PANAMA, a republic in Central America. Out of the general population of 2,667,000 (1997), some 7,000 are Jews (1997). The Isthmus of Panama serves as a transit route for merchandise and passengers between South and North America as well as between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Jews and Conversos used those routes; they were present in Panama under camouflage and had a secret place of prayer in "Panama the Old" (a city destroyed by the buccaneer Henry Morgan).
In the Virgin Islands, a hurricane, a tidal wave, and a cholera epidemic during the disastrous year of 1867 sent a wave of Jewish immigrants to Panama. They were joined by Jews from Jamaica and Curaçao. From 1852 "The Hebrew Benevolent Society" had existed in Panama City, and in 1867 the Jews were numerous enough to found, under the leadership of Elias Nunez Martinez, "The Kol Shearith Israel Burial and Charitable Society," and the cornerstone of the Jewish cemetery was laid. From the earliest days the settlement of Spanish-Portuguese Jews was held in high esteem by the population and the authorities.
In 1890 a congregation was formed in the city of Colon, "Kahal Kadosh Yangakob" (The Holy Congregation of Jacob). A synagogue was inaugurated on April 13, 1913.
In Panama City, following Colon's lead, there was a Jewish "Hall of Worship" and a Spanish-Portuguese synagogue was finally inaugurated on March 15, 1935. Under the influence of the majority, consisting of Virgin Island Jews, Reform Judaism was adopted.
The community Kol Shearith Israel established a sisterhood, which was instrumental in 1954 in founding a Jewish day school, Instituto Albert Einstein, which consists of pre-primary, primary, and secondary grades and provides general and Jewish education on high academic standards to a large number of Jewish children. While opposing the formation of a Zionist organization, the community supported the State of Israel. Members of the community became quite prominent in Panamanian life: Joshua Lindo was one of the leaders for the independence of Panama from Colombia; David Henry Brandon founded the fire corps, fire being one of the main causes of disaster in Panama; Herbert de Castro founded the Panama philharmonic orchestra; Edward Maduro wrote the words of the patriotic "March of Panama"; Aida de Castro, known in Panama as the "angel of Dalo Seco," organized the leper colony and worked to eradicate leprosy; Max Shalom Delvalle was president of the republic in 1967; Eric Shalom Delvalle Maduro was president in 1984–85.
After World War I a large Jewish immigration came from Syria and Palestine, evolving into the largest community in Panama, "Shevet Ahim," which followed the strictly Orthodox rite. They also help found a religious Jewish school in 1977 – Academia Hebrea de Panamá.
Ashkenazi Jews, who began to arrive in the 1930s, established the "Beit El" community and synagogue.
Owing to intermarriages, the Kol Shearith Israel congregation diminished considerably.
A small community existed in the American Canal Zone; the city of Balboa was home to its synagogue, which ceased to exist with the closing of the Canal Zone.
With the movement of Jews to the capital city Panamá, the two synagogues in Colon – Agudat Ahim and Kahal Kadosh Yangakob – disbanded, as did the small synagogue in the city of David. A central council acts as a unifying body for the congregations in Panama. WIZO and B'nai B'rith are active.
Whereas most Ashkenazi and Oriental Jews deal mainly in commerce, the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish families continued the Caribbean tradition of plantations, agro-industry, shipping, and banking.
Jews are also active in the political, academic, industrial, and scientific life of Panama, and a significant number of Jews are government ministers, mayors, university rectors, and entrepreneurs.
In the early 21st century there were four synagogues in Panama, three of them Orthodox and one Conservative. Shevet Ahim, the largest communal organization, inaugurated its second synagogue, Ahavat Sion, in 1999, in honor of Rabbi Sion Levy, who had been serving as its spiritual leader for more than half a century. This community has a membership of 700 families, most of them of Aleppan origin, who lead a strictly Orthodox way of life that influences also other sectors. Beit El, the Ashkenazi community, has a membership of 80 families and is led by Rabbi Aaron Layne of Chabad Lubavitch. About 85 percent of the Jewish households keep kosher, and there are a large number of kosher services. Kol Shearith Israel, with about 150 families, is liberal-progressive in its religious outlook. In 2000 it opened the Jewish school Colegio Isaac Rabin.
In the UN Assembly of November 1947, Panama voted in favor of the partition of Palestine and the foundation of two states: Jewish and Arab. Relations with Israel are cordial. Israel maintained an embassy in Panama until 2003; Panama has an embassy in Israel.
H. de Lima Jesurun, La Communidad Judía de Panamá (1977); E.A. Fidanque, Jews and Panama (1970); Kol Shearith Israel – Cien Años (1977); A. Osorio Osorio, Judaísmo e inquisición en Panamá Colonial (1980); idem, Medio milenio de presencia hebrea en Panama (2004).