What Are You Going To Do, If You Don’t Know What To Do?

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By: Machla Abramovitz

On the day when Rabbi David Perets’ plane touched down in the airport in Panama City three years ago, there was excitement in the air. It was a warm day, as is typical of tropical Panama City. Among those awaiting the arrival of the new Chief Rabbi was Mr. David Hanono, the former President, and current Vice President of Shevet Ahim. Shevet Ahim is the largest congregation in Panama City, which oversees all facets of communal Jewish life.

Rabbi David Perets, then 39 years old, was arriving in Panama in order to assume the position of Chief Rabbi of Panama. He would be the one guiding the eleven members Board of Directors of Shevet Ahim, comprised of nine men and two women.

Although Rabbi Perets was young, he came with a stellar background, and was brilliant, learned, and was an experienced community leader. He studied in Baltimore's Ner Israel Yeshiva, Jerusalem’s Kol Torah Yeshiva, and Yeshivat Ponevezh in Bnai Brak. He had led his Congregation in Venezuela for seventeen years. The search for Panama’s Chief Rabbi had been long and intense, as the candidate had large shoes to fill. These were the shoes of Panama'sdynamic and legendary Chief Rabbi Zion Rajamim Levy, who held the position for 57 years (he passed away in 2008). He had built up a community of only 500 Torah observant Jews to numbers reaching 6,000 – 7,000. Rabbi Avraham Chreim followed Hacham Levy. Rabbi Chreim was a humble talmid hachamwith a beautiful voice, and was Hacham Levy's closest talmid. It was Rabbi Chreim who continued to guide the community in his mentor’s ways up until his premature death in 2015.

Jewish Revival in Panama

The Board Members well understood what choosing the right Chief Rabbi meant for the future of their community. Today, Panama City boasts about 14,000 Jews, having doubled its population since the Hacham’s passing. The Jewish community is predominantly Sephardic, comprising 95% of the population. A large percentage of the Sephardic community has roots in Syria, and it is unique that a full 85% of community members keep kosher. The past 20 years have seen a revival of Jewish traditions in Panama according to Batia Siebzehner, a researcher at the Liwerant Center for the Study Latin America, Spain, Portugal and Their Jewish Communities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She noted, “Twenty years ago, besides the synagogue, you’d have maybe 10, 15 succahs. Today you have 150–200 sukkahs. Each sukkah represents many families.ˮMoreover, the number of community members who are shomer Shabbat has gone from a small number to hundreds.

This revival is a reality that Mr. Hanono is especially proud of. Mr. Hanono, 65, was born and raised in Panama City, and witnessed these changes first-hand. He attributes this religious transformation to Hacham Levy and to the fortitude and foresight of Shevet Ahim, an organization founded in 1933, which Mr. Hanono helped steer over the past fifteen years. “We are the only community in the hemisphere that maintains itself under one umbrella, and under one Chief Rabbi who mentors all the other rabbis. His is the final word,ˮMr. Hanono says. Because of Shevet Ahim, when the Panama community grew in size it did not splinter, rather it remained united. “Here we are not considered Syrian, Moroccan, Persian, or Israeli. We are all part of a Shevet Ahim community. At home, each of us sing and pray with a different nusach, and upholds different traditions, but when we pray together, we mold ourselves into one tune, the Yerushalmione.”

What You Can Find in the Community

Panama City's Jewish community resides in Punta Pacifica and Punta Paitilla, two regions that are within a five-mile radius of each other. These are exclusive enclaves of towering luxury condominiums perched on the Pacific Ocean. Within walking distance are high-end shops, the Johns Hopkins affiliated hospital, and five-star hotels, including the distinct Trump Ocean Club, as well as the Trump Hotel. Along the palm-dotted urban pathways and manicured greenways are kosher bakeries and restaurants of all varieties – pizza and falafel shops, delicatessens, and high-end eateries, all under Panama City’s strict kashrut certification.“We have become Latin America’s kosher gourmet center,” Mr. Hanono says.

Even more impressive are the two giant, modern supermarkets (combined, they comprise over 30,000 square feet) filled with an inexhaustible variety of kosher produce from Israel, the U.S., Europe, and Panama. One of those supermarkets, "Super Kosher,” sells close to 10,000 different kosher products and is considered the largest such supermarket outside of Israel. The aisles are bursting with meats, wines, chalav Yisroel cheeses, all types of international foods, including health products – anything and everything that makes living a kosher lifestyle easy. The halavifoods, Mr. Hanono says, are the same as those found
in Brooklyn.

