Panama City, Panama is one of those places that evokes images emblematic of exotic beach towns, but the city is more than a beautiful ocean- view getaway or a place blessed thanks to its perfect position on the world map.
Along those impressive real estate developments and uber- modern skyscrapers, visitors find well- preserved colonial buildings, fancy bars, swanky restaurants, and designer boutiques. This is a city that has come a long way since the the days when it was attached to Colombia and today, the Central American country remains in the international spotlight thanks to stellar GDP growth rates and the the multicultural aspect of a society that is built on diversity and cultural uniqueness.
The peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians is well documented, transforming Panama into a country where different ethnic groups enthusiastically share opportunities and responsibilities among them.
Jews and Arabs share mutual economic ambitions, and this helped both communities surpass any cultural or religious differences. Furthermore, global political conflicts haven’t been imported to Panama and any external threat has been crushed by powerful economic interests. The collaborative approach has transformed Panama into a regional economic powerhouse and the local Jewish communities have continued to flourish under these auspicious conditions.
Although several groups of Jews came to Panama in the XVI century, the origin of the Panamanian Jewish diaspora is widely acknowledged as the end of the Spanish colonial rule (1821) when Spanish and Portuguese Conversos found a new home in the Central American nation. Later on, considerable groups of Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews also found a home in Panama. Following the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, additional Sephardic Jews from Israel and Syria came in search of business opportunities. In September 1933, a group of Jewish immigrants from Syria established the orthodox synagogue named Shevet Achim which still remains the largest congregation in the country. The last wave of Jews arrived in the 1990s following the fall of dictator Manuel Noriega.
Nowadays, the majority of the Panamanian Jews reside in Panama City where they are engaged in finance, trade, real estate businesses and tourism. The commercial success of the community is widely acknowledged and the Panamanian Jews have become a decisive division of the Panamanian society. But the Jewish accomplishments are not only in the economical field as notable advances were recorded also in politics. Besides Israel, Panama remains the only country in the world that had two presidents belonging to the Jewish community: Max Delvalle Levy- Maduro and Eric Arturo Delvalle Cohen- Henriquez- both were members of the congregation Kol Shearith Israel.
The Panamanian Jewish diaspora is widely admired for its enthusiastic acceptance of traditional Judaism. According to Rabbi Aaron Laine, 95% of the households keep kosher. Additionally, the vast majority of local Jews attend synagogue, keep Shabbat and educate their children in a traditional Jewish environment. Current estimates put the Jewish Panamanian community at around 14,000 members, making it the largest in Central America.
Six synagogues, three Jewish day schools, and a significant number of kosher restaurants and shops, transform Panama City into the quintessential Jewish urban settlement, thus if anyone is on the lookout for a community with very strong Jewish ties who actively works to preserve its traditional Jewish qualities, Panama is the place to be.