Our Kehillah School students love singing this song, a song that reminds of us how geographically widespread the worldwide Jewish community might be, even if we are small in number in many of the places where Jews can be found. Together with our kids, Rebecca and I were privileged this summer to visit two somewhat isolated Jewish communities and learn their stories. We traveled first to Panama, home to a surprisingly strong Jewish community. There are a number of synagogues, Jewish day schools, many kosher restaurants and even a fully-kosher grocery store in Panama City. In fact, the grocery store – Supermercado Deli K – puts to shame the kosher shopping options here in Westchester – it had every kosher product I had ever seen in the world, both Ashkenazi and Sefardi cuisines! Of particular interest to us was the Masorti (Conservative) community in Panama. The congregation recently moved to the outskirts of the City – the equivalents of our suburbs – following demographic trends. It is a solid congregation with excellent youth education. Friday evening Kabbalat services were striking in just how familiar they were to us. I don’t think that even one of their tefillot (prayers) were different. The same with Shabbat morning. The siddur and Chumash are both Hebrew/Spanish and the sermon, of course, was in Spanish as well. And yet I was also surprised that, for such a traditional service, people were taking pictures and videos throughout the service.
Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik, graduate of the Conservative Seminary in Buenos Aires, told me the story of a recent funeral at the congregation. It turns out that a Former President of Panama belonged to the community. Typically, when a President dies, a State Funeral is held at the main Catholic Cathedral in the city. But when the former president is Jewish, the synagogue hosted the State Funeral! Rabbi Kraselnik’s 14 year old son (and his class) took two weeks of their summer vacation to travel as a class to a Jewish overnight camp outside of Indianapolis. We shouldn’t complain about how far away our kids’ camps are!
We then traveled to Colombia where we were mainly in cities without major (or, any) Jewish communities. Bogota, the capital, however, does have a strong but – again – small Jewish community, about 1,800 individuals amongst a total Colombia population of 49 million. We were so glad to see our old friend Guido Cohen, rabbi of the community. Guido and I studied together in Jerusalem in 2007. His Masorti congregation is housed in a beautiful building complete with a Mikvah (ritual bath), an underground parking garage and even a room where preparations are made for Jewish funerals. Again, we were struck by how very similar the Shabbat services were to how we worship here at home. Two notable contrasts, however – the synagogue, though Conservative, does not give full participation rights to women and they read the a longer Torah portion each week than we do here at home. Interestingly, the synagogue doesn’t host a Hebrew School; instead, since nearly all of the students go to the American School – a
private school – they remain there after the school day for their Jewish education. We also visited the tremendous “Club Carmel” – the Jewish JCC/Country Club. The kosher steak was fantastic – our first meat in some weeks. The rest of the facility was just as remarkable with beautiful grounds, athletic facilities, youth spaces and more. The group of people playing mahjong looked remarkably familiar; I felt right at home.
I know that many people within our community are privileged to travel throughout the year. For many of us, a highlight is meeting and supporting – just through our very presence – the local, often -isolated Jewish communities. Take a few hours on your next trip – on Shabbat or at another time – to meet the local Jews. I especially encourage you to find the Masorti (Conservative) communities; I am always happy to make introductions, particularly to my Rabbinic colleagues.
Before I sign off, a big Yishar Koach and thank you to all who kept Shabbat and weekday services going throughout the summer – particularly Adam Rabiner, Ken Brown, Leo Gilberg and Michael Strone. Additional thanks to our Summer guest Dvar Torah (sermon) presenters – Cheryl Pine, Rabbi Shargel, Eric Nussbaum, Robert Kaplan and George Sommerfeld.
Shalom and – almost – Shana Tova to one and all.