Port in a storm

Dominican Republic: Jewish community still bears symbols of its past.

By ERICA CHERNOFSKY
September 17, 2007 07:39
Sosua synagogue 88 224

Sosua synagogue 88 224. (photo credit: ERICA CHERNOFSKY)

I watch the turquoise waves splash white foam along the shore, touching the tips of my toes and lulling me into some sort of magic trance as they ebb and flow. I wave to my new husband, swimming toward me, just back from a snorkeling adventure at the coral reef just a hundred meters out to sea. This is Sosua, a tiny town on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean paradise, and my dream honeymoon come true. Today, friendly Spanish-speaking locals fill the streets of the town that was established less than century ago. But they arrived here much later, years after the agricultural colony was founded by a group of some 900 Jews fleeing the impending Holocaust in Europe. After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt called the Evian Conference in France to discuss the problem of Jewish refugees. "The world seemed to be divided into two parts," Chaim Weizmann was quoted by The Manchester Guardian as saying, "those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter." Only Dominican president Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina gave them a haven, offering at the conference to accept 100,000 European Jews into his country. Less than one-10th of that number actually came, but started a thriving community that still bears the symbols of its past. Only a short walk from the postcard-perfect beach is the original synagogue used by the Jewish settlers. It is still in use today for holiday and Shabbat services that are organized by local Jews once a month. Built like a wood cabin, the small synagogue houses three Torah scrolls and is decorated with stained-glass windows depicting classic Jewish images. Right next door is the Jewish museum, established in 1990 in honor of the town's 50th anniversary to chronicle Jewish life in Sosua. Its short story is told through photos, documents and artifacts like the first telephone and a desk and chair from the Jewish school that has since closed. Open daily, the small museum has become a tourist spot and one of the last reminders that Jews once inhabited this seaside town. The last reminder is just a few minutes' drive away, down a muddy dirt road. Here, around 90 Jews found their final resting place, enclosed by a high fence topped with the Hebrew words, "Remember, we are the dust of the earth." It is kept up by the Jewish community. Barely 25 Jews remain in Sosua today. Only a handful are from the original settlers, says Joe Benjamin, 66, who came here with his parents in 1947 after escaping Germany to Shanghai before the war. "Everyone left," he explains. "Sosua had been abandoned wilderness when it was allocated to the Jewish refugees, and when they came, they were given farmland. But these were city dwellers trying to live in a primitive country without running water. So after the war, or as soon as they could, they left." All of Benjamin's children reside abroad, and he has since remarried a non-Jewish Dominican woman. As one of the original settlers, a picture of him at his bar mitzva is displayed in the museum, and he donated the giant Star of David that stands in the entrance yard to the museum and synagogue. "When I was a kid, we went to synagogue every Friday," he recalls, glancing at all the memories around him as he gives us a tour of the museum. "The Jews preserved their Jewishness while they were here." But for the most part, those who remain do not. There is no kosher food available in Sosua or its vicinity, apart from the chance container of Pringles or box of pasta imported from the US. Aside from one Shabbat a month and holidays, the synagogue stays closed and there is rarely a minyan. Nonetheless, the Jews have left a mark on the town, initiating the colony as an agricultural zone and then developing successful meat and dairy industries that are still the leading brands in the country. Streets bear names of the original settlers and the oldest school in town is named for the Jewish educator who for decades was the principal. And residents like Benjamin live luxurious lives in retirement on this verdant, unspoiled coast. JUST A four-hour drive south along a windy mountain road, the Jewish community of Santo Domingo is struggling to avoid the fate of Sosua. Some 200 Jews reside in the nation's capital, where they have come from all over the world, from different pasts for different reasons, says Oisiki Ghittis, religious director of the Israel Center of the Dominican Republic. A few are original settlers, many are from other Spanish-speaking countries, and about a dozen families came from Israel in the 1980s to work in free zone industries, one of the