Puerto Rico's Jews planting
roots on an island with little Jewish history
August 3, 2004
By Larry Luxner
About the Author
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico At San Juan's
Congregation Sha'are Zedeck, religious services are conducted in English,
Spanish and Hebrew, from a bima graced on special occasions
with the flags of the United States, Puerto Rico and Israel.
sanctuary of Congregation Sha'are Zedeck in San Juan, Puerto Rico,
features tapestries of the 12 Tribes of Israel. Photo by Larry
Yet 90% of the congregation's 255 member
families trace their heritage to a fourth country: Cuba.
One of those Jews is Israel Zaidspiner, who
left Havana in 1960, a year after Fidel Castro came to power. He lived in
New York for awhile and eventually settled in San Juan, where he and his
brother-in-law opened a chain of thriving retail stores.
"I intended to stay in Puerto Rico for
three years, and here I am 40 years later," said Zaidspiner, who
still has cousins in Cuba. Today, the retired 69-year-old volunteers as
administrator of Sha'are Zedeck, also known as the Jewish Community Center
of Puerto Rico.
Between 2,000 and 2,300 of the island's 3.9
million inhabitants are Jews, making Puerto Rico the largest and richest
Jewish community in the Caribbean. It's also the only Caribbean island
where all three branches of Judaism Reform, Conservative and Orthodox
Yet the crowded, prosperous U.S.
commonwealth has virtually no Jewish history to speak of.
A colony of Spain from its discovery in
1493 until the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico prohibited Jews
from settling there for more than four centuries. As a result, Puerto Rico
lacks the ancient Jewish cemeteries or synagogues commonly found on
Caribbean islands under British, Dutch or Danish rule.
Jews began arriving almost as soon as
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, and in 1953 the year after Puerto
Rico achieved U.S. commonwealth status a handful of American Jews
established the island's first synagogue in the former residence of a
wealthy German family. In 1954, Sha'are Zedeck hired its first rabbi.
The fledgling community got a boost five
years later, when Castro's revolution forced almost all of Cuba's 15,000
Jews into exile. Most of them fled to Miami, though a handful of Cuban
Jews like Zaidspiner ended up in Puerto Rico. More recently, the community
has welcomed new arrivals from Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela.
Sha'are Zedeck's current rabbi, Gabriel
Frydman, and the director of the local JCC, Diego Mendelbaum, are both
"Here, the JCC is an exact replica of
JCCs in the United States, but language is a problem," said
Mendelbaum. "Some of our members don't speak English and some don't
speak Spanish. If we give talks in Spanish, there's a group of
English-speakers who won't come, and vice-versa."
Membership in Sha'are Zedeck costs $1,200 a
year, not a significant burden to the largely affluent congregation. More
than 100 children are enrolled in the congregation's Hebrew school, and an
average 40-50 people show up for Friday night and Saturday morning
services. Despite the community's relatively small size, members are
unusually active in Jewish and Zionist causes, and the congregation
sponsors a one-hour show about Israel that airs Thursday nights on WAPA
"There's no anti-semitism in Puerto
Rico, but there are local journalists who once in awhile write articles
very unfavorable to Israel," Mendelbaum told JTA. "They say, for
example, that what the Jews are doing against the Palestinians is the same
as what the Nazis did to Jews in World War II."
Virtually no Jews are active in Puerto
Rican politics, and the clear majority support eventual statehood for the
island (a few years ago, Puerto Rico's former pro-statehood governor,
Pedro Rossell๓, attended a Yom Hashoah service at Sha'are Zedeck). Only a
handful of Jews support independence for Puerto Rico.
In addition to the Jews almost all of
whom live in the San Juan metro area about 4,000 Palestinians also
reside in Puerto Rico. Yet Jewish institutions don't feel particularly
"After 9/11, we've taken some minimal
security measures, such as an armed guard. No one can enter without
identifying himself," said Mendelbaum. "But if you ask me, it's
Sha'are Zedeck is surrounded by shade trees
and fronts busy Ponce de Le๓n Avenue sandwiched in between the YWCA
and the regional headquarters of AT&T. It's only a 10-minute drive
from there to Temple Beth Shalom, which was founded in 1967 as the Reform
alternative to Sha'are Zedeck.
Harry Ezratty, a veteran member of Beth
Shalom who now lives in Baltimore, said the reform congregation isn't
nearly as wealthy as Sha'are Zedeck, and also differs in one other major
aspect: about 15% of its 67 member families are Puerto Rican converts to
Judaism. Until recently, its spiritual leader was Rabbi Mordechai Rotem,
the first Israeli ever to be ordained as a Reform rabbi.
"We have a lot of Puerto Ricans who
have converted, not only as individuals but as entire families," said
Ezratty, adding that "for many years, we have been involved with
non-Jewish charitable organizations on the island."
Temple Beth Shalom boasts an active
religious school and community life, and has its own special way of
celebrating major Jewish holidays. Earlier this year, for example, the
congregation paid tribute to Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) and Yom
Ha'atzma'ut (Israeli Independence Day) with a special shofar service at El
Morro, the ancient Spanish fortress facing the Atlantic Ocean.
The smallest and youngest of the island's
three congregations is Chabad de Puerto Rico. Led by New York-born Rabbi
Mendel Zarchi, Chabad occupies a large yellow house at 18 Rosa St., in the
heart of San Juan's Isla Verde hotel strip.
In winter months, when Puerto Rico's
tourist season is at its peak, Chabad holds daily services twice a day, at
7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Depending on the month, anywhere from 15 to 80 people
show up for Shabbat services. Major holidays are celebrated at the nearby
Ritz-Carlton Hotel; last year, over 250 people attended Chanukah services
"People participate not out of a sense
of obligation, but a sense of willingness, which is really what the theme
of Chabad is," Zarchi said.
A bearded, 30-year-old Orthodox rabbi is
perhaps not what most people would expect to see on the streets of Isla
Verde, which is packed with bikini-clad Puerto Rican girls, beach bums and
tattooed sailor types hanging out at nearby Lupi's Mexican Restaurant.
Even many longtime Jewish residents of
Puerto Rico seem unaware of Chabad's existence. For example, Mandelbaum,
the JCC director, admits he's never set foot inside the Chabad shul.
"Geographically, Puerto Rico is a
challenging environment in which to set up a center of Jewish life,"
explained Zarchi. "We consider ourselves Jewish marketers. Today,
it's not just about content but also how you package it. Judaism is a very
rich product that has endured centuries of challenge. It just needs to be
presented in the right setting."
Although Chabad had been visiting Puerto
Rico for many years, it didn't establish a permanent presence on the
island until 1999, when Zarchi and his wife Rachel moved to the island.
Chabad is now spending $1.5 million to build a proper shul, complete with
a kosher kitchen.
"It's very expensive to keep kosher
here, so we try to organize bulk deliveries of meat which we store in four
big freezers here at the shul," said Zarchi, adding that nearby
five-star hotels frequently call him to cater bar-mitzvahs and Jewish
weddings. A year ago, the Ritz-Carlton hosted a special Sefer Torah
completion ceremony the first in the island's history.
Zarchi says Puerto Ricans have a
"tremendous curiosity" about Judaism and what distinguishes it
"We've been very much accepted
here," he said. "When it comes to religion and devotion to God,
the local population is very respectful, especially when they perceive a
person as being God-fearing."
JEWISH AND KOSHER PUERTO RICO
(the Caribbean) :
PUERTO RICO ON THE NET
RICO'S JEWS PLANTING ROOTS...