Panamaâ€™s long-time Grand Rabbi Zion Levy died in Israel at the age of 83.
Levy’s death last week ended his 57 years as head of the thriving Orthodox Jewish community in Panama, the Israeli embassy in Panama reported.
Levy was a respected and towering figure in the country, believed to be longest-serving leader in the region of any religion. He is known for forging amicable relations with the country’s Arab communities.
Levy, who had been in frail health for several years, told JTA in a 1999 interview that he hoped to retire and that a Panamanian would be able to take his place. His Shevet Ahim Congregation, the countryâ€™s largest, has over 7,000 practicing members who identify themselves as â€œsefardicâ€ although many trace their roots to modern-day Syria and Israel.
Born and trained in Jerusalem, Levy ran the community with an iron will, ensuring households strictly followed the laws of kashrut and Sabbath observance.
Despite being a small minority of Panamaâ€™s 3 million people, the Jewish community maintains several kosher butchers. There are also smaller Ashkenazi Orthodox and Reform communities.
In 1994, Levy offered solace to the families of 12 Jews, including 10 congregation members, killed when a bomb blew up a commuter flight. Responsibility for the attack was never determined though Israeli intelligence believes it was the work of Hezbollah.
In his final years, Levy oversaw ambitious construction of new synagogues in Panama City and helped smooth relations with the countryâ€™s larger Arab and Muslim communities, frequently calling the countryâ€™s Iman to talk on the phone.
He is survived by his wife Rubissa Sarah, and sons David and Haim.