands of Cuban Jews (most of Eastern-European descent) fled after Fidel Castro came to power, the majority immigrating to Miami, Florida, with a sizable portion choosing to establish and integrate themselves on the neighboring island because of the cultural, linguistic, racial, and historic similarities shared by both islands.
Puerto Rican Jews have made many contributions in multiple fields, including business and commerce, education, and entertainment. Puerto Rico has the largest and richest Jewish community in the Caribbean, with over 3,000 Jewish inhabitants. It is also the only Caribbean island in which all three major Jewish denominations—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—are represented.
Most of Puerto Rico’s Jews live in the San Juan area, in the Isla Verde, Condado and Miramar neighborhoods, each of which is home to a synagogue of a different denomination. The
(903 Ponce de León Avenue in Miramar; 787-724-4157; www.jccpr.org), got its start in 1935, when 26 families began gathering in private homes and commercial spaces. The JCC was founded in 1942 to promote social services, entertainment and mutual help.
In 1953, the community purchased and remodeled Casa Korber, the William Korber mansion designed by the acclaimed Czech architect Antonin Nechodoma, whose Caribbean designs incorporated the prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright. The synagogue’s tiered red-gabled roofs surrounded by lush foliage and a massive bamboo tree create a pagoda-like sense of space; inside, its white walls and dark wood décor capture a spare island style.
The congregation named itselfShaare Zedeck, after the first synagogue destroyed in Liepzig, Germany. Many Cuban immigrants joined the American-oriented synagogue and gave it a Hispanic flavor. Today, its 250 families support a Hebrew school, preschool, nursery, Hadassah chapter and Young Judaea club.
Reform Temple Beth Shalom was established in 1967 by Americans. In 1972, the congregation acquired its present building in Condado, an oceanfront neighborhood (101 San Jorge Street; 787-721-6333; email@example.com). About a quarter of its members are Puerto Rican-born converts, many claiming Converso heritage. The building’s seamless, rough-hewn stone exterior features a round stained-glass window with a double Magen David. Its sanctuary is similar in design to the JCC-Shaare-Zedeck.
Chabad of Puerto Rico, spearheaded by Rabbi Mendel Zarchi since 1999, has made its headquarters in Isla Verde, another tourist destination lined with hotels and condos. The Chabad center is housed temporarily at 17 Dalia Street while its property on 18 Rosa Street is under construction. When it is completed, the new center will house a social hall, kitchen, mikve, classrooms and offices. Chabad (787-253-0894; www.chabadpr.com) also operates a storefront Jewish welcome center at 261 Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan, where it offers maps, information about the Jewish community, local Jewish souvenirs, bottled water, kosher food and Internet access; plans for a library, lounge and Internet café on-site are in the works.
Columbus is venerated everywhere. A statue of the explorer rises above Plaza de Colón (Columbus Square); dating from 1893, it honors the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Puerto Rico. An obelisk in Plaza del Quinto Centenario (Quincentennial Square) commemorates the 500th anniversary. The rotunda of the Capitol Building depicts another Columbus tableau in mosaic.
The San Juan Holocaust Memorial, completed in 2012, stands directly across the street from the Capitol. The joint project between the government and Jewish community features a sculpture designed by New York-based artists Michael Berkowicz and Bonnie Srolovitz entitled In the Shadow of Their Absence. A section of the plaza is dedicated to victims of the Lod Airport Massacre of May 30, 1972, when 16 Puerto Rican Christian tourists were among those killed by a Japanese terrorist group recruited by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.