Shalom Puerto Rico: A Jewish Culture Guide

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 settle in Puerto Rico were Conversos, or Crypto-Jews (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition) who arrived with Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. The Conversos had hoped to escape persecution in the Spanish colonies, however, the breadth of the Inquisition’s influence was vast. Consequently, many of these first Jews settled in the remote mountainous regions of the island’s interior, far removed from the main settlement that was present-day San Juan. Since the Spanish Crown prohibited Judaism, many Jews practiced their faith in secret (hence the term Crypto-Jews) yet most eventually inter-married with Catholics.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Spanish influence in the Americas began to wane. Although Cuba and Puerto Rico were two of the last vestiges of the once mighty Spanish Empire, both were demanding autonomy. Many Jews were members of pro-independence movements on both islands. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States.

Despite the change of power, there wasn’t an influx of Jewish immigration to the island for thirty more years. Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe began settling in Puerto Rico during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Most settled in the capital, San Juan, and in 1942, the first Jewish Community Center was established in Puerto Rico. The subsequent decade saw a second wave of Jewish immigration to the island, when nearly all of Cuba’s 15,000 Jews fled their homeland for either Miami or Puerto Rico, after Fidel Castro rose to power as a result of the Cuban Revolution in1959. In 1952, Puerto Rico became the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, achieving U.S. commonwealth status. The island’s first synagogue, Shaare Zedeck (Gates of Justice) was established in 1953. Two years later, the first rabbi was hired and a Hebrew School was founded. The interior of the synagogue was refurbished in 1984, and now can accommodate over 600 people. The Puerto Rican government has since designated the synagogue a national monument.

Today, roughly 3,000 Jews reside in Puerto Rico– the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in all of the Caribbean. The island is unique to the region, in that Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox denominations are all represented. The aforementioned Shaare Zedeck represents Conservative, Temple Beth Shalom, established in 1967, represents Reform and Chabad Lubavitch of Puerto Rico, established in 1997, represents Orthodox Judaism. In November 2005, the community established the first synagogue outside of the San Juan area.

Located in the city of Mayaguez on the west coast, Centro Hasidico Puertorriqueno Toiras Jesed is a Hasidic congregation. Also in the same year, October 31st to be precise, the Puerto Rican Senate approved Senate Resolution 1480 recognizing the outstanding contribution the Jewish community has made to life on the island, and the amicable relationship betwixt Puerto Rico and Israel.

Puerto Rico boasts everything from vast, lush rainforests to excellent scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities. The Carabali Rainforest Park offers everything from horseback riding, to forest canopy zip-line rides. Chabad has made special arrangements with Louie’s VIP Tours, for discounted rates on El Yunque Rain Forest tours and other Puerto Rican sites.

If the urban milieu is more your thing, Legends of Puerto Rico offers walking tours of San Juan (special Chabad rate is also applicable). Likewise, you might also want to take in the comprehensive Puerto Rican Jewish Tour. A comprehensive list of Kosher food is also available.

Although the Jewish community in Puerto Rico is young by many standards, it is none-the-less, strong and proud of its heritage. With so many opportunities at every turn, Puerto Rico is definitely a place to visit.

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