Panama: New Life Along the Canal

Shabbat morning services have already finished at Ahavat Sion, but the halls of the synagogue are still bustling with people of all ages, some simply chatting, others making their way to the various shiurim-Torah sermons-being offered to anybody willing to listen. After-prayer shiurim were once the exclusive domain of old, stern-looking men with impenetrable Arabic accents-other congregants were already following their stomachs home by the time the cantor concluded with the words “aleinu leshabeah.” But this is no longer the case. An hour after services you can still find men and women, sitting separately, listening intently in Spanish, Hebrew, and English to lengthy expositions on the speaker’s topic of choice.

The shiurim are emblematic of a larger trend of revival in Panama’s century-or-so old Jewish community, one which is taking place in practically all facets of community life. This revival has coincided with a sustained economic boom in Panama’s economy that began in the late nineties and served to attract an ever-increasing numbers of Jews from other Latin-American countries experiencing stagnation and political turmoil, as well as from Israel. Besides simply increasing its numbers, immigration has affected the community in truly unpredictable ways. The popularity of shiurim are the legacy of a lecture by a certain Ami Bitton, for whom Panama was to be simply another itinerary item on a backpacking trip. Ami, an Israeli, instead stayed in Panama, becoming one of the biggest Torah scholars the community had ever seen.

Who or what is responsible for the community’s spiritual allure, then? Most people would probably point you toward Gran Rabino Sion Levy, who was Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s study partner in his youth. My father loves to recount a conversation in which he told the rabbi that he was like his father. “You would never tell your father the things you tell me!” was the rabbi’s response. Indeed, the rabbi has been both the community’s Moses and Abraham since anybody can remember, and it is he who is credited with keeping this motley, mostly Sephardic community united in its uncontrolled expansion. Or maybe it’s Aaron Lane, the Ashkenazi community’s Chabad rabbi, who works tirelessly with the kids, taking them on field trips and personally calling up high-schoolers to come “make minyan” at his shul. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that this community is flowering in ways that few would have thought possible in the country’s darker days of dictatorship and political instability.

Yet not everything is rosy in Panama. The community’s rapid growth is finding more and more newcomers unable to integrate culturally, epidemics of pot-smoking are alleged among teenagers, and the aging Rabbi Levy is continually putting off retirement. Not everyone is equally thrilled about the community’s increasing religiosity: Panama is also home to the world’s only Sephardic Reform community, formed by families descended directly from Spanish-Portuguese Jews who accept patrilineal descent for Jewishness, making it harder and harder for them to marry into the larger Jewish community. So far, however, the community is still expanding rapidly and the after-service shiurim are as packed as ever. And, impervious to it all, the same stern-faced old men are still chanting from their Talmud in their impenetrable Arabic accents, waiting for afternoon prayers to begin.

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