Crypto Jews in Puerto Rico: Welcomed by Reform Community
Secret Jews came to the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, which was discovered by Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. They were hoping to avoid religious scrutiny. But the Inquisition followed the colonists, so many secret Jews settled in the island’s remote mountainous interior as did the early Jews in all Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Puerto Rico was colonized after the larger islands of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba and Jamaica.
Many early settlers in Puerto Rico were younger members of families who could not arrange positions elsewhere. They engaged in sugar farming, which at the time was an important world wide commodity, much as oil is today. In time, a walled medieval city with imposing castle-forts surrounded the city of San Juan. They protected the island from invaders seeking to plunder treasure gathered in Puerto Rico from all over the Caribbean and Central and South America to be convoyed to Spain. So some of the early crypto- Jews were also soldiers.
The Inquisition maintained no rota or religious court in Puerto Rico. Heretics were written up and if necessary were remanded to regional Inquisitional tribunals in the western hemisphere or to Spain.
But on the island, far from the concentrated centers of power in San Juan and a difficult long sea voyage to Spain, many crypto-Jews lived quiet lives and tended to marry among families with similar histories. Today, in the western and less populated portion of the island (Puerto Rico is 110 miles long by 65 miles wide), there are groups of families who still retain a Jewish consciousness. Some are led by a man called el rabino de Mayaguez, Mayaguez being the westernmost major population center of Puerto Rico.
Over the last thirty years, major efforts on behalf of evangelizing Protestants and messianic Jews have eroded what was for over four centuries an exclusively native Catholic population. Within the last twenty-five years, the island’s Reform congregation began noticing Puerto Ricans attending Friday night services. Many stayed for the oneg shabat which followed. As the congregation’s president, perennial director and later head of the ritual committee I met all of them. At the time I was one of the few members who was both fluent in Spanish and could also answer some of their questions about Judaism, as we had no rabbi. Often their questions centered on Jesus Christ and the Jewish attitude toward him. Most were just curious about Jews.
But over time I noticed some were returning regularly and asking relevant questions about the holidays, kosher and other religious rituals. It was among this group that I began hearing tales of Jewish antecedents and requests for help to uncover their family’s past. I also noted that many were from small towns and remote communities or had grown up in such places before moving to San Juan. Soon some were attending services regularly and asking for help to convert which was a problem for us as we had no rabbi. On one occasion, conversion was performed in Miami because the candidate could not wait for a rabbi to come to the island.
Reform Jews in Puerto Rico have taken the strong position that those claiming Jewish descent should be helped to return. The community has regular programs to help Puerto Ricans do this. It includes classes in Jewish law, history and tradition; attendance at Bible study; providing books and materials in Spanish (at first we had no materials in Spanish, creating a serious hardship) and an outreach program for spouses in mixed marriages. We accepted children of prospective converts into religious school even though not yet converted; but they had to be in a conversion program with a sincere commitment on the parents’ part to do so. As a result of this program whole families have been converted.
In Puerto Rico, the Reform congregation does not have a full time rabbi, yet it works closely with rabbinical authorities on the mainland who supervise the programs. When candidates are ready for conversion, rabbis come to Puerto Rico to perform the ritual. These programs evolved from the reality that the Conservative movement in Puerto Rico has over the years ignored most Puerto Ricans for conversion, regardless of their past history, unless already married to a Jewish spouse.
Once converted, every effort is made to integrate new members into the community. This includes teaching in the religious school (if qualified), leading services, becoming members of the synagogue’s Board of Directors and getting involved in preparing for holidays. The program has been successful. Today, almost 25% of the Reform congregation is Puerto Rican.
When the Reform community was founded in 1967, it was made up of members who came from the American mainland to run factories, start businesses, work in the tourist sector, run government programs and engage in academia. There were also some Canadians, English and French members. There were no Puerto Rican members and most congregants spoke only basic Spanish.
The founding members were raised with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform backgrounds. The English speaking Reform congregation was an offshoot of the rapidly changing Conservative congregation, (which also began as an English speaking congregation in 1939), its ranks enlarged by a surge of Spanish speaking Cuban refugees. Today, because of the phenomenon of Puerto Rican conversion, Reform holds special services in Spanish and Spanish is regularly heard in the social hall and classrooms.
As a member of the ritual committee, I regularly performed Shabbat services once a month. More than once in the past seven years, at the start of the service only Latinos were present. I would start to read the service in Spanish. Then Anglos would filter in causing me to alternate between Spanish and English.
Sometimes there is a reluctance to convert. It is not from a sense of fear, as Puerto Rico is almost completely free of antisemitism. Most Puerto Ricans have had good experiences with Jews on the mainland and carry that with them when they return to the island. The reluctance arises from the reality that such a move creates internal family strife, understandably to be avoided in a culture which was once exclusively Catholic, permeating all levels of daily life.
Under Reform’s program, all are welcome to attend services and mingle with congregants in the social hall afterwards. It is the first step to shed this reluctance and recognize that centuries ago their ancestors may have been Jewish. In time some of these curious friends do convert.
Returning to Judaism after being lost for generations is not a new phenomenon. In Amsterdam from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries, Jews left Portugal and Spain to settle in that city. They presented themselves to the rabbis, seeking restoration to the faith of their ancestors. Among the best known were the founder of modern philosophy, Benedict Spinoza and the tortured religious spirit, Uriel d’Acosta. The Rabbis were faced with many thorny dilemmas: how to determine a Jewish maternal line after several generations of marranism? How to deal with the circumcision of a sixty year old man at a time when medicine was crude and such a procedure could be life threatening? What were the rabbis to do with prospective returnees who were inculcated with Catholic religious dogma? And what about those who switched from Judaism to Christianity as easily as one changes clothing to enjoy the benefits of both worlds when being a Jew could result in death?
The revered Maimonides and his entire family is said to have converted to Islam to escape persecution at the hands of the fanatic Arabs of the Almohades sect. They too left Spain; first to North Africa and later to Egypt, where they returned to Judaism. Throughout it all Maimonides held to his faith as the leading Jewish thinker of the middle ages.