Panama Jews welcome NY visitors


Having climbed out of its past as a military dictatorship, Panama is revamping its image for the world as a hub for business, culture and tourism. As the country’s famed canal expands and its capital city’s skyline rises, its Jewish community is also growing, a rare statistic in a world of assimilation and demographic fears.

“Panama is one of the few communities outside of Israel that has experienced growth and there is very little assimilation,” said David Mizrahi, president of the Central Jewish Community Council of Panama. “85 percent of our community keeps kosher. There is virtually no intermarriage.”

The first Jews arrived secretly in Panama to escape the Spanish Inquisition, but established communal roots date to the 1850s, when California-bound travelers needed a synagogue to handle burials and shelter sick Jews. That synagogue, Kol Shearit Israel, is now a Reform congregation, and its roster includes two former Panamanian presidents, Max Delvalle and his nephew Eric Arturo Delvalle.

But the real success story is the Orthodox segment, which now boasts two kosher supermarkets, eight restaurants, and three integrated Jewish schools with 1,600 students between them.

“The Jewish community here is more united and religious, people invest here more in Shabbat,” said Ofir Levy, 30, manager of the Deli K supermarket. “The dollar is accepted in Panama and we can match American prices on the food.”

Among the attendees of the Orthodox Beth El congregation is Brooklyn-native Charles Rabinovich, 26, who moved to Panama last month to start a mortgage agency. As New Yorkers shivered in the January snow, Rabinovich hosted 30 Russian Jews from Brooklyn at his condominium’s rooftop swimming pool.

“The Jews here are very business oriented, and Panama City is very international,” said Rabinovich. There are many Russians here from Russia and more than 10 thousand Jews.”

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