El Salvador Jewish Community Emerges from Centuries of Isolation and Assimilation

image: Rabbi Aaron Rehberg with El Salvadoran Jewish children (Photo courtesy of A. Rehberg)

Rabbi Aaron Rehberg with El Salvadoran Jewish children.
(Photo courtesy of A. Rehberg)

In addition to the approximately 60 families which make up the mainstream Jewish community of El Salvador, there are three smaller groups of Jews living in the south-central part of the country in the towns of Armenia, San Salvador and Nauisalco. Here 260 men, women and children, most of whom are descended from Spanish/Portuguese émigrés fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, have embraced their Jewish roots and are following an orthodox life style. The rest are Jews by choice.

For the past 12 years, community leaders have taken to the Internet to learn how to follow Jewish law, how to pray, how to celebrate Jewish holidays and how to practice Jewish traditions and ritual. As with the emerging Jewish community of Cameroon discussed in the last issue of the Kulanu newsletter, the Internet has provided the means for this small community to reach out and reconnect with its Jewish heritage.

In March of this year, Kulanu sent Rabbi Aaron Rehberg of Jerusalem to visit the community for one month to instruct community members in Jewish observance, law and ritual practice. Rabbi Rehberg, himself a descendent of anousim (Crypto-Jews), had visited the community for four days in 2008 on a fact finding mission and was the perfect choice for community mentor and teacher. Not only had he visited the community before and knew its members, but he could relate his own journey of return to Judaism with the path being followed by these sincere and devoted individuals.

Rabbi Rehberg describes his month with El Salvador Jewish Community members (February 27 to March 27) :

"Rabbino, Shalom!" (Rabbi, hello) greets me as I arrive at the Comalapa International Airport in El Salvador.

It takes about half a minute for my eyes to adjust to the bright sun, which seems always to be at its height in this equatorial region. Once I can see clearly, I recognize 15 people from Armenia who have come to welcome me to El Salvador.

image: Synagogue interior and exterior (Photos by A. Rehberg)

Synagogue exterior.
(Photos by A. Rehberg)

"Como estan?" I ask, 'how are you' in the plural form, very aware of my conjugation after completing two online Spanish study programs during the month leading up to this trip. As I am originally from New Mexico, Spanish was a required subject in school. I also picked up a little from my abuelita (grandmother). But El Salvador is my first immersion in a completely Spanishspeaking environment and I have been communicating with the community mostly through translators.

"Anna, Anna!"* everyone begins to chant, not quite in unison. With that I am led to meet my volunteer translator for this trip. Anna Wilson, a petite British lady a few years older than myself, greets me with joy emanating from her eyes and good will written all over her face. I immediately begin to use whatever Spanish I know in order to communicate with community members, while Anna acts as a walking dictionary, correcting my grammar and translating. Her presence is a welcome relief and will help me make the transition from Israel and Hebrew to El Salvador and Spanish.

It is energizing to be back with this remarkable community. Why is this community so special? Perhaps it is the determination and the commitment that seems to permeate the atmosphere and lives of its people. A noteworthy example is the story of Mikhael Alvarado, a man in his mid to late 50s (I was instructed as a child that it is rude to inquire after the age of my elders, so I never asked him his exact age), who is one of the community's founding fathers. Mikhael grew up in an anous (Crypto-Jewish) family that remembered few Jewish traditions. His parents never told him that they were Jewish, only that they were not Christian. His mother used to light a make-shift oil lamp on Fridays. When he asked as a child why she did that, she said that her mother had taught her to do it but she didn't know why.

Mikhael began to suspect that his mother was lighting Shabbat candles.

When Mikhael learned about Judaism as a teenager, he began suspecting that his mother was lighting Shabbat (Sabbath) candles and that his family was most likely descended from Jews who had reached El Salvador while fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition. A visit to a synagogue in Guatemala with his then-employer, an Ashkenazi Jew from San Salvador, piqued his interest. His employer entered the synagogue to participate in the service, but as a non-Jew, Mikhael was denied entry. Although he had the feeling at the time that he was descended from Jews, he had yet to declare himself.

At the same time, he continued to pursue Jewish learning. Eventually, he was circumcised and went to the mikvah (ritual bath), in this case, a natural body of water. Throughout his life, Mikhael has received more discouragement than encouragement from mainstream Jews. But despite many negative experiences, he continues to be one of the pillars of his com- munity's growth and education and is fully committed to his Jewish heritage. It is his fondest wish to one day visit Israel.

The welcoming committee brought Anna and me to Mikhael's home in Armenia, as he was to be our host during our stay in El Salvador. The family served us a lunch that in their world was like a banquet meant for kings. Sitting in the house I could feel an aura of welcome and hospitality exuding from its walls. What I felt was the truth as every Shabbat the house is filled with guests. Even during the week Mikhael's hospitality is extended to the poor of his community who can come and eat at his table. It is clear that he and a couple of other self-employed construction contractors are the financial backbone of the community, and they are neither shy nor haughty in taking care of their less fortunate brothers and sisters.

image: Rabbi Rehberg and two young men from the community. (Photo by A. Rehberg)

PRabbi Rehberg and two young men from the community.
(Photo by A. Rehberg)

Another one of the community's supporters is stone mason Mijael Guzman, who is currently working on a plan to aid other community members fulfill their hopes of financial stability and independence. Mijael's goal is to purchase two stone cutting machines and expand his business. He would buy stone at wholesale prices and then do the cutting as well as the actual masonry. He believes this business would create about 15 new jobs for community members, many of whom are out of work due to the economic problems in the country.