pillars of the Dominican economy. The capital is very unlike rural Sosua; it lies on the southern side of the island, and its beaches are rockier and less pristine than those on the northern side. The recent hurricane that hit the day before we arrived whipped through Santo Domingo, shredding the palm trees and dirtying the shore with debris. Although we had sunny skies throughout our stay, Hurricane Dean left us in the Madrid airport with a 15-hour delay while we waited for the skies to clear. The trip is not a short one from Israel, and there are no direct flights. We flew Iberia through Madrid, the only blot on an otherwise perfect journey. The service was horrendous - the flight attendants were rude, we didn't receive our kosher meals, there were no pillows, we were not given food vouchers during the 15-hour delay and though the airline knew of the delay the night before, we were told only after we had already checked in and were informed that we could not retrieve our baggage - but it was much cheaper than all the other airlines (now we understand why). The Jewish community, however, was exceptionally accommodating. After feeding us an excellent lunch of fresh fish and traditional Dominican cuisine, Ghittis took us on a personal tour through the city, stopping to show us the Israel Center, which houses the synagogue. Here, a menora stands at the entrance, and vintage Israeli posters adorn the walls. The synagogue is a bit larger than the one in Sosua, with about a dozen rows of separate seating for men and women, though there is no mehitza. Services here are held every Friday night and on holidays. Weekly Torah study classes, Kabbalat Shabbat, the Pessah Seder and all affiliated activities also take place in the Israel Center. Kosher food is also difficult to find in Santo Domingo, but kosher meat is imported from Florida every two months for eight observant families in the area. While the majority of members may not be religiously observant, they are certainly devoted to Judaism. "We are a very small community," says president Isaac Rudman, originally from Cuba, "so we have to do whatever is necessary to keep it alive." THE DAY we left, the Israeli film festival was due to begin in the capital at the local cinematheque, and on September 6, Israeli Ambassador Yoav Bar-On hosted a day in honor of Jerusalem attended by the archbishop, prominent journalists and some 400 people. "The Jews have a fascinating history here," he says in a meeting at the embassy that Ghittis arranged for us. "We are accepted here. The Dominicans have a fondness for Jews, especially Israelis." Anti-Semitism is almost nonexistent, except in the press, where Bar-On says that certain journalists have written unacceptable comments in local papers, especially during last summer's Lebanon War. There is an Arab presence in the country, he adds, but it is not at all militant. And in fact, everyone we speak to, Catholics and Jews alike, says anti-Semitism is not a problem on the friendly island. During the meeting with Bar-On we chance upon Senator Diego Acquino, the head of the political party currently in power, who is noticeably thrilled to meet Israeli tourists. He thanks us for visiting his country, and expresses his hope for more Israelis to vacation there. And if they do, they will be eagerly welcomed by the Jewish community, even if it is dwindling. Most of those leaving are young and in search of higher education, a spouse and a more mainstream lifestyle. "There's just nothing for them to do here," says Benjamin, when asked why his kids all left. "I have three daughters, and how were they supposed to get married here?" echoes Rudman. After two weeks of rest and relaxation, we couldn't imagine leaving the virgin beaches, colorful culture and year-round 27 degree weather for anything in the world, but for some of the Jews who live here, a Caribbean paradise is not enough. "We have a mission here, and that is to keep tradition," says Rudman from the office of his large electronics store in Santo Domingo. "We live good lives, and we're not a religious community because it's nearly impossible to be one here, but we are an example of a small Jewish community surviving in the middle of a Catholic country." "People always think it's sad," says Benjamin as he drives us back to our villa. "This used to be a thriving Jewish community, and then they all left. But I don't think that way. I think it served its purpose - it gave the Jews a haven - and when they didn't need one anymore, they had no reason to stay." But there is definitely reason enough to visit - from the homegrown bananas and 26 kinds of mango to the delicious sugar cane and the world's second-best coffee beans. This tropical paradise is still a haven for anyone who's looking.


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