El Salvador Purim 2012 Project Progress Report

Kulanu, Inc. (www.kulanu.org/) supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world. The following is a progress report from Rabbi Aaron Rehberg to Kulanu’s board about his six-week visit to Armenia, El Salvador around Purim, 2012. To read background about this community and Kulanu’s earlier work there, visit kulanu.org/elsalvador

The inhabitants of several small, very poor communities in south-central El Salvador greatly desire to connect with the international Jewish community, enabling them to deepen their religious knowledge and practice. Many of the approximately 260 community members are descendants of Anousim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition and retained a remnant of their religious customs.) The rest are Jews by choice. Since 1989, through use of the Internet, the inhabitants of Armenia, with smaller groups in Nauisalco and the capital San Salvador, have learned Jewish prayers, customs, and practices, becoming Shomer Shabbat (keepers of the Sabbath) and Shomer Mitzvot (observant of Jewish responsibilities), praying three times daily and observing Jewish festivals and holidays.

Kulanu has supported this remarkable community by sending Rabbi Aaron Rehberg on three extended visits from Israel to be a mentor and teacher. Rabbi Rehberg, himself a descendant of Anousim, has instructed the community about prayer, laws of ritual purity, ritual slaughter practices, and teacher training for the growing Sunday school. With the help of Kulanu, the Rabbi purchased a computer for the Jewish community of Armenia in order to continue his work via Skype from his home in Israel.

To date we have succeeded in establishing a Hebrew school for children that meets weekly, daily adult Jewish learning, and a semi-annual leadership training/education program in Armenia, one of the El Salvadorian Jewish community centers. We have also provided this community with various religious and educational items and resources necessary for growth; including a computer, Torah scroll, and dozens of books in Hebrew and Spanish.

Our goal is to continue furthering Jewish education while seeking ways to provide better economic and secular education opportunities, to eventually create a self sustaining, integrated and developed El Salvadorian Jewish community that is recognized as such by world Jewry. To this end the following efforts were made:

A third visit has been made to El Salvador by Kulanu Regional Coordinator and community mentor Rav Aaron Rehberg on February 22 – April 3, 2012 for these six purposes:

I. Purim and Megilat Esther

In early March 2012, we had our second community Purim in Armenia, El Salvador. Thanks to the generous support from our donors, I was able to obtain a Megilat Esther scroll to read to the community and organize festive and musical activities for all ages. As promised, the community provided a financial contribution for food equal to that of Kulanu. With the combined funds we were able to purchase a calf and made a trip to Guatemala to buy Kosher wine.

image: Skining the Purim calf. (Photo by A. Rehberg)

Skining the Purim calf;                                                At the Kosher store in Guatemala
(Photos by A. Rehberg)

image: Pitching in all together to share a festive communal meal. (Photo by A. Rehberg)

Pitching in all together to share a festive communal meal
(Photo by A. Rehberg)

II. Matzah/Challah-making Workshop and Oven

Every year in the spring, the same question arises: Where are we going to find matzah that is kosher for Passover? This year we found a permanent solution to this problem by providing the community with an industrial oven and industrial baking tools, which also allows for challah to be made during the rest of the year, enhancing their Shabbat experience and connecting them to this weekly tradition shared by Jews around the world.

image: Making challah dough with the new equipment (Photo by A. Rehberg)

Making challah dough with the new equipment
(Photo by A. Rehberg)

III. Beit Midrash

image: Beit Midrash study sessions (Photo by A. Rehberg)

Beit Midrash study sessions
(Photo by A. Rehberg)

The Beit Midrash program is our most successful instrument yet for Jewish acculturation and community strengthening. Virtually every person, when asked what they wanted to see in the community, replied: a larger Beit Midrash program. The Beit Midrash program provides adults—men and women, young and old—with the opportunity to engage in Torah study and discussion, raising the community level of knowledge and commitment while simultaneously bringing their overall dream of integrating into the larger Jewish world community that much closer. We provided stipends for men and women alike, creating a base study group for this program. Prior to my visit we were able to send various legal works essential to any Beit Midrash. In addition to these books, we also sent 10 new siddurim in Spanish, and 10 in Hebrew.

