Who is a Jew?’ in Nicaragua

Then-Nicaraguan Jewish Community President Rafael Lipshitz, right, is prepped for a television appearance on Feb. 19, along with Kurt Preiss, left, another community leader. (Brian Harris)

Then-Nicaraguan Jewish Community President Rafael Lipshitz, right, is prepped for a television appearance on Feb. 19, along with Kurt Preiss, left, another community leader. (Brian Harris)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (JTA) – Bitter divisions over who is a Jew threaten to split Nicaragua’s tiny Jewish community.At an April 30 assembly to elect a new board of directors, relations between the 50 Jews in the country deteriorated after two people whom some consider non-Jews were elected to the board.The assembly decided to allow anyone who “feels Jewish in their heart” to be a member of the community, even if they don’t have maternal links to Judaism and haven’t converted. The move outraged some in the community, such as outgoing president Rafael Lipshitz, and left them weighing whether to form a splinter community. No decision has been made, Lipshitz told JTA.”I personally do not share this decision,” he said. “I am not (being) religious, I am being realistic, but I am very clear about my roots.”Lipshitz’ predecessor, Lubavitch-follower Max Najman – who heads one of two Orthodox households in the country – approved of the new board and the more open membership policy.”If in Israel they have not been able to define who is a Jew, we should not try to here,” he told JTA by phone. “This is not as serious as some would think.”At least one of the new board members whose participation sparked objections has a Jewish father, but only began participating in Jewish activities recently. The new board is expected to make a final decision about whether to build a synagogue in the country and will manage foreign financial donations for the community. The previous treasurer, Elena Petaky, objects to the new board and said she worries about how funds will be managed in the future. The internal conflict comes as the community is returning to levels it hasn’t enjoyed since the late 1970s. After the country’s synagogue burned in 1978 and the left-wing Sandinistas took power in 1979, Nicaragua’s entire Jewish community headed into exile, with families returning only after the Sandinistas were voted out in 1990. The community’s Torah remains in Costa Rica.Despite their minuscule numbers and diverse theological orientations – from secular to strictly Orthodox – the community has begun to rally in recent years both as a social organization and for religious activities, including seders and Shabbat dinners. However, with its members scattered about the country, it still has trouble forming minyans. The community does maintain the Jewish section of the cemetery in Managua, the capital, and has been holding some events in a member’s house in Nindiri, a town some 12 miles outside Managua and equidistant from the three main towns where members live.

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