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Jewish Journal

Three Denominations Sizzle in San Juan

by Larry Luxner

October 14, 2004 | 8:00 pm

The sanctuary of Congregation Sha'are Zedeck in San Juan, Puerto Rico, featuring tapestries of the 12 Tribes of Israel, in June 2004. Photo by Larry Luxner/JTA

The sanctuary of Congregation Sha'are Zedeck in San Juan, Puerto Rico, featuring tapestries of the 12 Tribes of Israel, in June 2004. Photo by Larry Luxner/JTA

At San Juan's Congregation Sha'are Zedeck, religious services are conducted from a bimah graced -- on special occasions -- with the flags of the United States, Puerto Rico and Israel. Yet 90 percent of the congregation's 255 member families trace their heritage to a fourth country -- Cuba.

With up to 2,300 Jewish inhabitants, Puerto Rico has both the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean and the richest. It also is the only Caribbean island on which the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements are represented.

Still, because Jews weren't permitted to settle here for more than 400 years following its discovery in 1493, the crowded, prosperous U.S. commonwealth has virtually no Jewish history. But that's changing.

Israel Zaidspiner left Havana in 1960, a year after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. He lived in New York for a stint 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, 69, who still has cousins in Cuba.

Today, the retiree volunteers as the administrator at Sha'are Zedeck, also known as the Jewish Community Center of Puerto Rico. More than 100 children are enrolled in the congregation's Hebrew school, and 40-50 people usually attend Friday night and Saturday morning services.

Members, who largely are affluent -- annual synagogue dues are $1,200 -- are unusually active in Jewish and Zionist causes, and the congregation sponsors a one-hour radio show about Israel on Thursday nights.

"Here, the JCC is an exact replica of JCCs in the United States," said Diego Mendelbaum, the center's director. "But language is a problem: 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."

Puerto Rico, which was a Spanish colony until the Spanish-American War of 1898, prohibited Jews from settling on the island for more than four centuries. As a result, Puerto Rico lacks the ancient Jewish cemeteries and synagogues commonly found on Caribbean islands that were under British, Dutch or Danish rule.

Jews began arriving on the island almost as soon as Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1952. Within a year, a handful of American Jews had established Sha'are Zedeck -- the island's first synagogue -- in the former residence of a wealthy German family. In 1954, the Conservative shul 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 ended up in Puerto Rico. More recently, the community has welcomed new arrivals from Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela.

Both Mendelbaum and Sha'are Zedeck's current rabbi, Gabriel Frydman, are originally from Argentina.

"There's no anti-Semitism in Puerto Rico, but there are local journalists who once in a while write articles very unfavorable to Israel," Mendelbaum said. "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, yet the clear majority support making Puerto Rico the 51st state. A small number of Jews here favor retaining Puerto Rico's present commonwealth status, while only a handful of Jews support independence for the island.

A few years ago, Pedro Rossello, Puerto Rico's pro-statehood former governor, attended a Yom Hashoah service at Sha'are Zedeck.

In addition to the Jews -- almost all of whom live in the San Juan metro area -- about 4,000 Palestinians live in Puerto Rico. But Jewish officials say they don't think Jewish institutions are particularly threatened.

"After Sept. 11, we've taken some minimal security measures, such as an armed guard. No one can enter without identifying himself," Mendelbaum said. "But if you ask me, it's unnecessary."

It's only a 10-minute drive from Sha'are Zedeck to Temple Beth Shalom, which was founded in 1967 as the Reform alternative to Sha'are Zedeck.

Harry Ezratty, a veteran Beth Shalom member who now lives in Baltimore, said the Reform congregation is not nearly as wealthy as Sha'are Zedeck and differs in one other major aspect: About 15 percent of its 67 member families are converts to Judaism.

Until recently, its spiritual leader was Rabbi Mordechai Rotem, the first Israeli ever ordained as a Reform rabbi.

"We have a lot of Puerto Ricans who have converted, not only as individuals but as entire families," Ezratty said, adding that "for many years, we have been involved with non-Jewish charitable organizations on the island."

Beth Shalom boasts an active religious school and community life and has its own way of celebrating major Jewish holidays. Earlier this year, for example, the congregation paid tribute to Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day and 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 in the heart of San Juan's Isla Verde hotel strip.

In the winter months, when Puerto Rico's tourist season is at its peak, Chabad holds twice-daily services. Depending on the month, anywhere from 15 to 80 people attend Shabbat services. Major holidays are celebrated at the nearby Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Last year more than 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. Even many longtime Jewish residents of Puerto Rico seem unaware of Chabad's existence. Mendelbaum admits he's never set foot in the Chabad shul.

"Geographically, Puerto Rico is a challenging environment in which to set up a center of Jewish life," Zarchi explained. "We consider ourselves Jewish marketers."

"Today, it's not just about content but also how you package it," he continued. "Judaism is a very rich product that has endured centuries of challenge. It just needs to be presented in the right setting."

Though Chabad representatives had been visiting Puerto Rico for many years, the group did not establish a permanent presence on the island until 1999, when Zarchi and his wife, Rachel, moved to the island. Chabad now is 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," Zarchi said, 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 said Puerto Ricans have a "tremendous curiosity" about Judaism and what distinguishes it from Catholicism.

"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."

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