The Jewish Community of Panama

Most of the Jews live in Panama City, but there are also communities in Colon, David and the former American Canal Zone. In the last two decades, immigration has tripled the number of Jews in the community, which includes more than 1,000 Israelis.

Although Panama was a Spanish colony, due to its geographic location it served as a transit point for many Spanish-Portuguese Jews enroute from North to Latin America, or from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Spanish Jews camouflaged as "New Christians" and as "Portuguese merchants" settled there. However, the Inquisitions of Lima and Cartagena sent emissaries to prevent any Jewish activity. Settlement by Jews openly practicing their Judaism started in 1836 with the arrival of Portuguese Jews from Jamaica, Guadeloupe, and Curacao. They were joined by Jews from the Virgin Islands and later from Central Europe. In 1876 the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue Kol Shearith Israel was founded in Panama City, and in 1890 the Kahal Kodesh Yaacov in Colon. With the construction of the Panama Canal and especially following World War I, Jews came from Syria, Turkey and Eretz Israel and these founded Shevet Ahim in Panama City, Ahvat Ahim in Colon and a small community in David. American Jewish officials and service men stationed in Balboa in the former American Canal Zone established their own community.

The representative body of the Jewish community is the Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreco de Panama. Panama has active B'nai B'rith and WIZO chapters.

Religious Life
The community has three synagogues including a Reform congregation. The largest is the Sephardi (Orthodox) Shevet Ahim, which also has a mikva on the premises. Kosher food is readily available and there are five kosher restaurants.

Culture And Education
There are two Jewish high schools with a total enrollment of 1,300 students. The Hebrew cultural center in Panama City sponsors many communal cultural activities and there is also a Jewish sports club.

Israel and Panama have full diplomatic relations.
Aliya- Since 1948, 176 Panamanian Jews have immigrated to Israel.

Panama is the only country besides Israel that has had two Jewish Presidents in the 20th century Max Shalom Delvalle (1969) and Eric Delvalle Maduro (1987-1988)

Jewish Community
Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panama
Apartado Postal 55-0882, Paitilla
00001 Panama, Tel. 507 293 733

Edif. Grobmaes 5 piso
Calle Manuel Maria Icaza 12
Apartado 6357, Panama City 5
Tel. 507 699 126/7, Fax. 507 642 706


The Jewish Community in Panama

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 Sephardi 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 Carribean region, and a few Askenazim from Europe, settled in Panama. The first Jewish community, Kol Shearith Israel, was founded in 1876. With time, the community became identified with the Reform movement.


After the construction of the Panama Canal, the census of 1911 reported 505 Jews in Panama. In 1933, Sephardi 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.


Congregacion Kol Shearith Israel (Reform), Rabbai Aaron Peller, Avenida Cuba y Calle 36 No. 34-16, Panama City, Tel: 507 225 4100 Fax: 507 225 6412
Sinagoga Beth El
(Orthodox-Ashkenazi), Lubavitcher Rabbai Ari Laine, Calle 58E Urbanizacion Obarrio, Panama City (Apartado Postal 87-3218, Zona 7, Panama City), Tel: 507-223-3383 Fax: 507-264-0058
Sociedad Israelita Shevet Ahim
(Orthodox-Sephardic), Rabbai Sion Levy, Calle 44-27, Panama City, Tel: 507-227-2828 Fax: 507-227-1268
Ahavat Sion Synagogue (Orthodox-Sephardic), Rabbai Sion Levy, Panama City


Panama's Reform Jews
shunned by Orthodox

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, April 16, 1999:

By Donald H. Harrison

Panama City, Panama (Special) -- While the Orthodox community -- comprised of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic congregations -- appears to be growing and flourishing here, the Reform congregation has been excluded from most communal activities and its members are being socially shunned. 