IV. Shabbatons

image: New books added to the community's library (Photo by A. Rehberg)

(Photo by A. Rehberg)

Shabbat has always been and will continue to be the most frequent and influential Jewish experience. A joyful Shabbat enhances Judaism for all individuals regardless of other time constraints. During this visit the community matched the funds provided by Kulanu for the food and Shabbat supplies, which enabled me to share with them new foods such as Israeli salad, humus, and other Israeli Shabbat cuisine.

On Shabbat I observed many of the youth and adults utilizing the books that we have provided for their library.

V. Youth Programs

image: Making Israeli salad (Photo by A. Rehberg)

Making Israeli salad(Photo by A. Rehberg)

During this visit I was pleased to find that there is a higher rate of Hebrew literacy due to the children's Hebrew School that we helped start a year ago. Unfortunately one of our teachers had to resign from teaching due to university studies, but a new teacher has filled in the gap and is doing a wonderful job teaching through song and creative activities. The community in San Salvador currently lacks a sufficient amount of children in close proximity to start their own program. Most of the families in that community travel long distances in order to participate when able. There remains the question of how to involve the older youth since most of them work and finding a common time for them all to get together has thus far been a challenge, though they showed an interest in a martial arts program. Towards the end of a day of learning, several youth showed up and I engaged them in sparring followed by a discussion continuing on the themes of that day's Beit Midrash program. Creating a youth program using martial arts is an idea that I would like to further develop.

VI. Other News

While in El Salvador I met other communities and community members that we were unaware of. One is the community of Isalco consisting of roughly 13 families. Another is a community of El Salvadorians that have converted through a Chicago Conservative Beit Din. This community is located in Santa Tecla, a suburb of San Salvador. There is another unaffiliated group of people that have spent time in Los Angeles, CA and attended a Mizrahi congregation there. To my surprise, I was also able to visit with the director of the Reform/Conservative group in San Bonito San Salvador, Ricardo Stanly. He has expressed interest in us helping their community organize a Birthright trip similar to what we have done in Suriname. In addition, I made the acquaintance of a young man in Guatemala who is part of a non-messianic group of benei anusim there.

image: Together with some of the men of Isalco (Photo by A. Rehberg)

Together with some of the men of Isalco
(Photo by A. Rehberg)

image: A Few of the women from Isalco (Photo by A. Rehberg)

A Few of the women from Isalco
(Photo by A. Rehberg)


While in El Salvador I spent a lot of time talking with and counseling people. While discussing my trip with Dr. Zeller, he pointed out that a great deal of work that I do is social. I have observed in these people a great desire and love for their Judaism. But despite this, they are held back by their socio-economic state: they are the poor, exploited peasant class of a society that has yet to successfully banish their caste system. In school they learn nothing of the arts: no music, painting, drawing, or creative writing. In their world they are taught conformity in place of individuality, work in place of dreams, and that creativity is useless if it brings no food.

Thus, in order to help their communities grow, we must nurture their creativity so they can begin believing themselves capable of attaining their dreams. They must be taught not to parrot what they think should be said and thought, but rather learn to look down deep inside and find their creative power. Once they have learned to do this, we will guide them in following their dreams. In addition I believe that all the different groups must be unified in their pursuit of a common goal: strengthening their Jewish connection.

The matching funds for Shabbat and Purim were a big success. They saw the need to work together and contribute, and in the end saw that we were ready to help once their effort had come forth. This is the way to continue: we give when they give; we act when they act. In this way we will be able to build a truly independent and stronger Salvadorian Jewish community.

This is a process that will probably take over a decade.

image: Children from Armenia brushing up on their Hebrew skills ( Photo by A. Rehberg)

Children from Armenia brushing up on their Hebrew skills.
(Photo by A. Rehberg)