Proving that Jewish solidarity can flourish in a most unlikely place, a little-known alliance of liberal Jewish congregations has emerged in Central America.
Eager to share their experiences, representatives from congregations throughout the region converged on Costa Rica’s capital last month to participate in the annual meeting of the Union of Liberal Jewish Congregations from Central America and the Caribbean.
The union — whose liberal congregations correspond to the U.S. Reform movement and other alternatives to Orthodoxy — was formed with the goal of forging Jewish connections in countries where pockets of Jews are struggling for recognition and, in some cases, survival.
Despite differences in nationality and language, the participants shared a desire to discuss the issues confronting the progressive Jewish movement in this part of the world.
"We often feel like the poor, forgotten relative compared to some of the wealthy communities with such abundant resources," said Martha Lichtenstein, the union’s incoming president, who hails from Aruba. "This gives us a voice."
The union — which includes representatives from Aruba, Cuba, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama and Puerto Rico — has gained surprising momentum since its inception in Costa Rica four years ago.
What began as an informal meeting among four countries has blossomed into a weekend event involving hundreds of Latin American Jews, including native sons, transplants from other countries and a substantial number of converts.
"When this idea first got started, we thought how wonderful it would be to get to know all these little congregations from throughout the region. It just took off from there," said Marvin Sossin, the union’s outgoing president and a member of Costa Rica’s Reform Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel.
Four more Jewish communities — in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, the Bahamas and Bermuda — have expressed interest in sending representatives to next year’s event, tentatively scheduled for Jamaica in January.
Blending cultural, academic and religious elements, this year’s conference featured a series of workshops and discussions, interspersed with Friday night services, a Saturday night gala dinner and the election of a new board of directors.
Speakers and special guests included Israel’s ambassador to Costa Rica, Daniel Gal, and rabbis from Central America and beyond.
The conference also drew a representative from the U.S. Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which the Latin American delegates considered an important step toward worldwide recognition.
According to Angela Sacher, the UAHC’s Miami-based regional outreach director for the southeast United States, there are many similarities between Jewish life in Latin America and the region she normally handles.
"Some of the smaller communities that I work with struggle with the same issues that I have learned about in Costa Rica," said Sacher, who lent her perspective on topics such as Jewish outreach and assimilation during the conference.
The issues confronted by union members are as varied and intricate as those faced by small congregations anywhere else in the world.
Despite some common themes, the experiences of the union’s individual congregations — each of which has its own unique social and economic context – – are not easily generalized.
For example, El Salvador is reeling from three devastating earthquakes that hit within a month earlier this year, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless.
Responding to demands of tikkun olam — the Jewish mandate to "repair the world" — the Jewish community there is working to rebuild thousands of schools that were destroyed or suffered serious damage in the quakes.
"This is a major focus of ours now," said Claudio Kahn, president of San Salvador’s Reform congregation.
The union’s other member congregations are pitching in, conducting donation drives to bring money, clothes and food to Salvadorans left with nothing.
"We remember clearly how" Salvadoran Jews "and many others reached out to us after Hurricane Mitch," said Phillip Gelman, who hails from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Other challenges facing the union are rooted in shared concerns about Jewish continuity in the region.
Some of the touchier topics — among them interfaith marriages, the role of non-Jews in the congregation and whether being "progressive" means permitting gay marriage — are familiar to Reform and liberal Jews throughout the world.
Other issues at the conference — such as networking via the Internet in places where technology is hard to come by — are unique to areas with severely limited resources.
A high point of this year’s conference was a speech delivered by Rabbi Dow Marmer — a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who lives in Israel — on Jewish continuity in "the outposts of the Jewish world."
Marmer encouraged the struggling congregations to remain open to new members and ideas, even if they don’t fit traditional Jewish conventions.
"Ironically, rejecting the traditional criteria over who is a Jew may be necessary for Jewish continuity," he said. "Today, we must allow for maximum individual freedom while at the same time retaining the basic framework" of Judaism.
Some community representatives said the major hurdles they face are a lack of finances, inadequate resources for Jewish education and the inability to find or afford ordained rabbis.
Many of the congregations rely not on rabbis but on "spiritual leaders," whose ability to perform certain life-cycle ceremonies is sometimes questioned in the community.
As a result, many of the congregations are looking for rabbis.
For example, the Jamaican congregation — which has 200 members, 340 years of history and a century-old synagogue — "is actively seeking the services of a permanent rabbi," according to congregation president Tony Lindo.
The same goes for Puerto Rico’s congregation, with just 34 years under its belt and about 65 member families.
Even Costa Rica’s B’nai Israel, with an active and flourishing membership of about 70 families and a new temple, does not have a full-time rabbi.
Much of the conference was dedicated to problems and concerns about Judaism’s ability to survive in these "outposts." The overall feeling at the end of the weekend was one of accomplishment and optimism, Sossin said.
"What we are doing is guaranteeing that we have a future," he said. "It doesn’t matter what the numbers or demographers come up with — you can’t calculate the human experience."
The union is currently working on a Web site that will include a description of the organization and a brief history of each member congregation. For more information about the union, contact Martha Lichtenstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.