The Jewish community of Puerto Rico dates back to the days of the Spanish Inquisition when this Caribbean island was discovered during Columbus’ second voyage to the New World in 1493. On board were a number of Anousim (Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism and who kept their Judaism secret) hoping to avoid religious persecution in the new land.
But the Inquisition followed the colonists, so many secret Jews settled in the island’s remote mountainous interior (as did the Jews in all Spanish and Portuguese colonies). Some of the early Anousim were also soldiers.
Although, officially, “heretics” were supposed to be remanded to regional Inquisitional tribunals in the western hemisphere or returned to Spain, in practice, since Anousim lived far from the concentrated centers of power in San Juan, they were able to live relatively peaceful lives and to marry among families with similar histories.
Historians believe that Luis de Torres, who spoke Hebrew among other languages and who accompanied Columbus as his interpreter, was the first “converso” Jew (another term for Anousim) to set foot in Puerto Rico
Modern Jewish community
In the last century, the first large group of Jews to settle in Puerto Rico were European refugees fleeing German–occupied Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The majority settled in the island’s capital, San Juan, where in 1942 they established the first Jewish Community Center of Puerto Rico.
A second influx of Jews to the island came in the 1950s, when thousands of Cuban Jews fled after Fidel Castro came to power. Puerto Rican musician Augusto Rodríguez founded the Hebrew Festival Chorus of San Juan’s Jewish Community in the 1950s.
In addition, Jewish-American soldiers were assigned to the military bases in Puerto Rico and some choose to stay and live on the island.
Puerto Rico has the largest and richest Jewish community in the Caribbean, with 3,000 Jewish inhabitants. It is also the only Caribbean island in which all three major Jewish denominations — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform — are represented. Sha’are Zedeck, established in 1953, represents Conservative Judaism; Beth Shalom, established in 1967, represents Reform Judaism; and Chabad, established in 1997, represents Orthodox Judaism.
There is additionally a Satmar Community in the western part of the Island in Mayaguez known as Toiras Jesed. Kosher food is available for order through Chabad and Hebrew school classes are held at the Jewish Community Center.
Today, in the western and less populated portion of the island (Puerto Rico is 110 miles long by 65 miles wide), there are groups of families who still retain a Jewish consciousness.
Over the last thirty years, major efforts on behalf of evangelizing Protestants and messianic Jews have eroded what was for over four centuries an exclusively native Catholic population.
Return to Judaism
Harry Ezratty was the island’s Reform congregation president in 2006. He notes that he has seen more and more native Puerto Ricans attending Friday night services. Some of these visitors began asking about the Jewish holidays, he says, as well as the laws of keeping kosher and other religious rituals. Slowly, requests to help uncover their family’s pasts began to appear.
Ezratty noted, too, that many were from small towns and remote communities, or had grown up in such places before moving to San Juan (see the note above about Anousim families settling outside the major towns to avoid the Inquisition). Soon, some were attending services regularly and asking for help to convert.
The Jewish community in Puerto Rico has since begun regular programs for those seeking to explore their possible Jewish heritage. These include classes in Jewish law, history and tradition; attendance at Bible study; providing books and materials in Spanish; and an outreach program for spouses in mixed marriages.
Today, almost 25% of the Reform congregation is Puerto Rican (the remaining 75% are mainly those who came from the American mainland to run factories, start businesses, work in the tourist sector, run government programs or engage in academia).
On October 31, 2005, the Senate of Puerto Rico approved Resolution 1480, recognizing the contributions, which the Jewish community has made to the way of life of Puerto Rico, and the friendship which exists between the peoples of Puerto Rico and Israel.
Here are some more links on Puerto Rico:
Haruth has details on the modern community in Puerto Rico
There is an interesting story about a Puerto Rican (not Jewish) who converted in the U.S.