Kol Shearith Israel Synagogue in Panama

Rabbi Aaron Peller, spiritual leader of the Reform congregation Kol Shearith Israel, told HERITAGE that although many other Panamanian Jews privately sympathize with his congregants, they are too intimidated by the power of Chief Rabbi Sion Levy to speak out. Levy is the spiritual leader of the Shevet Achim Synagogue, a Sephardic congregation, as well as its just opened satellite congregation, Ahavat Sion Synagogue. Repeated attempts to reach Levy for comment were unavailing, but other 


Kol Shearith Israel
in Panama City

members of the Orthodox community did speak to HERITAGE for this article. 

Peller is a 1974 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College near Philadelphia who later spent 16 years as rabbi of the famous Mikveh Israel congregation on the Caribbean island of Curacao. He accepted the position as spiritual leader of Kol Shearith Israel here in November of 1995. 

“When I first came here, I had this idea that I would try to work out some kind of modus vivendi between us and the two Orthodox congregations,” said Peller, referring to Shevet Achim Synagogue and to the Ashkenazic congregation, Beth El Synagogue, today led by  Lubavitcher Rabbi Ari Laine. 

“When I mentioned it to the Grand Rabbi and spoke to him and an assistant, within a very short time it became very clear to me that they wanted nothing to do with me or with my congregation. 

“In fact,” Peller added, “they made it very clear that they don’t want anything to do with us--to the point of forbidding people to come to our congregation, telling people it is a sin to step foot in a Reform synagogue.”

Asked for specifics of that first meeting with Levy, Peller said “shortly after I arrived, I went to his office. We conversed in Hebrew. He had heard about some of the things that I was doing and thought it was good, like putting a little more Hebrew in the service, and trying to move the congregation toward the center (from classical Reform towards incorporating more tradition into the service).

Shevet Achim Synagogue
in Panama City

I told him I would like to do some things cooperatively; that I was hoping there was some way offending that conversions would be acceptable. And he politely nodded his head, no ‘yes,’ no ‘no’; just polite. I didn’t realize at that point that I was talking to a stone wall.”  

Levy, who has been a rabbi at Shevet Achim since 1951, has decreed that absolutely no conversions will be performed in Panama; that if anyone decides to become a Jew, he or she must be converted by an Orthodox beth din outside of the country. Afterwards, that person is required to demonstrate for two years that he or she lives an Orthodox life style before being accepted into the community. 

Kol Shearith Israel is an old congregation which has counted two former presidents of Panama as its members: Max Delvalle and his nephew Eric Delvalle (who served respectively during the eras of dictators Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega). A number of Kol Shearith Israel’s congregants are married to non-Jews. 

“I don’t want to see intermarriage either,” Peller said. “What am I going to do with the reality? Am I going to slam the door in the face of the people who do intermarry? Am I going to throw them out of the community? We don’t really believe in herem (ex-communication) anymore. That is why we have an outreach program. We don’t condone it. I don’t perform intermarriages or permit them in the synagogue, but if a member intermarries, we don’t say ‘you are not allowed here anymore.’“ 

Peller added: “I don’t mind if they (the Orthodox) want to run their lives that way, but what right do they have to make other people’s lives miserable? Like the children who are in the Einstein (Jewish School): they can’t come to other kids’ houses and play because somebody is not Jewish or not converted Orthodox. Their kids can’t go to other kids’ birthday parties. Our kids are second-class citizens; our teenagers are shunned; our young adults are shunned.” 

Enforcing the ban on social contact with members of Kol Shearith Israel is “a very simple thing,” Peller said. “Say you want to do something and the rabbi says something like, ‘well, that is fine, you can go ahead and do that but, God forbid, when your mom dies, who is going to bury her?’ You might think twice about doing what you want to do.” 

While Orthodox believe the ban is necessary to prevent their children from socializing with and perhaps marrying children of intermarried couples --or of couples whose conversions have not been performed according to halacha -- the policy has other consequences as well, Peller said. 

He told of a member of his congregation who came to him, heartbroken, that his grandson had married a non-Jew. Previously, according to the grandfather, the grandson had attempted to date Jewish girls but was rebuffed. “Eventually he got sick and tired of it and he got himself a nice Catholic girl whose family was thrilled to have him come into the family.” 