Panama City's eight synagogues are spacious, architecturally beautiful, and are located within walking distance of the residential condos. Rabbi Abraham Farjoun’s Bet Maax ve Sara has a minyan three times a day, and there are shiurimdaily. Chief Rabbi David Perets runs the Ahavat Sion Synagogue and Community Center that accommodates 1,200 men and women. On a typical Shabbat, over 1,000 congregants gather to hear a drashafrom the Chief Rabbi that can easily last 45 minutes. Meanwhile, in Punta Paitilla, where there is an eruv, its Ahavat Sion synagogue features eight separate minyanim.

There’s more. "We also have a magnificent kollel with 20, 30 avrechimand with rabbis studying there 24/7,” Mr. Hanono adds. “About 40 years ago, we brought in our rabbis from Argentina and Mexico, but today these rabbis and avreichimare local, while the Rosh Kollel is from Israel.”

Panama City has five yeshivot that accommodate 2,300 students, and a Bais Yaakov with grades one through twelve, a Jewish club, mikvahs, kashrut certification, as well as a bet din and arbitration committee. Mr. Hanono is quick to point out that Shevet Ahim, whose mandate includes hiring Sephardic rabbanimauthorized to perform gittinand milah, administers all these institutions.

Historical Background

The revival of religious Jewry in Panama was long in coming. Spanish Jewry’s presence in Panama dates back to the 15thCentury when Spain expelled its Jews. It intensified when Panama opened its canal in 1914. Syrian Jews (mainly from Aleppo) began trickling into Panama in search of a better life after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Due to the U.S. Army, Naval, and Air Force bases that resided there, the U.S. dollar became the working currency. Another wave of Syrian Jews immigrated in the 1970s and later in the 1990s, following the ousting of Panama’s de-facto ruler Manuel Noriega and the toppling of his government in 1989 by the U.S.

Unlike in other Latin American countries, the relationship in Panama between the Jews and the government, and the Jews and non-Jews was always mutually respectful. “In Panama, we are privileged. All the governments respect us. We are courteous towards one another,” Mr. Hanono states. Many Jews are, in fact, well integrated into Panama’s larger society. Mr. Hanono, a father of four and a grandfather of 15, is a colonel in the fire department and is active in the Red Cross of the National Sect of the Republic of Panama. The city twice honored him for his contributions.

Jews were also extremely influential in helping develop the country: Over the past 160 years, Panama boasted two Jewish presidents, and the government financed many high-rise buildings in the Jewish enclaves. Jews also own some of the most prominent companies in Panama, including supermarkets, airlines, and commercial enterprises. “Take away the Jewish investment in construction in Panama, and the country would still look like a shteitel,” says Rabbi Aaron Laine, a Chabad musmachand the rabbi of Beth Al, the Ashkenazi synagogue in Paitilla.

Emigration from
Other Latin American Countries

Compare that with what was happening elsewhere in Latin America, where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents and attitudes in Peru, Columbia, Uruguay, and Paraguay (some incited by the government) resulted in an influx of immigration into Panama, doubling its population in the early and mid- 1990s.

The Venezuelan Jews began filtering into Panama in 1998 when the Hugo Chavez government came to power. Because of the economically disastrous policies of the Nicholas Maduro government, they started leaving en masse, either to Miami, Israel, or Panama. They made up about 90% of Panama’s total immigration, according to Mr. Hanono. (Over the past fifteen years, the Venezuelan community shrunk from 25,000 in the 1990s to 6,000 today, and is diminishing further. Most of those remaining live in Caracas.) Subsequently, over the past ten years, Panama’s Jewish population grew by a staggering 70%.

Some Venezuelan Jews who immigrated to Panama choose to return, finding the financial strains on their families in Panama too burdensome. The majority who do stay, who followed Rabbi Perets to Panama, integrate well. “Most Venezuelan Jews are Moroccan, but here they pray in the Yerushalmistyle, as is our way,”
Mr. Hanono explains.

