Tide of Jewish observance rises, ebbs in the Caribbean

Small Jewish communities like the one in Aruba persevere in maintaining Jewish life, despite problems in some places just to form a minyan.

jamaica synagogue 88 (photo credit: )
jamaica synagogue 88
(photo credit: )
Asked how Jews in Aruba keep their 40-family community alive, Martha Liechtenstein says jokingly, "We have learned to breathe underwater." Then she turns serious. "Passion, perspective, consistency in purpose and, above all, educating the youth," she says. Scattered around the Caribbean basin, small Jewish communities like the one in Aruba persevere in maintaining Jewish life, despite problems in some places just to form a minyan. "It's very hard in a country overwhelmingly Christian with very few native Jews," acknowledges Janeen Issacs, one of just 20 members of the Nassau Jewish community, and the only one who lives in the Bahamas capital. "We all live in secular Christian countries, and we all face the same challenge," added Ainsley Henriques of Jamaica. Driven by their size and out-of-the-way location, 12 non-Orthodox communities in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico joined to form the Union of Jewish Congregations of the Caribbean and Latin America. Amid signs of encouragement and difficulty, the group recently celebrated its 10th anniversary in Costa Rica. Delegates at the meeting accentuated the positive: Where once there was one rabbi among their communities, now there are seven, including two at the B'nei Israel congregation in Costa Rica; attendance at the annual conference tripled; and the conference drew speakers such as Rabbi Uri Regev, president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, as the international Reform movement is known; and Rabbi Shmuel Sztenhendler, director of the World Council of Masorti, or Conservative Judaism. There are other signs of vitality as well: Six communities have full-time rabbis, all Argentine and from the Conservative movement; two communities have easy access to kosher food year-round, thanks to larger Orthodox communities in their countries; and congregational groups have traveled to Israel. In El Salvador, a full-time rabbi serves a 125-member congregation that "is thriving, not surviving," according to president Ricardo Freund. The congregation was helped by an exercise in business management last year. The process, which included elaborating a mission statement and undertaking a strategic plan, has led to a diversification of activities - including some for younger members - and ordering the congregation's finances. The congregation is now financially self-sustaining, with 80 percent of its budget going to paying for the rabbi. On Aruba, Rabbi Marcelo Bater says he keeps the community together by visiting the 30 member families every day. Bater agrees that keeping Jewish life alive on the Dutch West Indies island is a challenge. "I go visiting people with daily face-to-face contact to make them feel that ours is one great family," he said. A group from the congregation visited Israel last year. The communities in Aruba and nearby Curacao offset their costs in part from off-island sponsors, and by conducting weddings and b'nai mitzvot for foreigners. But some of the communities struggle just to find places to meet. For others, the fear is that they're too small to survive another generation without an influx of foreigners or converts. All are faced with the prospect of younger members leaving the region in search of better opportunities. Jamaica's is "partly a graying congregation," Henriques conceded. "I don't think it will last another 50 years. The opportunities for young, trained minds are not great." The Jamaicans maintain the community's historic synagogue by dint of an endowment, but cannot afford a full-time rabbi. Late last year the community opened a museum documenting 350 years of Jewish history on the island, which Henriques hopes will assure that the Jews at least will leave some legacy. Last month the Jamaican community started an ambitious program of post-service events, including guest lectures and communal meals. While Saturday services normally draw 30 to 40 of the congregation's 200 members, the first guest lecture drew a much larger crowd, giving Henriques reason for optimism. In the Bahamas, the Nassau congregation has twice-monthly Hebrew classes, but no permanent meeting place or synagogue. Jewish fervor "is strongest among the adults, but not among the children," Issacs lamented. "On Yom Kippur we do a children's service, but the parents do not keep their children home" from school. "That is a sign of weakness."