Puerto Rico: Where Cubans and Americans Break Challah Together

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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San Juan, Puerto Rico.Credit: Dreamstime
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

This article was originally published June 10, 2015, and is being reupped following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – This could be the only synagogue in the world where Friday night services are conducted in a mix of four languages: Hebrew, English, Spanish and Ladino, a dialect once spoken by Sephardic Jews.

It is also one of the few Reform congregations in North America where membership is growing in leaps and bounds.

The congregants gathered at Temple Beth Shalom as the service begins are an eclectic bunch: Toward the front of the sanctuary are many of the old-timers, mostly elderly American Jews who relocated to this island more than half a century ago when business opportunities beckoned, while the middle and back rows are crowded with younger faces, largely native Puerto Ricans who are Jews by choice or in the process of becoming such. Their rapidly growing numbers explain the membership boom at this congregation.

An elderly American woman with a beehive hairdo and strong southern drawl goes up to the podium to light the Shabbat candles, while the rabbi-in-training, a young Puerto Rican convert, whispers in Spanish to the cantor – a former Argentinean, who made his way to this U.S. protectorate, like many other Jews from this South American country, about 20 years ago.

No two stories here are alike, least of all that of Shula Feldkran, a 70-year-old ball of energy who serves as president of this congregation. Born and raised in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kfar Shmaryahu, Feldkran attended the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, where she majored in Latin American studies. Enamored of the region, she arrived in Puerto Rico 48 years ago as an idealistic young college graduate and never left. Still a bit of a hippy at heart, Feldkran loves organizing lively jam sessions and huge potluck lunches here on Shabbat (“just like at the kibbutz”) that stretch out over the entire day.

Of the 70 or so regulars who attend services here on Shabbat, 30 have already converted and 15 are in the process. “We, too, wonder why,” she acknowledges, “and it’s all been happening in the past two or three years. Some claim descent from Jewish ancestry, while others say they’re just dissatisfied with the religion they were born into.”

That would include Stephanie Bermudez, a 30-year-old single mom who works as a firefighter. “Even though I was born Catholic, it never fit me,” she says during a conversation following the Friday night kiddush ceremony. “I’ve been looking for something spiritual, and after a lot of research, I decided to give this a try. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Stephanie Bermudez, a firefighter and member of the Reform congregation in Puerto Rico.Credit: Judy Maltz

Among the other congregants munching on fresh-baked challah and other treats at the Oneg Shabbat, a weekly ritual here that follows the kiddush, are Zaiyara Adorno, a 33-year-old doctor and the daughter of Adventist priests who converted to Judaism when she was a child; Sue and Jimmy Klau, who moved here from the United States in 1966, but have since moved back and are now visiting; Gilbert Perez, a mechanic originally from Colombia who converted to Judaism two years ago (“it’s about feelings, and I felt that I was Jewish”); Thomas Gonzalez, a 28-year-old artist in the process of converting; and Anthony Cruz, the 22-year-old rabbi-in-training who was raised in an Evangelical family. Explaining his attraction to Judaism, he says: “While studying the Bible, I learned that Jesus followed the Jewish traditions, so I asked myself why aren’t we following his path? Besides that, there’s a type of inclusiveness here that other communities don’t have.”

Anthony Cruz, the 22-year-old rabbi-in-training, and Shula Feldkran, president of Congregation Beth Shalom, the Reform synagogue in San Juan.Credit: Judy Maltz

Some would claim that the Jewish community of Puerto Rico is among the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, its first members believed to have accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second journey across the Atlantic. Others rank it among the youngest, pointing out that until American Jews began arriving here in the 1940s and 1950s, first as military personnel and then as part of the “Operation Bootstrap” program aimed at industrializing the island, there was no community to speak of.

The Jewbans are coming

All concur, however, that it is a community in flux. The first wave of Americans – or “continentals,” as they are known here because Puerto Ricans are also American citizens even though they don’t vote in the U.S. elections – established the Conservative synagogue, which is the oldest Jewish congregation on the island and is housed in a historic building that serves as headquarters for the Jewish Community Center. A decade later they were outnumbered by a large influx of Cuban Jews fleeing the Communist regime set up under Fidel Castro. The Cubans – or “Jewbans,” as they are known here – arrived mostly penniless.

Members of Puerto Rico's Jewish community. Credit: Judy Maltz

“Puerto Rico was a welcoming society and it had many similar characteristics to Cuba – the language, the island life – so it was an easier transition for many of them compared with going to the United States,” explains Diego Mandelbaum, the director of the JCC, who himself is an Argentinean-born Jew, who arrived here following a stint in Havana, where he served as representative of the Joint Distribution Committee.

As often happens in Jewish communities, even small ones like this, the congregants at the one and only synagogue that was around back then had their differences about how things should be done, with the Cuban contingency more rigid in its approach. And so, the Americans broke away and established their own Reform synagogue.

