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Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean and Other Jews in Central and Southern America

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Not every Jewish community can lay claim to a tombstone etched with a skull and crossbones as part of its cultural heritage. The one in Jamaica does. Among its most infamous early members is one Moses Cohen Henriques, a Dutch pirate of Sephardic origin who played a major role in looting the fleet of Spanish galleons in the 1600s.

His descendants and those of his coreligionists, together with several dozen others who have made their way to this island nation in the Caribbean from far-flung reaches of the earth, today constitute Kingston’s 300-strong United Congregation of Israelites. The decrease in numbers from a robust 2,500 a century ago notwithstanding, “the community is experiencing a revival,” says Stephen Henriques, long-time spiritual leader of the congregation and possibly a distant relative of the pirate. “We just hired a rabbi for the first time in 30 years.”

I recently had the pleasure of meeting them both at a conference of the United Jewish Communities of Latin America and the Caribbean.

While not all 26 congregations from the 13 countries constituting the UJCL boast as colorful a history, each has a story that is as intriguing. More importantly, they all have members who are passionate about ensuring that those stories continue. Given the challenges they are facing, this is nothing to be taken for granted. Limited resources, insufficient professional leadership, isolation, lack of the critical mass necessary to sustain schools and other community institutions, and natural attrition exacerbated by their children’s inclination to leave after high school would all make a less hearty flock throw up its hands in despair. Nothing could be further from the buoyancy I experienced during four days of mingling with the 150 participants in this thoroughly forward-looking affair.

Rabbi Mario Gurevich is one of the many vibrant figures who sets this tone. Spiritual leader of the tiny Jewish community of Aruba, he is currently engaged in turning his synagogue into an adult education center.

“We know of 70 Jews on the island,” he explains. “The national census just released says there are 341. I want to find the rest. We have two choices. To expand or die. Baharnu b’hayim. We’re choosing life.”

The rabbi has also chosen to answer the call to serve as Israel’s honorary consul and is proud of his community’s strong connection to the Jewish state, claiming with a smile that it has one of the highest per-capita aliya rates in the world. I do a quick calculation to figure out just how many of the six dozen members have to move to Israel each year to earn that distinction.

THE NEXT day, however, I discover that Aruba faces some stiff competition. I am having Shabbat dinner in the 50-family Conservative Hebrew Congregation of Guadalajara, site of this year’s gathering. Sarah, a young woman at my table, tells me she is moving to Israel next week. She is here for a brief family visit after graduating from Na’aleh, a Jewish Agency high-school program in Israel. Turns out a full 50 percent of the class with which she grew up is making aliya. The other girl is staying put.

Really, that’s it: Sarah and the friend she’s leaving behind constitute their entire age cohort.

The demographics being what they are, the local Jewish school was forced to close its doors a few years ago. Unwilling to give up on the Jewish education of his congregants, however, the young and energetic Rabbi Joshua Kullock turned to the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education (a venture of The Jewish Agency, World Zionist Organization, Joint Distribution Committee and Israeli government) and received a grant for an innovative family education initiative. That helped forge the closely knit community that comes together for dinner every week following Kabbalat Shabbat.

“With so few of us, there’s incredible pressure to be involved with everything, but also a wonderful sense of belonging,” says Eduardo Moel, past president of both the UJCL and the congregation, a position also held by his brother Mark, illustrating the point. Sarah will be missed by this extended family, but her parents understand that the appreciation they inculcated in their daughter for feeling a part of something larger than oneself is what led to her decision to seek it on an even grander scale. Hopefully she will find it in the IDF, which she proudly tells me she will be joining in April.

ANOTHER SMALL community is that of Curaçao. With only 350 Jews, it still has two synagogues – true to the spirit of the story of the Jew stranded on a remote island who builds two houses of worship, one to attend, the other never to set foot in. In this case, however, the “other” just happens to be the Snoa synagogue, the oldest in continuous use in the Americas, built in 1732. Happily, the two congregations cooperate, together running a single Hebrew school for their 20 young children, who in all likelihood will eventually attend universities abroad and never return.

“We’re realistic about the future,” says Rene Maduro, president of the congregation. “Still, we do whatever we can to keep things going. We already have one Jewish museum here. We don’t need another.”

Another community that manages to cooperate is that of Colombia, despite the differences that have spawned six synagogues in Bogota. According to Rolf Goldshmit, secretary of its Confederation of Jewish Communities, “all our congregations and community organizations work together, unlike some other countries, where no one gets along.”

They succeed in doing so by steering clear of religion, focusing instead on community relations and support of Israel.

“Colombia decided not to vote in favor of Palestinian statehood at the UN,” he tells me with satisfaction, “and we were very instrumental in lobbying for a law mandating jail time for crimes of Holocaust denial and anti- Semitism.”

As to their future? There are an estimated 2,800 Jews in the community – huge compared to Guadalajara, Aruba and Curaçao, but still only half as many as there were 20 years ago.

THE JEWISH population of Panama, on the other hand, is growing, with an estimated 8,000 members – large enough to afford it the luxury of some disharmony. While the vast majority of its members are affiliated with Orthodox institutions, I got my perspective on things from David Robles, active in the small liberal congregation led by a Conservative rabbi. His congregation has been ostracized by the more established community, largely because of what is perceived as an overly welcoming attitude toward converts and intermarried couples.

A similar situation prevails in the smaller 2,500-member community of Costa Rica.

David Feingold, president of its liberal congregation, complains that its children are barred from attending the Orthodox school. Still, they are determined to thrive and gather the resources that “will enable us to do even more.

We’re not about to vanish.” In the meantime, as elsewhere, the entire community is united by its support for Israel, celebrating its Independence Day together.

“This connection is vital for us,” says Kullock, who also serves as UJCL executive director, but it’s a source of frustration as well. The communities too often feel abandoned – or at least neglected – by the Jewish state to which they are so attached, complaining of a lack of Israeli emissaries and educational resources. It is against this backdrop that he feels so gratified that the World Zionist Organization and other international bodies sent representatives to the conference.

“We feel proud of putting this region on the Jewish map,” he tells me. “When all this started back in 1998, nobody would have believed that 14 years later we would have so many friends coming to a convention orchestrated by small congregations in northern Latin America.” And he is determined to continue working “to strengthen these Jewish congregations that are striving each and every day for a sustainable, authentic and relevant Judaism with few resources but with all our heart.”

Israel and Jewish organizations around the world now have to decide whether they are prepared to invest what is necessary to enable them to flourish. The numbers being so small, it is our response that will once and for all establish whether or not size really matters.

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed here are his own.