PUERTO RICO

PUERTO RICO, island in the Caribbean 1,000 miles southeast of Miami. In 2005 there were 1,500–2,000 Jews in Puerto Rico among its population of 4,000,000. The Jewish experience in America begins with the actual "Discovery" in 1492. The first Jews to come to Puerto Rico were mainly Spanish andPortuguese. The existing Jewish community consists mainly of immigrants who had arrived in the United States during the post-World War II years and Cuban families who settled there in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the 19th century several records were located in the form of anecdotes in personal letters mentioning Jews of the 19th century. Sources dating back to 1898 confirm that there were a number of American Jews residing in Southern Puerto Rico at the time. A census conducted for that year includes the names of Jacob Benjamin and Samuel Levi as the Ponce residents.

Jews then arrived in Puerto Rico most often in conjunction with war. Among the soldiers who took part in the Spanish American War, there were several Jews.

Between 1899 and 1905, Rabbi Adolph Spiegel tried to organize the first Jewish congregation in the island. There was a slight increase in Jewish immigration when, as a result of the Spanish American War, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States. During this period and before World War I, several Jewish men were involved in the drafting of the Island's first legal and fiscal codes. They aided in the creation of the court system and recruitment for it. Their contributions were crucial in the forming of the island's infrastructure.

World War I added to the presence of Jewish soldiers in the military bases. But at the end of the war the Jewish population once again decreased. Still, several government workers remained along with a pioneering group of businessmen who saw the island as a fertile ground for building their home and future.

Among the most prominent of the Island's Jews was Louis Sulzabacher, president of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and a strong supporter of United States citizenship for the Puerto Rican people.

The end of the 1920s and early 1930s brought a new surge of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe suddenly excluded from the United States by quotas. Other Jews continued to arrive on the Island; many represented American companies such as the Consolidated Tobacco Company. The 1930 generation consisted of men and women with a desire to make Puerto Rico their permanent home. They organized the first Jewish Community Center and the first synagogue in San Juan.

By 1940, there were only 150 Jews living in Puerto Rico. World War II brought a large number of soldiers to Puerto Rico and they included some Jews. About 400 Jewish soldiers were living in military bases in Puerto Rico at the time. The Jewish Welfare Board coordinated the rental of various meeting halls around San Juan in order to provide the soldiers with the opportunity to celebrate Sabbath services. They held the first Passover Seder in 1942.

The beginning of the 1950s was marked by the creation of Operation Bootstrap, an initiative by the local government based on the concept of "industrialization by invitation." The program indirectly encouraged the arrival of more Jews to the island. They were attracted by a series of incentives offered to American manufacturing companies. Jews were among the architects of the economic development of the Island and also prominent in the legal and medical professions. Cecil Snider was named by President Roosevelt associate justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico. Eleven years later he was named by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The emergence of the Cuban communist regime in 1958, headed by Fidel Castro, produced the third migration of Jews to Puerto Rico. Thousands of families abandoned the island of Cuba. Many of them wanted to move to the United States eventually, while others sought a social and cultural environment similar to that of Cuba.

Upon their arrival in Puerto Rico, most of these Jewish families joined the Jewish Community Center. At the time, the center embraced 200 families and the Hebrew school had 125 registered students. The inclusion of Cuban families gave the Jewish Community Center a new Hispanic outlook. These Orthodox families exerted a significant influence in the development of the Shaare Zedek Synagogue and the Hebrew school. They came to stay in Puerto Rico.

In the 1970s and the 1980s a new Jewish migration arrived in Puerto Rico. Close to 200 Israeli farmers came to the Island as part of an agricultural program developed by companies such as April-Agro, Isprac, HDC, and Fruits International. This project utilized 2,500 acres in the Santa Isabel region. A new revolutionary irrigation system was introduced by a group of agronomists from Israel. In the 1960s a new group of Argentinean Jews began to arrive in Puerto Rico.

Synagogues in San Juan

The first attempt to establish a Jewish congregation in Puerto Rico proved unsuccessful. The second effort in 1935 gathered some 26 families. They would meet in private homes and commercial spaces, such as the offices above La Esquina Famosa store in Santurce, the San Juan Casino, and El San Juan Hotel.

In 2005 there were three synagogues in San Juan, representing the three ideologies within Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism.

In 1953 the Jewish Community acquired a private residence and transformed it into a synagogue and site of the first congregation. Nowadays, the Shaare Zedek Temple is the largest synagogue in the Island. The first religious school was started in 1952.

The Shaare Zedek Temple, founded in 1953, became the first Conservative synagogue. Its name means "Gates of Justice," and was taken from a synagogue that was destroyed in Leipzig, Germany. It is headed by Rabbi Gabriel Isaías Frydman, originally from Argentina. The Jewish Community Center also operates as a Hebrew and Judaic studies school as well as a pre-school center and meeting facility. It houses the Morris Rothenberg Library, the most complete Judaic library in the Caribbean. The center currently has 255 members.

The second Jewish organization established in Puerto Rico is Temple Beth Shalom, the Reform Jewish Congregation of Puerto Rico, which was established in 1967. The synagogue has among its Torahs one that had been rescued from the Holocaust. For most of its congregational life, Temple Beth Shalom has relied on retired rabbis from the mainland who have served for all or part of the period from Rosh Hashanah to Shavuot. Currently a series of distinguished rabbis serve for six weeks at a time. The congregation owns a beautiful building on the corner of Loiza and San Jorge Streets in the Condado section of San Juan. Many of its members are "snowbirds," who spend their winters in Puerto Rico. There are, however, enough all year around attendees to hold services every Friday evening and Saturday morning, maintain a flourishing Religious School and provide a very active Adult Education Program. Tourists and other visitors are always made to feel very welcome.

The third synagogue, Sharei Torah, was founded in 1999; it is one of the Chabad Lubavitch synagogues and educational centers around the world. During its early period, the group would rent meeting rooms in the Marriott Resort to conduct prayers and activities. The synagogue was officially inaugurated on February 2, 2000. A few years later a larger property was purchased in Isla Verde, making it more accessible for Jewish tourists and communities from nearby Caribbean islands.

The Chabad Lubavitch Center and its synagogue Sharei Torah operate under the direction of Rabbi Mendel Zarchi and his wife Rachel Zarchi. Chabad Lubavitch of Puerto Rico features a school to educate children and adults. It also offers religious services and coordinates community activities such as visits to hospitals, activities related to Jewish festivities, assistance in the immersion rituals of mikveh, lectures and provision of kosher food products. The Center is to expand to accommodate the first and only mikveh in Puerto Rico.

[Museum of San Juan Staff (2nd ed.)]



Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.