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Around the Jewish World Rabbi in Panama Has Built Thriving Jewish Community

October 19, 2004
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When Zion Levy arrived in Panama for his first assignment as a rabbi at the age of 26, he seriously wondered what his superiors in his native Jerusalem were thinking in sending him. He found a Sephardi community of 210 families, none of whom kept kosher and whose respect for the Sabbath was selective. He knew shortly after his arrival that his $300 per year salary was going to be hard-earned.

But 53 years later, Panama’s Sephardi community is a thriving bastion of strict adherence to Orthodoxy and quite likely the strongest Jewish community in the Caribbean region. Leading members of the 7,000-strong community unanimously credit Levy for that.

Now with his health failing and age taking its toll on him, Levy looks forward to retirement, while Panama’s Jews wonder if they will be able to retain their unity and practices after he is gone.

When his health allows, he still attends to affairs in his modest office at the Shevet Ahim Synagogue, the first of five the community has built during his tenure. The decor does little to indicate that he is one of Latin America’s most-senior spiritual leaders of any religion. Clocks on the wall are about 15 minutes apart.

With a neatly trimmed beard and rosy cheeks, Levy does not have an imposing physical presence, but as soon as he begins speaking, it is clear that he is an authority to be respected and reckoned with.

He is quick to offer stories about how upon his arrival people would answer the telephone on Saturdays, even at the synagogue, a practice he put a halt to.

“When I arrived here there was not one family that ate kosher,” he reminisced. “Today, we slaughter 80 kosher cattle per week and 6,000 chickens for local consumption.”

While his salary was minimal, survivors of the time say that Levy’s refusal to accept payment for Jewish events such as weddings or Bar and Bat Mitzvahs was a key to winning the trust and love of the community. He even doubled as the mohel, performing ritual circumcisions for several decades, though he says he never accepted a penny for it.

While Levy has made a great contribution to lifting the level of Judaism, he is also credited with helping the community overcome some of its greatest hardships. Among these is the 1994 bombing of a commuter flight between the port of Colon and Panama City that killed 21, including a dozen Jews. The bombing may have been the work of Hezbollah but remains shrouded in mystery.

“Rabbi Levy has been very kind and at some times even a father-like figure,” says Yvonne Attie, whose 61-year-old husband, Emmanuel, and 24-year-old nephew, Albert, were among those killed in the blast. Without Levy’s support, she says she may not have been able to hold her family of six together.

While the plane bombing marked a test for the community, for Levy the lowest moment of his Panamanian tenure came in 1971 when his 18-year-old son succumbed to leukemia. Talking about the loss is still difficult.

While adored by much of the community, not all in Panama are enamored of Levy.

Critics in general Panamanian society and the smaller Reform community complain that Levy’s rigidity has contributed to a social isolation of the Sephardi Jews, much of it self-imposed. Some even disparagingly call him Panama’s “Ayatollah.”

But Levy defends the measures, which include social ostracism of members who marry non-Jews, saying “Every society has its obligations.”

However, Levy’s brand of Orthodoxy is under constant pressure in Panama. Younger community members are known to indulge in the vibrant local nightlife and Chabad-Lubavitch have moved into the country with force.

The smaller Ashkenazi community’s rabbi is Chabad-Lubavitch and Levy admits some of his congregation have admitted to being attracted by Chabad.

Nevertheless Levy, who has adopted Panamanian citizenship, has high hopes that his life’s work will outlive him.

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