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Around the Jewish World There’s More Than Just a Canal: Panama’s Jews Active, Observant

October 19, 2004
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For a country once colonized by Catholic missionaries, Panama’s Jews have managed to produce a remarkably consolidated and Orthodox Jewish community — although the nation’s never produced a homegrown rabbi. That might soon change. But some of the community’s biases — among them the conviction that its sons should go into business — might have to be overcome.

As the Sephardi community’s grand rabbi, Zion Levy, nears retirement after 53 years of spiritual guidance, the pressure is on to find a replacement, and Levy himself has stated that he would like to see a Panamanian take over for him, if possible.

Already, there is one Panamanian nearing completion of his studies at a yeshiva in Israel and the Sephardi community hosts a kolel, or seminary, that, given the many secular distractions of this lively tropical country, is notably active.

“This serves as protection for our people,” says 28-year-old Henry Oulfali, one of four Panamanian members of the kolel and an aspiring rabbi. “When people see religious families and their children following the way of the Torah, it is an inspiration.”

The Jewish population in Panama is about 8,000, concentrated in Panama City. According to the World Jewish Congress, in the last two decades immigration has tripled the number of Jews in the community, which includes more than 1,000 Israelis.

The WJC also notes that Panama is the only country aside from Israel that has had two Jewish Presidents in the 20th century: Max Shalom Delvalle, in 1969, and Eric Delvalle Maduro, from 1987-1988.

The country’s Sephardi community is made up of about 7,000 people — most of whom keep kosher and many of whom observe Shabbat. There is a smaller Ashkenazi community as well.

The Sephardi community traces its roots back to the opening of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, but its ranks include many first- and second-generation families. Its members usually keep within the community as much as possible, helping to avoid assimilation.

Most Panamanian Jewish families are quite wealthy by local standards, with many running successful trading companies at the bustling Colon Free Zone, where goods from around the world are sold wholesale for tax-free re-export.

Businesses in the free zone are often highly specialized and commonly the result of multiple generations of effort. Many families expect their sons immediately to go to work in the family business — anything ranging from textiles to industrial products — after completing their studies.

Given their general prosperity, few Jewish families want to see their sons forgo the affluence of business to adopt the chaste lifestyle of a rabbi, educators say.

Oulfali says that after he married his parents stopped pressuring him to pursue another profession and that now, after three years in yeshiva in Israel and a stint at a Brazilian kolel, they have been supportive of his dedication to religious studies since his return to his native land in January.

Because of its minority status and relative incongruity with mainstream Panamanian culture, the Jewish community also needs a rabbi with strong leadership skills, a moxie that not everyone, no matter how committed to becoming a rabbi, possesses.

Any new rabbi would inherit a vital community largely built up by Levy.

Every night, up to 50 members of the 7,000-strong community head to the second-story reading room adjacent to the oldest of the five Sephardi synagogues for discussion groups on everything from Talmud to Jewish philosophy. The Kolel members lead the groups.

Other groups meet in the early morning hours.

Downstairs from the meeting room, the shul’s bookstore does a brisk business selling books in Hebrew and Spanish on a wide range of Jewish issues, from children’s books and travel guides to deep philosophical tomes. Some evenings, when attendance is too high, the Kolel moves some groups to tables in the bookshop.

Though the community has yet to produce its own rabbi, religious education in both the Sephardi and smaller Ashkenazi communities still exists.

It is believed that, with the exception of those with special needs, virtually all the children of both communities attend one of the two K-12 Jewish schools in the country. There are 1,800 students in the schools, a number that includes non-Jews as well.

Their basketball rivalry is lively, and the two schools are also closely linked through community ties and function as compliments to one another, offering religious teachings as well as the state-required core curriculum. Graduation and college placement rates are very high.

Educators at the schools say there is a growing religious fervor among their teenage students, especially boys, but that there are a great deal of pressures that keep students from pursuing rabbinical careers.

There have been some false starts for Panama’s rabbinical aspirations. Several students in the past have attended yeshivas in Israel and Baltimore, only to return to Panama to incorporate themselves in family businesses.

These first steps have coincided with what school administrators say is an upturn in interest among teenagers in religious studies. Some have even lobbied for creation of a yeshiva here.

Despite stymied efforts in the past, Levy has high hopes for the current crop of students.

“My desire is that Panama produces all its needs for religious guidance,” he said, adding that he expects to retire just as soon as a suitable successor is found. “I ask God to give me life to be able to see that.”

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