Early Jewish Settlement
In 1502, Christopher Columbus landed in Trujillo. He called the territory Honduras (“depths”) after the deep water off the Caribbean coast.
Conversos, or New Christians, who converted to Christianity while secretly practicing Judaism, were believed to be among the Spaniards who succeeded in buying permits that allowed them to circumvent prohibitions against sailing to the New World during the period after the Jewish expulsion from Spain. Many of these conversos disembarked along the Gulf of Mexico, and the Honduran coast.
It is possible that these were the first “Jews” to arrive in Honduras, but this is disputed by some historians.
Jews of the 1800’s-1980’s
At the end of the 1800’s Honduras experienced an influx of Jews. The majority emigrated from the Central European regions of Russia, Poland, Germany, Romania, and Hungary, while a few were of Sephardic origin, and came from Greece, Turkey and North Africa.
Another surge in immigration occurred in the 1920s when the Honduran government announced its willingness to welcome numerous Jewish educators and professionals from Europe. It was at this time that the two distinctive Jewish communities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, which still exist today, were established, and Judaism began to make an imprint on Honduran history and culture.
Eight families established a small Jewish settlement in the northeastern port city of La Ceiba. Although the community was unable to take hold and expand, those who came prospered by working with the American companies involved in the cultivation and sale of bananas. Today, only one Jewish family remains in La Ceiba.
During the years leading up to the Second World War, and in the early stages of the war, Honduran consuls were prohibited from giving visas to European Jews. Nevertheless, roughly 20 Jewish doctors and farmers, predominately German Jews, managed to obtain special permits to enter and work in Honduras.
The Honduran government, then headed by President Carias, allowed the entry of these Jews only after receiving requests from local influential Jews. Salvador Schacher of Tegucigalpa and Jose Brandel and Boris Goldstein of San Pedro Sula convinced the President to order that visas be permitted to those who were seeking haven from the atrocities. The majority of those who were granted admittance were youths who had escaped the war via Holland or Switzerland, and already had relatives living in Honduras.
By 1947, fewer than 140 Jews resided in the whole nation. Throughout the 1950’s there were an estimated 30 Jewish families living in the city of Tegucigalpa. That community was led by Salomon Schacher whose wife, Jenny, started a chapter of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), which was geared toward helping young Jewish women involved in the agricultural business. The Tegucigalpa Jewish community assisted in the development of the tourist industry by building hotels, offering better services to visitors, and helping the city to prosper.
The Jewish activist, Boris Goldstein, who also was known to have donated the land needed to build a synagogue and establish a Jewish cemetery, headed the region of San Pedro Sula.
In general, the new immigrants tried to maintain a sense of the Jewish religion and ethnicity, however, their knowledge and love for the religion was not passed on to the second generation of Honduran Jews. Unfortunately, the new generations were never versed in Torah reading, and were unable to follow services. Assimilation and intermarriage were not only common, but also widely accepted, although there were instances in which non-Jewish spouses chose to convert to Judaism.
Throughout the 1970’s, and into the 1980’s, the nation absorbed many Israeli immigrants who came to work with the Jewish community and help them to expand their knowledge in such areas as engineering, agriculture, and security. This once again invigorated the Honduran Jewish community. During this period, the Honduras Israel Cultural Institute was also established by several Hondurans who had spent some time in Israel and brought back what they had learned about their Jewish heritage to share with the community.
Within the past two decades, Honduras has experienced a resurgence of Jewish life, in which the two dominant Jewish communities in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula have grown and are active. The two communities each have a synagogue that holds Kabbalat Shabbat services, a congregation that celebrates and teaches religious holidays and customs. In addition, within the last couple of years the nation has developed an affiliation with the Jewish Agency, Maccabi and the Federation of Zionist Latin American Students.
In 1998, Honduras was devastated by Hurricane Mitch. The storm damaged the only synagogue in Tegucigalpa. Afterward, Jewish communities that learned of the destruction contributed money to restore the temple.
Congregants from the Jewish Community Center on the Hudson, located in Tarrytown, New York, went to Honduras to help victims of the hurricane. While sorting through debris, they came across one of the two Torahs that belonged to the Synagogue of Tegucigalpa. It was covered in mud and damaged, but volunteers from the congregation decided to take the scroll back to the U.S. for repair. It was restored and sent back to the community.
The Republic of Honduras today is home to 6.7 million people. It is predominantly Roman Catholic; nevertheless, the 40-50 Jewish families that live in the country have experienced little anti-Semitism. One exception was a comment made by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga in 2002 suggesting that American Jews manipulated the media to exploit the scandal concerning sexual abuse by Catholic priests as a means of diverting attention from the crisis concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Original article by Rachel Rosen.
Sources: Anti-Defamation League, “Press Release: Anti-Semitism- International,” ADL Outraged by Honduran Cardinal’s Jewish Conspiracy Theory;
Phil Gellman, “Union Judia de Congregaciones de Latinoamerica y el Caribe,” A Very Special Story;
Lonely Planet Publications, “Honduras History“ Lonely Planet World Guide;
Howard Sachar, “Columbus consulted with Jews, and transported some to the New World,” MyJewishlearning.com;
Yaeli Zylberman, “Union Judia de Congregaciones de Latinoamerica y el Caribe“ Honduras;
“Honduras recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” France24, (August 28, 2019).
Photo Credit: Adalberto Hernandez Vega from Copan Ruinas, Honduras.