Har Carmel in Guatemala. Rebuilding and Growing a Central American Jewish Community

I have been traveling to several Central and South American countries as part of my interest in photography and I have tried to get a flavor for the Jewish culture in each of these areas. Recently, I visited Guatemala and spoke with several members of the Jewish community.

While preparing for my trip to Guatemala, I read an article in the Jewish Ledger by Rabbi Abraham Tobal of the Mount Sinai Alliance in Mexico City, where he identified a significant Jewish issue. He stated “the loss of Sephardi tradition is not caused by mixed marriages. These are just a result of a cultural erosion that can be compared to the Holocaust. The Holocaust killed physically, and this kills our essence.”

Rabbi Tobal’s observation applies not just to the Sephardic tradition in Mexico City, but to all of the small Jewish communities — Sephardic and Ashkenazi — spread throughout Central and South America, which are struggling to survive.

Outside of Mexico City and in small Central American countries such as Guatemala, the challenge of preserving Jewish tradition is huge. In fact, it’s not unusual for Jews living in any of the Latin American countries to travel to Mexico City looking for a Jewish spouse.

Guatemala is a country approximately the size of Louisiana with a population of 13.9 million, of whom about 280 families, or 800 individuals, are Jewish. One of the biggest problems this small community is facing is how to preserve and grow the Jewish population.

“There are no new Jews moving to Guatemala,” said Jaime Russ, a senior member of the Jewish community in Guatemala. “And many of the young Jews move away because they don’t have good opportunities here and they are drawn to the culture in the United States.”

This exodus is mainly the result of the limited career options and a limited “dating pool,” not because of environmental conditions. Guatemala offers a temperate climate and a stable political structure. It has a lengthy and rich Jewish culture dating back to the late 1800s, when many German Jews immigrated in response to the first signs of anti-Semitism and a stagnating European economy.

“Back then, there was a mix of professions: doctors, writers, businessmen and farmers,” Russ said. “Many of them couldn’t find Jewish mates in Guatemala even at that time, so about 40 percent went into mixed marriages, and many abandoned their Jewishness.”

Later, after World War I, there was another influx with Guatemala absorbing many Jews who had been turned away from the United States when its quotas for immigrants were filled. And some single Jews came when they were turned away by Cuba, because Cuba would only allow married couples to immigrate there.

These people did not arrive with great wealth. Many were like the grandparents of Zelik Tenenbaum, who came to the Central American country from Poland with a single gold coin to their names in 1930.

“They were tailors, and that’s how they started out,” Tenenbaum said.

The second generation of Jews began to contribute significantly to the economy of the country, managing textile mills and coffee plantations, and getting into real estate, construction and holding companies. During a brutal 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, many Jews left Guatemala, depleting the population. And now the third generation is gravitating more towards professional careers and studying in the United States, not wanting to return to their homeland.

“I have four daughters,” the 42-year-old Tenenbaum said, “and it is important to me that they marry Jewish men so that they can continue with our traditions. We take them to the United States and other Latin American countries for them to meet Jewish boys and girls. We want them to have a strong Jewish identity. We are working with the Joint Distribution Committee to bring Jews from other countries here. But looking forward — it’s tough.”

Guatemalan Jews have created a strong sense of community and freely practice their faith. Ninety-eight percent of the population lives in Guatemala City, where there are two temples, the Sephardic, with about 180 members, and the Ashkenazi, with about 200 members. Rabbi Richard Kaufman, who is originally from Uruguay, serves the two temples.

“Both temples work together to be a united Jewish community,” Jaime Russ said. “Both are a mix of Orthodox and Conservative — the food is kosher, we celebrate all the holidays — if one temple has a program, the whole community becomes involved.”

The Guatemalan Jewish community is one large family, agrees Marcelo Acesbrud, executive director of the Comunidad Judía Guatemalteca. “We may have different political and religious beliefs, but we are still one family. We celebrate together, we mourn together, everyone respects one another,” he said. “We are very proud of Jewish projects, and we are lucky to have men with vision.”

One such man with vision is Joey Habie, a businessman who is leading the construction of Har Carmel, which, if it were being built in the U.S., would be called a planned community.

“A trust fund was created by the Jewish community and 150 acres of real estate was purchased just 25 minutes outside of Guatemala City for $1.25 million,” Habie said. “We are building housing, a synagogue, a community center, soccer fields, a park… this will be a far-sighted project.”

There will be 200 lots of 10,000 square feet each sold at $25,000 per lot with five years to pay at no interest.

“We expect 250 people will live here — half the lots are already sold — some will be here full-time, some will have vacation homes. There will be senior housing so that seniors can live together in a Jewish environment,” he said.

“Talent from within the community will be evident in all aspects of this project, just as the community joins together to look after its members in other ways, such as employment and health issues,” Acesbrud says.

Although their community is small, the Jews in Guatemala make a contribution in more ways than just as part of the economy. Jews have been elected to high-level positions in the government, such as the Guatemalan Congress, and they serve in many government offices.

“Jews are respected in Guatemala. We participate in the political and civic arenas,” Acesbrud says. “There are four million evangelical Christians in Guatemala, but there is no problem with anti-Semitism. It’s a very integrated society — everyone participates at every level.”

Habie’s community of Har Carmel will provide a hub for the Jewish population that is also a safe haven with state-of-the-art security linked to local law enforcement.

“These are normal precautions in today’s world,” says Habie. “Security is a world-wide issue.”

Har Carmel is attracting American Jews who are building vacation homes, and Jews from Argentina who are fleeing the economic crisis in that country. It is beginning to look like the project will fulfill its goal to help build up the Jewish community in Guatemala.

With that prospect, Zelik Tenenbaum’s four daughters will hopefully find husbands and settle down in their homeland to preserve the Jewish traditions and it will no longer feel, as their father says, “like we are the last of the Mohicans.”