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Panama Virtual Jewish History Tour

[By: Jacqueline Shields]

The Jewish population of Panama today is approximately 8,000.

- The First Jews
- Present-Day Community
- Relations with Israel

The First Jews

The first Jews to settle in Panama were Spanish and Portuguese Conversos who were forced to practice their Judaism in secret. At the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1821, Panama became attached to Colombia and at this time several Sephardic Jews from Jamaica and Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe settled in the province. Due to the lack of a strong Jewish community, many of them intermarried and assimilated. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a number of immigrants of Sephardi origin from the Caribbean region, and a few Askenazim from the Netherlands, settled in Panama. The first Jewish congregation, Kol Shearith Israel, was founded in 1876. The congregation now identifies with the Reform movement and numbers approximately 160 families.

After the construction of the Panama Canal, the census of 1911 reported 505 Jews in Panama. In 1933, Sephardic Jews from Israel and Syria established a second community and an Orthodox synagogue, Shevet Achim, now the largest congregation in Panama. Owing to intermarriage, however, the Kol Shearith Israel congregation diminished considerably, and in spite of the immigration of a large number of Jews after World War I, Panamanian Jewry was estimated in 1936 at only 600 people. A third congregation, Beth El, is also an Orthodox synagogue and consists of a small group of Ashkenazi Jews who arrived in the 1930's from Nazi dominated Europe.

Jews have cherished their political rights and held high positions in the Republic. Panama is the only country besides Israel that has had two Jewish presidents in the twentieth century: Max Delvalle Maduro (Vice President 1964-1968; President April 1967) and Eric Arturo Delvalle Cohen-Henriquez (Vice President 1984-1985; President 1985-1988).

Kol Shearith Israel Synagogue

Present-Day Community

The three different Jewish communities, together with several organizations such as B'nai Brith, WIZO, and various social and sport associations are all united under the umbrella of the Central Jewish Community of Panama (Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panama).

In the mid-1990's an estimated 7,000 Jews lived in Panama, including 1,000 Israelis, mostly in Panama City, but there are also communities in Colon, David and the former American Canal Zone. Most Jews in Panama are traditional in their Jewish practices. A reportedly 85 percent of households keep kosher, and there are eight kosher restaurants in the country. There are two restaurants at the community center, one dairy and the other meat. There is one meat restaurant at the kosher supermarket, and two more in a shopping center located near where many members of the jewish community live. In Punta Pacifica mall, there is another dairy restaurant called Tel Aviv, and there is another meat restaurant, called Mukis, located in the Marbella neighborhood. The 8th one is located in the area were people go at night to have fun and is called Darna, dairy and fish. There are also several businesses that provide breads, cakes, cheese, and anything kosher you might need. In Panama City, there is a kosher supermarket, "Super Kosher." This 1,500 square meter supermarket sells close to 10,000 different kosher products made in Israel, the U.S., Europe and in Panama. This store is reportedly the largest kosher emporium outside of Israel!

Jewish President Max Delvalle Levy-Maduro (April 1967)

There are three Jewish day schools from primary through high school in Panama City. The most recently opened school is the Escuela Isaac Rabin is affiliated with the Reform community. The other two institutions are orthodox, the Instituto Alberto Einstein, which was founded in 1954 is the eldest of the three and is modern orthodox. Finally, the third school is the Academia Hebrea de Panama. The schools have over 1,300 students enrolled. At this time they are also building a Yeshiva.

Relations with Israel

Relations between Panama and Israel are cordial, especially after 1960, when the two countries first exchanged ambassadors. Panama has consistently supported Israel in the United Nations. In May 1980, the Panama Hall in the School of Education of the Hebrew University was dedicated, and the ambassador of Panama to Israel presented the university with fifty volumes on the literature and history of the Republic. Since 1948, 180 Panamanian Jews have emigrated to Israel.

Sources: Encyclopedia Judaica; World Jewish Congress
Photo: Max Delvalle, Republica de Panama. All others reprinted with permission from Jewish Sightseeing