The Jewish immigrants from Venezuela bring with them a new spirit. “The businesses they start are often ‘out of the box.’ Unlike the typical Panamanian Jewish merchant, Venezuelan Jews branch out into different types of businesses, such as running laundromats, manufacturing tiles, and other kinds of constructions materials, simulating their businesses in Venezuela. We are one big family now,” Mr. Hanono says.

How does Shevet Ahim help immigrants and others in financial need? “We have a job bank that helps the unemployed find work. We have also instituted tzedakahorganizations that help with medical bills, the purchase of medicine, food, as well as helping families that can’t make ends meet economically. Another organization helps with tuition fees, weddings, and general living expenses. The utmost confidentiality is maintained at all times.”

Hacham Levy Set the Tone

It was Hacham Levy, Mr. Hanono says, who taught the community the significance of giving tzedakah. “It’s in our blood to help the needy. He also taught us the love of going to shul.” It is a legacy that remains. “Every morning we have about seven to eight minyanimfor shacharit; there are about 1,000 men in the synagogue praying every day. All this takes place under the authority of our Chief Rabbi. We were privileged to have had a miracle happen to our community in the early 1960s when Israel sent a young rabbi – Hacham Sion Levy – to us.”

Hacham Levy was a student of Hacham Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Ezra Attia, a founder of Porat Yosef, one of the most respected Sephardic yeshivot in Israel. Chief Rabbi Hacham Levy single-handedlyestablished the religious foundations of Panama City’s Torah community: He founded its schools and synagogues, and arranged for its kashrut, certified by Hacham Ovadia Yosef. Hacham Levy built the mikvah, and opened kollelimand Talmud Torahs. On a more personal note, he also taught Mr. Hanono his bar mitzvah lessons, married him to his wife, and celebrated with him the birth of his
first son.

“Hacham Levy was my hero. He was everyone’s hero. When my father passed away in 1973, he became like a father to me.
My mother passed away nine years ago; she was super close to the Rabbanit Sarah Glick. The Hacham had a special spark about him. He was magnetic. When he was with you, you felt as if he was all yours. He knew how to talk to every person, how to make that person feel good about himself and his circumstances. He also knew how to scold, when necessary. He loved us all as we loved him. He was strong, knowledgeable, and had tremendous foresight.”

He was also a man whose fame preceded him wherever he went. Mr. Hanono recalls sitting with the Chief Rabbi at a Keren Hayesod dinner in Israel, with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu as the principle speaker. Mr. Hanono approached the Prime Minister, who was surrounded by guards and dignitaries, and asked if he’d like to meet Hacham Levy, the Chief Rabbi of Panama. Without hesitating, Netanyahu excused himself, crossed to the other side of the massive hall to greet the Chief Rabbi, and spent some time exchanging words with him.

One of the committees the Hacham instituted in Panama oversees arbitration among conflicted parties. The arbitration process enables issues to be resolved without having to take them to non-Jewish courts or to aBet Din. Any community problem – shalom bayit, business-related, investment consultations, partners fighting over property – all these issues came before the Hacham who rendered a judgment, and everyone left happy, Mr. Hanono says. Even government officials consulted with him regarding legal matters. Since the Hacham’s death, rabbanimare trained to continue in this work. Shevet Ahim provides this service free-of-charge. Mr. Hanono believes that this arbitration process contributes significantly to the peace that exists within the community. “We train these rabbanimto pursue shalom.”

The organization was extremely fortunate in its choice of Chief Rabbis. Rabbi David Perets continues in the Hacham’s ways, maintaining his decrees as precedents. “The Hacham established the community: Rabbi Perets is keeping the community going.”

Rabbi Perets is fluent in Spanish and Hebrew and is an eloquent speaker. He is young and dynamic, and reaches out to the community through modern technologies. He works 18-hour days. Since arriving Rabbi Perets has increased the number of drashotand shiurimgiven, which are readily available on the internet. He is working with a much more diverse and a much larger community than did Hacham Levy, but Mr. Hanono says, Rabbi Perets’ experience as a ravin Venezuela prepared him for this job. “As a community, we are fortunate. If we hadn’t found him, the community might have dispersed. We needed someone very wise and who can relate to those who are very religious and those not as religious.We found that special person, and we consider ourselves blessed that the Venezuelan community allowed us to borrow him from them for good.”