Peller said the ring of isolation was made tighter around his community after members of Shevet Achim changed the governing mechanism for the Albert Einstein Institute. 

“The Albert Einstein Institute was founded through the heard work and funding of KSI people and the membership of KSI and Beth El,” Peller said. “In the beginning Rabbi Levy forbid his people to send their children to the Einstein -- it wasn’t Jewish enough for him. But he decided to take it over.  He decided to allow his children (from the Sephardic congregation) to go there, and when they became the majority, they wanted a change in the voting. There had been nine people on the board --3 from Kol Shearith Israel, 3 from Shevet Achim and 3 from Beth El. They wanted 5, and there was a counter offer of 4 for them and 5 for the other two. The school became Orthodox and slowly but surely it choked off all attendees who are not fully Jewish. 

“By Panamanian law, there are supposed to be (non-Jewish) Panamanian kids going there (as it is on land gifted to the school by the Panamanian government.) In the old days, Torrijos’ kids, Noriega’s kids went there-- that has been cut out. Today if a child is not a child of two Jewish parents, or a child of a Christian converted by an Orthodox beth din -- the child will not be accepted at the school.” 

Peller said although the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish under halacha, the school does not accept children whose mother is Jewish but whose father is a non-Jew.  “They have a problem, halachically, with the marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. That affects the status of the child. They don’t want that kind of children in their school.” 

Peller said that “when it became eminently clear that Albert Einstein was not going to let our kids in, we started a Sunday school two years ago. We are now looking at the possibility of going to an existing private or public school and asking them to put in a Judaic track, and there is even a group envisioning opening our own school.” 

There are 157 families, or about 500 people, who belong to Kol Shearith Israel, a fraction of Panama’s Jewish community numbering in excess of 7,000.  While excluded from communal Jewish activities, members of his congregation continue to participate actively in civic and political affairs. Peller said whereas members of the Orthodox congregations consider themselves Jews first, and maybe Panamanians second; members of his congregation tend to lean in the other direction, considering themselves principally as Panamanians and secondarily as Jews. He said that is a trend he wants to combat. 

So that young people from his congregation will find other Jews to marry, Peller said, he has initiated exchanges, joint summer camps, and other social programs with non-Orthodox congregations in other Latin American countries and in the Caribbean

* * * 

Beth El Synagogue in Panama City

Rabbi Ari Laine came to Panama about five years ago to serve as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El.  His father, a shaliach for a school in Israel, made frequent fundraising trips to Panama previously. 

The younger Laine grew up in Crown Heights, the seat of the Lubavitcher Chassidic movement to which he belongs. Later he studied at a Yeshiva in Los Angeles, then spent a year in Russia serving as a rabbi and teacher. Upon arriving at Beth El, Laine too had a meeting with Levy.

Congregation Beth El
in Panama City

 “The previous rabbis (at Beth El) didn’t have such good relations with him and the community felt that it was time for the rabbis to get along -- it is a small community,” Laine remembered.  

“I met him and spoke with him. He is a very intelligent rabbi. He requires, he expects, that people will respect him for his accomplishments and his years of hard work.” 

He described the relationship between the Ashkenazim of Beth El and the Sephardim of Shevet Achim as “very good,” noting that over the years marriages between children of the two have become quite frequent. 

As for Kol Shearith Israel, said Laine, “we have no relations.... The Reform Temple has a very small percentage of the Jewish community, and within that percent is a smaller percent of Jews. 

“The philosophy of this (Ashkenazic Orthodox) community and the (Sephardic) community is that we want to make sure that our children do not mix with that (Reform) community in order that they should marry within the faith,” he said. 

“The problem with the other community is that there are so many non-Jewish people. The idea is to preserve our children, have them grow up within their own group. That is why there is no direct relationship.” 

