Not every Jewish community can lay claim to a tombstone etched with a skull and
crossbones as part of its cultural heritage. The one in Jamaica does. Among its
most infamous early members is one Moses Cohen Henriques, a Dutch pirate of
Sephardic origin who played a major role in looting the fleet of Spanish
galleons in the 1600s.
His descendants and those of his coreligionists,
together with several dozen others who have made their way to this island nation
in the Caribbean from far-flung reaches of the earth, today constitute
Kingston’s 300-strong United Congregation of Israelites. The decrease in numbers
from a robust 2,500 a century ago notwithstanding, “the community is
experiencing a revival,” says Stephen Henriques, long-time spiritual leader of
the congregation and possibly a distant relative of the pirate. “We just hired a
rabbi for the first time in 30 years.”
I recently had the pleasure of
meeting them both at a conference of the United Jewish Communities of Latin
America and the Caribbean.
While not all 26 congregations from the 13
countries constituting the UJCL boast as colorful a history, each has a story
that is as intriguing. More importantly, they all have members who are
passionate about ensuring that those stories continue. Given the challenges they
are facing, this is nothing to be taken for granted. Limited resources,
insufficient professional leadership, isolation, lack of the critical mass
necessary to sustain schools and other community institutions, and natural
attrition exacerbated by their children’s inclination to leave after high school
would all make a less hearty flock throw up its hands in despair. Nothing could
be further from the buoyancy I experienced during four days of mingling with the
150 participants in this thoroughly forward-looking affair.
Gurevich is one of the many vibrant figures who sets this tone. Spiritual leader
of the tiny Jewish community of Aruba, he is currently engaged in turning his
synagogue into an adult education center.
“We know of 70 Jews on the
island,” he explains. “The national census just released says there are 341. I
want to find the rest. We have two choices. To expand or die. Baharnu b’hayim.
We’re choosing life.”
The rabbi has also chosen to answer the call to
serve as Israel’s honorary consul and is proud of his community’s strong
connection to the Jewish state, claiming with a smile that it has one of the
highest per-capita aliya rates in the world. I do a quick calculation to figure
out just how many of the six dozen members have to move to Israel each year to
earn that distinction.
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THE NEXT day, however, I discover that Aruba faces
some stiff competition. I am having Shabbat dinner in the 50-family Conservative
Hebrew Congregation of Guadalajara, site of this year’s gathering. Sarah, a
young woman at my table, tells me she is moving to Israel next week. She is here
for a brief family visit after graduating from Na’aleh, a Jewish Agency
high-school program in Israel. Turns out a full 50 percent of the class with
which she grew up is making aliya. The other girl is staying put.
that’s it: Sarah and the friend she’s leaving behind constitute their entire age
The demographics being what they are, the local Jewish school was
forced to close its doors a few years ago. Unwilling to give up on the Jewish
education of his congregants, however, the young and energetic Rabbi Joshua
Kullock turned to the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education (a venture of The Jewish
Agency, World Zionist Organization, Joint Distribution Committee and Israeli
government) and received a grant for an innovative family education initiative.
That helped forge the closely knit community that comes together for dinner
every week following Kabbalat Shabbat.
“With so few of us, there’s
incredible pressure to be involved with everything, but also a wonderful sense
of belonging,” says Eduardo Moel, past president of both the UJCL and the
congregation, a position also held by his brother Mark, illustrating the point.
Sarah will be missed by this extended family, but her parents understand that
the appreciation they inculcated in their daughter for feeling a part of
something larger than oneself is what led to her decision to seek it on an even
grander scale. Hopefully she will find it in the IDF, which she proudly tells me
she will be joining in April.
ANOTHER SMALL community is that of Curaçao.
With only 350 Jews, it still has two synagogues – true to the spirit of the
story of the Jew stranded on a remote island who builds two houses of worship,
one to attend, the other never to set foot in. In this case, however, the
“other” just happens to be the Snoa synagogue, the oldest in continuous use in
the Americas, built in 1732. Happily, the two congregations cooperate, together
running a single Hebrew school for their 20 young children, who in all
likelihood will eventually attend universities abroad and never
“We’re realistic about the future,” says Rene Maduro, president
of the congregation. “Still, we do whatever we can to keep things
going. We already have one Jewish museum here. We don’t need
Another community that manages to cooperate is that of
Colombia, despite the differences that have spawned six synagogues in Bogota.
According to Rolf Goldshmit, secretary of its Confederation of Jewish
Communities, “all our congregations and community organizations work together,
unlike some other countries, where no one gets along.”
They succeed in
doing so by steering clear of religion, focusing instead on community relations
and support of Israel.
“Colombia decided not to vote in favor of
Palestinian statehood at the UN,” he tells me with satisfaction, “and we were
very instrumental in lobbying for a law mandating jail time for crimes of
Holocaust denial and anti- Semitism.”
As to their future? There are an
estimated 2,800 Jews in the community – huge compared to Guadalajara, Aruba and
Curaçao, but still only half as many as there were 20 years ago.
JEWISH population of Panama, on the other hand, is growing, with an estimated
8,000 members – large enough to afford it the luxury of some disharmony. While
the vast majority of its members are affiliated with Orthodox institutions, I
got my perspective on things from David Robles, active in the small liberal
congregation led by a Conservative rabbi. His congregation has been ostracized
by the more established community, largely because of what is perceived as an
overly welcoming attitude toward converts and intermarried couples.
similar situation prevails in the smaller 2,500-member community of Costa
David Feingold, president of its liberal congregation, complains
that its children are barred from attending the Orthodox school. Still, they are
determined to thrive and gather the resources that “will enable us to do even
We’re not about to vanish.” In the meantime, as elsewhere, the
entire community is united by its support for Israel, celebrating its
Independence Day together.
“This connection is vital for us,” says
Kullock, who also serves as UJCL executive director, but it’s a source of
frustration as well. The communities too often feel abandoned – or at least
neglected – by the Jewish state to which they are so attached, complaining of a
lack of Israeli emissaries and educational resources. It is against this
backdrop that he feels so gratified that the World Zionist Organization and
other international bodies sent representatives to the conference.
feel proud of putting this region on the Jewish map,” he tells me. “When all
this started back in 1998, nobody would have believed that 14 years later we
would have so many friends coming to a convention orchestrated by small
congregations in northern Latin America.” And he is determined to continue
working “to strengthen these Jewish congregations that are striving each and
every day for a sustainable, authentic and relevant Judaism with few resources
but with all our heart.”
Israel and Jewish organizations around the world
now have to decide whether they are prepared to invest what is necessary to
enable them to flourish. The numbers being so small, it is our response that
will once and for all establish whether or not size really matters.The
writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The
Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed here are his own.
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