Estimates put the size of the Puerto Rican Jewish community at anywhere between 1,000 and 3,000, the higher number including non-affiliated Jews. About half have a Cuban connection, the remainder comprised mainly of American transplants, Argentineans and a smattering of Israelis. Almost the entire community is based in the capital of San Juan. On the whole, it is a very affluent, pro-Israel community, whose members stick together. An indication of the disproportionate political clout this tiny community wields in this island of 3.8 million is its recent successful campaign to have a huge Holocaust monument erected just outside the landmark Capitol building.

Holocaust memorial in San Juan.Credit: Judy Maltz

A dwindling community

Ever since the last large batch of Jews arrived her from South America in the 1990s, the numbers have been dwindling. The reason is that most of the second generation of Puerto Rican Jews have left. “About 90 percent of the children are sent to college in the United States, and most never come back,” notes Mandelbaum. “So we are becoming a smaller and smaller community.” As a sign of the changing times, the JCC pre-school recently closed its doors because of sinking registration figures.

Efforts in recent years to persuade Jews fleeing Venezuela to resettle in Puerto Rico have largely failed, most of these South Americans preferring Miami to San Juan. But over the past year or so, the Puerto Rican Jewish community has been able to recoup a small share of its losses through new tax incentives designed to lure wealthy “continentals” to its shores. Among those who have relocated to Puerto Rico thanks to these extremely generous tax breaks aimed at reinvigorating the ailing economy are quite a few rich Jewish stockbrokers and hedge fund owners from New York. “It’s a new wave of Jews, although it’s still too early to assess what the impact of this on the size of our community will be,” says Mandelbaum.

In the 1970s and 1980s,many Israelis relocated here to work on agricultural projects. There are few left anymore, although in the past year or so, a new big mall in San Juan has drawn about a dozen post-army Israelis trying to make an easy buck hawking skin care products.

Diana Berezdivin and Raquel Bender, who both fled Cuba in the 1960s, are pillars of the Jewish community here. “Our children are still here, but who knows what will be with our grandchildren,” says Berezdivin.

Diana Berezdivin, left, and Raquel Bender outside the Jewish community center in San Juan. Credit: Judy Maltz

Although there are no Jewish schools in San Juan, surprisingly, says Bender, most of the new generation maintain a strong sense of identity and rarely intermarry. “The reason,” she says, “is our strong affiliation with the Young Judaea movement. Our kids attend the Young Judaea camp in North Carolina every summer, and then they do a Young Judaea gap year in Israel after they graduate. They have a very strong Jewish network as a result.”

David Solomiany, 43, is a rare example of someone who’s returned. Born in Puerto Rico to Cuban Jews who fled Castro, he studied at Tufts University in Massachusetts before completing his law degree at Tulane. His three brothers still live in the United States, but he decided to come back. “I like it here, I was born here, and I feel I can make a difference here,” he says.

A comfortable life

Gregory Demel, a member of large well-known Jewish clan on the island, expresses similar sentiments. “Life is very comfortable here, and there’s hardly any anti-Semitism,” he notes. “If anything, there’s ignorance about Judaism.” Born in Puerto Rico to Holocaust survivors who were among the lucky few to get their money out of Cuba before fleeing to San Juan, he runs the family jewelry business today. That’s after a stint in the United States, where he studied at Brandeis and completed his law degree at Cordoza.

Rabbi Levi Stein of Puerto Rico's Chabad house.Credit: Judy Maltz

At the weekly Shabbat lunch held after services at Shaare Zedek, the old-timers are having a heated discussion about current events. On one thing they seem to agree though: They don’t like U.S. President Obama. Number one, they don’t like his treatment of Israel, and number two, they don’t like his recent overtures to Cuba.

Over on the other side of town, in the neighborhood of Isla Verde, Chabad is holding its weekly Shabbat lunch for about 40 congregants, most of them regulars at this time of year, considered to be the off-season. Thanks to Chabad, Puerto Rico is the only island in the Caribbean that holds the distinction of having Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations.

Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, who has been in charge since Chabad set up base here in 1999, serves as regional director of the movement, which means he’s in charge of 10 Caribbean islands. In Puerto Rico alone, Chabad serves 30,000 meals a year.

Rabbi Levi Stein, his second in command, is a well-known face on the main strip in Old San Juan, where he is quick to point out every shop with a Jewish or Israeli connection. Thanks to a $5 million fundraising campaign, the Orthodox outreach movement is now building a brand new center. “It will house the first mikveh [ritual bath] Puerto Rico’s history,” boasts Stein, a Detroit transplant.

Sun and sea. The beach at San Juan. Credit: Bloomberg

Among those who make a practice of dropping by the Chabad house in San Juan is Gal Atya, a 29-year-old who manages a cosmetic shop in the old city and is married to a Puerto Rican woman. Asked why he would trade in Israel for this Caribbean island, Atya replies: “For the sea and the sun.”

And doesn’t he have that in Israel?

“Not all year round,” responds Atya.