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Puerto Rico's Jews planting roots on an island with little Jewish history
JTA / August 3, 2004

By Larry Luxner

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.

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 — are represented.

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 from Argentina.

"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 radio.

"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 threatened.

"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 unnecessary."

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 there.

"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 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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