Asked about the ban on conversions within Panama, Laine replied that when Rabbi Levy came to Panama in 1951, “one of the key conditions he made with the community was that he will not do conversions. The Sephardic are very strong against conversions... “In Jewish law a conversion that is made for ulterior motives--for marriage, or for affluence, etcetera--is not a 100 percent conversion,” Laine said. “In the time of King Solomon, they did not accept converts because everyone wanted to become Jewish.  In the time of King Solomon, Jews were on top. Most conversions--the majority of them--usually have some ulterior motive. That is why a majority of the Sephardic rabbis will not accept it. 

“Obviously,” Laine added, “Judaism does accept conversions. It is part of Jewish law. But we are speaking about very sincere ones. Many great rabbis were converts or were descendants of converts, starting with Ruth and Rabbi Akiva, and many others. Unfortunately today we don’t have that many who do it for the same reason. More than that, there are so many cases of people that I know personally who were converted and a couple of years down the line they decided they weren’t really interested. So there was a divorce and they went back to the churches.” 

Laine said if Kol Shearith Israel “had mostly Jewish members, obviously there would be more interaction. Since it is not that way--there are many non-Jews, who were not even required to convert, even in the Reform manner--the idea is to make the point to the children of the community that they should know what the limits are and what are our goals and our expectations.” 

Laine said while for the Reform congregation bringing together all three communities is an important issue, on his own agenda is what he believes is a more pressing issue -- to help Jews who follow the rules of Orthodoxy in their synagogues and homes to incorporate it as well in their spiritual lives. 

“We have a very simple challenge,” he said. “The challenge is that the material world is something that everyone can touch and feel and people like, and the spiritual world is something that is a little abstract. And it is a daily challenge trying to get people to differentiate it and to understand what are the true priorities in life.” 

With such a tight-knit Orthodox community in Panama, he said, “they feel very connected; they don’t feel that they are lacking much in their spiritual growth. ...In Panama, specifically, it has become ‘Judaism is something we do because it is a nice thing; it is a tradition’ but not because it is God’s word.  It is something they do because it is a hobby. It is a nice heritage for so many years, but it is still not the commitment that Judaism really wants. That aspect is lacking.” 


* * *

Moises Mizrachi, a former president of Shevet Achim who also served as Panama’s ambassador to Israel, said there was a time when the three congregations worked quite closely together.  But he said the decision by the Reform movement to recognize patrilineal descent was one of the wedges that pushed the communities apart. And, he said, there is a perception that Reform conversions to Judaism are done quite quickly. He estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of the members of the Reform congregation are intermarried couples. 

Why not create a beth din in Panama to supervise the studies for conversion?  “You have to remember that the Sephardic tradition is stronger than the Ashkenazi,” Mizrachi replied. “I tell you marriages where the lady has been converted, the family does not accept them socially. Even if it is recognized and it is legal, the families push them away. They ostracize them.” 

Perhaps the measures are strong, but “they want to have continuity,” Mizrachi said. 

Alberto Zebede directs food services at the Jewish Academy in Panama City--an institution that was founded at a time when Sephardic congregants believed there were too many non-Jewish students attending the Albert Einstein Institute. 

“When Torrijos put his children there, everyone from colonels down wanted their children at the Albert Einstein--colonels, majors, captains, whatever,” Zebede said. “Our rabbi was furious, all the society was furious.” 

After the split, the board at the Einstein decided to require non-Jewish students to learn Hebrew, a move that cut applications drastically, according to Zebede. “Like when we were in Catholic school (before the Einstein was opened) we were pressured to learn catechism--we knew more catechism than they did!” 

Zebede said he doubted there ever could be a reconciliation between the Reform and the Orthodox communities. 

“They would have to change their whole way of thinking, and of acting. It is difficult for them even to think that on Shabbat they cannot drive a car, or use a phone or handle money,” he said. “To them, how is it possible that we can’t have dairy products with meat? They take it as a matter of fact that one of their boys will marry a goya: ‘’What’s the problem?’ they will ask. This cannot be with us, under no circumstances. We don’t even want to permit the opportunity for this: it leads to intermarriages, it leads to not preserving our Jewishness. 

“I will tell you something: our community, thank God, has become with Rabbi Levy’s insistence, more and more observant.”