The first Jews who settled in the island were Conversos, who arrived with Christopher Columbus on his second trip to the New World in 1493. They had hoped to escape persecution in the Spanish colonies but found the extent of the influence of the Inquisition to be far-reaching. Jews were officially prohibited from settling in Puerto Rico on pain of death. As a result, these early Jews practiced their faith in secret and many settled in the remote mountainous regions of the interior of the island, far removed from the center of colonial life in Puerto Rico, in what is now present-day San Juan.
This continued for hundreds of years, as Spanish rule in Puerto Rico generally discouraged immigration that was not loyal to the Catholic Church, which was seen as an extension of the Spanish crown. It was not until the 19th century that Spanish influence began to wane and Cuba and Puerto Rico, two of the last vestiges of the once powerful empire, began demanding autonomy. Many Jews were members of the pro-independence movements on both islands, and in Puerto Rico, they were part the “Grito de Lares” revolt that resulted in Spain granting freedom of religion to non-Catholics in 1870, if they were faithful to the crown.
When Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States following the Spanish-American War of 1898, Jews were allowed to live openly on the island. However, there were practically no Jews on the island at the conclusion of the war, and very few American Jews moved to Puerto Rico at the time. A small number of Jewish American soldiers who had served in the war remained on the island and later worked in the Puerto Rican governmental bureaucracy, contributing to the creation of its legal code and court system.
Despite this change of power, there was no serious Jewish immigration to Puerto Rico until European Jews started arriving there during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1942, President Roosevelt appointed Aaron Cecil Synder, a Jewish lawyer, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico. He later served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico (having been nominated by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín) from 1953 to 1957. After World War II, American Jews settled in Puerto Rico, encouraged to do so by federal incentives meant to draw investors to the island. Most of these Jews settled in San Juan and helped contribute to the economic growth of the capital city.
In 1952, Puerto Rico achieved US commonwealth status, and as a result, saw further governmental economic incentives bring more American businesses to the island. Many of these businesses were owned, run, or managed by American Jews. Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, a number of Cuban Jews arrived in Puerto Rico, fleeing the economic difficulties incurred by the change in regime and the general hostility displayed towards those who practiced a religion in Castro’s Cuba.
There was a brief influx of Israeli migration in Ponce in the 1970s. These immigrants came to work in agriculture and, overall, Jews played in former governor Luis Muñoz Marín’s “¡Manos a la Obra!” program. The arrival of Argentine Jews fleeing the military junta in 1976 further bolstered the Puerto Rican Jewish community and the Israeli “Gan Eden” initiative in Puerto Rico brought some 200 Israelis to the island to help bring advanced Israeli irrigation and agricultural techniques to Puerto Rico. This contributed significantly to Puerto Rican-Israeli relations and some Israelis remained in Puerto Rico.
Today, the Puerto Rican Jewish continues to enjoy almost no anti-Semitism and economic prosperity. In 2005, the Puerto Rican Senate approved a resolution that recognized the contributions of the Puerto Rican Jewish community to Puerto Rican society and reaffirmed the island’s cordial relationship with Israel. In recent years, political instability and repression in Venezuela have brought a number of Venezuelan Jews to the island. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017 has seen the Jewish community of Puerto Rico heavily involved in helping provide aid and shelter to those displaced by the hurricane.