Shalom, Panama: A Jewish Culture Guide


The first synagogue in Panama was established in 1876 and still exists today, Sarah Bauder reports for Shalom Life.

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.
It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

The first Jews to reside in Panama were Conversos (individuals forced to convert to Catholicism) fled the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition. The country was under colonial rule for the subsequent three centuries, until it broke from Spain in 1821. Although there was Jewish immigration to Panama, throughout the colonial period, no community was established. By the mid-19th century, there was an influx of Sephardic Jews from the Caribbean, and Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe.
In 1876, the first synagogue, Kol Shearith Israel was founded in the capital, Panama City. Said synagogue is still in existence to this today, and is Reform. By the 20th century, Panama saw further Jewish immigration from a number of different locales. During World War I, Jews came to the country fleeing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Likewise during the inter-war period, many Jews sought refuge in Panama from the rise of fascism throughout Europe. Similarly, many settled in the country post-World War II.

Today, there are an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Jews residing in Panama – the largest Central American Jewish population. The majority live in the capital, Panama City, but there are also communities present in cities such as David (San José de David) and Colón. Another community also exists in the former American Canal Zone. The Panamanian Jewish community is represented by Consejo Central Comunitario Hebreo de Panama (the Central Jewish Community of Panama).
Other organizations that are represented in the country include WIZO, B’nai B’rith, and Chabad. There are three synagogues in Panama, the largest being the Orthodox Shevet Ahim. Kosher food is prevalent throughout the country. In Panama City, there is even a kosher supermarket, Super Kosher, which sells thousands of kosher items from around the world. In addition to markets, Panama also boasts at least five kosher restaurants according to the World Jewish Congress. There are also four Jewish schools in Panama, ranging from primary to high school.

Panama’s Jewish community is large and flourishing. The country has so much to offer from the Spanish colonial architecture in Panama City, to lush tropical rainforests and the Caribbean. Coupled with the fact that Panamanians are exceedingly welcoming and hospitable, Panama is definitely worth the visit.

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