Panama

According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population, 2016,” Panama is home to between 10,000 and 12,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in Central America. Panamanian Jews are active in all aspects of Panamanian society, including high offices of state such as the presidency, and experience almost no anti-Semitism. Recently, many Latin American Jews have immigrated to Panama fleeing political and economic instability in other countries, thus further bolstering Panamanian Jewry. The Jewish community in Panama is represented by the Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panamá – the Panamanian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate

Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panamá

Telephone: +507 6614-8289
Email: ecohen@shevetahim.com
President: Nessim David Bassan

The liberal Jewish communities of Panama are represented by:

Congreso Judio Panameño

Edificio de la Sinagoga Kol Shearith Israel
Calle de la Sinagoga
Costa del Este
Ciudad de Panamá
Panamá

Telephone: +507 300-2081
Email: rabinogustavo@kolshearith.org

President: Alan Perelis
Executive Director: Gustavo Kraselnik


Community News


History

Since the establishment of a colonial presence in Panama, the territory had been known as a transit station, and long before the construction of the Panama Canal, merchants and missionaries, adventurers and bandits crossed Panama to go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific or vice versa. Among these were Spanish and Portuguese Conversos who had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th and 16th centuries and were forced to practice their Judaism in secret. These early Jewish settlers in Panama did not form a community, and for the most part were either forced to convert to Catholicism if discovered, or lost much of their Jewish heritage over time.

There was almost no Jewish immigration to Panama until the 19th century, when the Spanish Empire began to dissipate, and many former colonies began declaring independence, becoming open to Jewish immigrants. 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 Ashkenazim from the Netherlands, settled in Panama. They were attracted by economic inducements such as the construction of the bio-oceanic railroad and the gold rush in California, which had brought them west. The earthquake of 1867 in the Virgin Islands saw the arrival of more Sephardic Jews from the then-Danish island of St. Thomas. From the onset of their arrival, Sephardi in Panama were well regarded by the general Panamanian population and authorities.

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 brought Jews looking for economic opportunities to Panama. After World War I, Sephardic Jews, many of Syrian origin, arrived there fleeing persecution and instability in the Middle East brought about by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive in Panama during the 1930s.

Following World War II, Panama experienced further Jewish immigration, as a number of Jews from Arab countries found themselves forced to flee their respective countries following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. They, like other Jewish immigrants before them, found themselves drawn to the country due to economic opportunities and the low levels of anti-Semitism. In fact, Jews were quite prominent in Panamanian society, with Max Delvalle Levy-Maduro serving as Vice President from 1964 to 1968 and briefly as Acting President in 1967.

In the 1970s, more Syrian Jews immigrated to Panama, and despite the assumption of power by dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno in the following decade, Jews continued to prosper there. Eric Arturo Delvalle Cohen-Henríquez served as President, under Noriega’s de facto military rule of the country, from 1985 to 1988. Following the removal of Noriega in the 1990s, more Jews arrived in Panama.

Today, Panama continues to be a destination for Jewish immigrants, as the country’s importance as a center for international business and its general level of tolerance make Jewish life in Panama quite stable. Recently, many Jewish immigrants from South American countries, notably Venezuela, have come to Panama due to economic crises throughout the region, and have enjoyed the economic stability and acceptance of Jewish religious and cultural life that Panama offers.

The years of the Holocaust

With the rise of Nazism in Europe, many Ashkenazi Jews began immigrating to Panama in the 1930s. The majority of these Jewish arrivals were Romanian and German Jews, who found Panama to be welcoming and economically intriguing. Moreover, before and during World War II, the entire Panamanian Jewish community devoted itself to helping Jewish refugees from Europe. This saw many individual members of the community contributing funds to support, house and feed these families.


During the course of the war, Polish refugees began to arrive in the country, though many viewed Panama as a transitory location toward countries such as the United States or Canada. After the war, some Jewish Displaced Persons, survivors of the Holocaust, settled in the country.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated the Panamanian Jewish population to number between 10,000 and 12,000 as of 2012. Most Panamanian Jews live in Panama City, the nation’s capital, but there are also communities in Colon, David, and the former American Canal Zone.

Community Life

Jewish life in Panama is largely centered in Panama City, where the Hebrew Central Community Center is operated by the Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panamá, which acts as an umbrella communal representative organization for the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities in Panama. The community center sponsors a number of Jewish cultural activities and other Jewish institutions – such as B’nai Brith, Maccabi, and WIZO – are also active in Panama.

Religious and Cultural life

The Panamanian Jewish community has three synagogues: the Orthodox-Sephardi Shevet Ahim, which has four synagogues in the city and three in beach resorts; the Orthodox Beth El synagogue; and the Reform Kol Shearith Israel synagogue. Additionally, there are four mikvaot in the Shevet Ahim building, as well as a kolel with more than 40 avrehim, a Talmud Torah, a Midrasha, and a women’s university. There are also Chabads in Boquete and Panama City.

Most Panamanian Jews are traditional in their practice of Jewish religious life, and almost 85% of all Jews in Panama keep kosher. Kosher food is readily available in Panama and there is quite a large kosher food scene in Panama City. With over 35 kosher restaurants and two full service kosher supermarkets, Panama is becoming a tourist destination. Shevet Ahim offers Kashrut certification to many local products and is seeking to certify more products in the region.

Jewish Education

There are five Jewish days schools in Panama City that run from primary school to high school. Each are demonstrative of the variety of Jewish traditions existing in Panama, with the Isaac Rabin School, affiliated with the Reform community, and the other institutions – the Alberto Einstein Institute, the Hebrew Academy of Panama, Maguen David Academy and Talmud Torah and Gan Yeladim – are affiliated with the Orthodox community. Almost 98% of all Jewish children in Panama attend a Jewish day school.

Youth

Noar Panama is the prevalent youth organization in Panama, promoting Jewish values and offering recreational and educational activities within a Jewish structure. Other Jewish youth activities are offered by the Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panamá, and Macabi, which had over 400 participants every week.

Information for visitors

There is a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters in Panama City, along the Via Transistmica.

Israel

Panama and Israel maintain full diplomatic ties, with Panama having cast its vote in favor of the UN partition that led to the creation of the State of Israel.

Embassy of Israel in Panama
Marbella, Calle Aquilino De La Guardia, Torre Banco General, Piso 17
Panama, 1180

Telephone: (507) 208-4700
Fax: (507) 208-4755
Email: info@panama.mfa.gov.il

Updated

 

August 2018

Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter
The latest from the Jewish world