The work that Kulanu does in assisting emerging, returning and isolated Jewish communities is perhaps the most thrilling and significant work I have been involved with in the almost 35 years I have served as a rabbi. As Kulanu volunteers, my wife Bonita and I have journeyed to India, Cameroon, Central America, and even New Guinea, in the service of the Jewish people. The place where I believe we have made the most immediate impact was the Jewish community of Nicaragua.
Our work there began in early 2012 when Kulanu received an e-mail from Kurt Preiss, president of CIN, Congregacion Israelita de Nicaragua. Kurt had previously met Daneel Schaechter, a Kulanu board member and coordinator for Latin American communities. The email asked for Kulanu’s help in arranging for the conversion of members of his community.
In June of that same year, Rabbanit Boni and I decided to take the three hour flight from Miami to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, to evaluate the situation. What we found was a gracious and hospitable community led by Kurt Preiss whose parents had been Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. At its peak, in the early 1970’s, the community had numbered about 250 members and had a lovely synagogue in the center of Managua. The congregation included some of the leading businessmen in the country, most of whom were descendants of Central and Eastern European Jews who had immigrated to Nicaragua beginning in the 1920’s.
As a result of Nicaragua’s long civil war (1970-1987), the community was decimated. Community members scattered, most finding refuge in South Florida. During the war, the synagogue was torched and subsequently lost to the Jewish community. With the advent of free elections in 1990, which led to the ouster of the revolutionary government, a small revival of the Jewish community began. Some former residents returned. This group was joined by a small stream of Americans, mostly retirees and small businessmen.
When we arrived, we found a community of about 50 members with few children or young people, and very little hope for the future. However, the community did have some pluses going for it. The first was president Kurt Preiss, a generous, dedicated, and capable community leader. The second was Carlos Peres an educated Jew of Converso descent who had received his Jewish education in yeshivot in the USA and Israel. Carlos was a gifted teacher who offered his family’s country home to members of the community for gatherings and celebrations. Third and most importantly, there was a group of people who, while not Jews according to Halacha (Jewish law), identified strongly with the Jewish community and were welcomed to its functions as “participants” rather than as “members”. These individuals, whom I call Jewish enthusiasts, were invited to all community functions but could not receive aliyot (blessings during the Torah reading) or be counted as part of the minyan of ten Jews needed for communal prayer. These friends of the congregation were, for the most part, the children and grandchildren of Jewish men who had married local women. Many of them had recognizably Jewish surnames.
What these families wanted desperately was to be considered integral members of the Jewish community and of the Jewish people. They had been preparing for an eventual conversion for some time without knowing exactly how and when it would take place. Carlos regularly conducted classes in Judaism, a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) was built, and some of the men and male children had undergone circumcision. We were deeply moved by their sincerity and love of Judaism and the Jewish way of life. We were determined to help.
The following November 2012, after a delay caused by Hurricane Sandy, we convened a Beit Din (Jewish court) of three Orthodox rabbis and traveled to Nicaragua. During this visit, we converted 14 individuals including two children. The conversions were followed by four weddings for what now were Jewish families. The joy and the excitement we witnessed was so exciting and enriching, not only for the newly minted Jews, but for us as well. One year later, in January of 2014, we returned with the Beit Din for a second conversion. Professor Tudor Parfitt, Distinguished Professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University with a specialty in Jewish studies, joined us and was welcomed warmly by members of the community.
This second group consisted of family members of the first group, as well as a few individuals who claimed no Jewish background but simply had fallen in love with Judaism. I was most impressed with Pablo, a gentleman almost 60 years old with major medical problems, who underwent circumcision because he wanted to live fully as a Jew. This time we converted ten adults and four children. This was followed by four more Jewish weddings. The excitement and joy of both the brides and grooms, one set of whom were grandparents, on being married as Jews was almost palpable.
Since our first visit, the community has grown to include the first Jewish baby born in Nicaragua in decades. There will soon be a Bat Mitzvah. One of the young men from the community went to Israel to participate in the Maccabiah games. Another milestone was the gift of a piece of land by a community member for the construction of a new synagogue. With the unexpected and unfortunate passing of Carlos Peres, Akiva Simcha, a young medical student who hopes to eventually attend rabbinical school, teaches a weekly schedule of classes on Jewish subjects.
There is no longer any fear that the Jewish community of Nicaragua is destined to disappear. But rather, there is optimism and hope for the revitalization of a dying community, or what Kurt Preiss called “an extinct community born again.”
This experience has taught me how in all corners of the world there are Jews who courageously and joyfully, and sometimes at considerable sacrifice, are determined to live Jewish lives. It has shown me the power of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. I feel honored to have played a part in this story.
For more information on the community, please see : http://congregacionisraelitadenicaragua.weebly.com
*Wedding canopy and wedding blessings