Mikhael's house has two bedrooms, a dining room separated from a small kitchen, a front room with a sofa (used as a living room) and a covered patio with unique, asymmetric wood chairs made by local Native Americans. The simple plastered brick walls are painted with a fresh coat of bright, coral blue paint. Heat radiates off the tin roof, whose only purpose is to keep the rain out. There is no insulation in the buildings here. During the day, people stay outside in the shade to avoid the suffocating heat of the indoors. Hammocks are common and set up in cool shady places where one can sleep away the oppressive midday heat. Anna and Mikhael's wife share one bedroom, divided by a false wall to give each woman privacy. I stay in the second bedroom. Mikhael sleeps on a couch in the parlor.

Armenia is more pleasant than other cities, for it has trees and green spaces to provide some shade and cooling in the heat. Most cities don't. The neighboring city of Sonsonate, for example, has many cheaply painted brick and concrete structures reeking of car exhaust, which permeates the walls of local houses and buildings. Worst of all is the capital. After twenty minutes there, my head feels like it will explode from the auto fumes.

But the mountains are gorgeous and the volcanoes are covered in thick forest reaching toward the heavens. From their summits, one can look down into valleys below and see lakes and streams, fields of corn, forests of wild mango and coffee as well as poor overcrowded villages and deserts of asphalt and concrete soaked with the choking smoke from vehicles that would have been retired from the roads decades ago in a more developed country.

The mountains are gorgeous and the volcanoes are covered in thick forest.

Our meals here always consist of a corn product, mostly tortillas. But these are not the thin yellow tortillas we are used to in the more northern reaches of Latin America, nor those imported into the USA. Rather the tortillas here are the size of small pita and made of a softer, finer, white corn meal. A bean paste usually accompanies each meal. Here the beans are first ground before being cooked because it cuts down on cooking time, which is important in such hot weather and limits the use of expensive fuel.

In Armenia, the Jewish community has its own mill. Often, one of the more well-off community members will buy corn and beans in bulk, grind the meal and distribute it to the less fortunate. And by well-off, I mean those who are employed and make more than the $150/ month minimum wage. The way community members care for each other is one of the most inspiring aspects of this community.

Fish, homemade cheeses and vegetables are the food of choice here as there is no kosher meat in El Salvador. During this trip, I begin teaching Mikhael Alvarado shechita (ritual slaughtering), a course which usually lasts one year if studying in Israel. This is a subject that he has a great desire to learn and we made good progress. The difficult part about slaughtering meat in the Jewish tradition is the knife. Not only does one need to learn how to sharpen it (a precise if not difficult task in and of itself), but one must also develop the sensitivity of checking the knife for inconsistencies in sharpness and kinks in the blade called pigimot (damages). As community members adhere to Jewish dietary laws, they have not been able to eat meat, which would have been traif (unkosher). As a result their Shabbat and holiday meals include varying types of grilled fish instead.

After we finish eating, we move on to the synagogue. Though the synagogue building is a modest structure, it is clean and orderly. The only books present are photocopied Hebrew/Spanish transliterated siddurs (prayer books), about six photocopied Hebrew/Span- ish chumashim (five books of Moses), one photocopied Kitzur Shulhan Aruch (a guide to Jewish law) in Spanish only, and a single Hebrew/Spanish Tanach (Bible). While there I purchased a Hebrew/Spanish book of Psalms and a book in Spanish on the laws of family purity, which I left in the care of Leah Hernandez Grijalva. She is Mikhael and Loli Alvarado's niece and, although only 17 years-old, is a very mature young woman able and eager to assume responsibility for it. Leah wants to be a teacher and is one of two women I met who is studying at the university in nearby Sonsonate. The community shares one pair of tefillin (phylacteries), each man taking his turn in the morning while saying Shema (a declaration of faith in the one G-d). I hope to procure several pairs of tefillin, mezzuzot (prayers affixed to the doorway) and even a Torah scroll before the end of the year.

image: At study in the synagogue ( Photo by A. Rehberg)

At study in the synagogue.
(Photo by A. Rehberg)

Aside from three men in the community who can read Hebrew, everyone relies on transliterations during their daily prayer services. A young man named Yishai Avalos usually serves as cantor. During my stay I encourage him and instruct him on how to teach Hebrew reading to adults, give a drash (explanation) on the weekly Torah portion for Shabbat, and instruct the community in halachic (legal) matters with the aid of the Shulhan Aruch that they have.

His wife Elizabeth, along with his sister-in-law Sara, organize and maintain the community's financial records, while his brother Yosef aids him in instruction. Dolores "Loli" Alvarado instructs women in the laws of nidah, mikvah and kashrut (family purity, use of the ritual bath and the kosher dietary laws). While there, I also provide detailed, practical instructions of these laws with Loli helping to explain them to the other women.

On Shabbat all the families come together and share meals.

The synagogue is part of a compound, which is enormous by El Salvador standards. It sits on about an acre of land that includes the synagogue, three living units, the mill, a communal kitchen, several fruit trees, including a developing etrog (citron) tree and a giant sukkah (in this case a huge patio covered with palm fronds) where people can sleep when guests visit from other communities and groups of people can eat. It is here on Shabbat that all the families come together and share meals. It is also where they have begun to assemble each week for their children's Sunday school. There are usually about 12 family members visiting from the other two villages. They sleep in the sukkah area during their stay. On Sunday, parents study Hebrew with Yishai (sometime cantor).

While I am there, I organize classes for the children and for the adults. Yishai assists me in teaching the adults, each time gradually taking on more of the lead role. Together we work on how to use a mixture of group and individual instruction, audio, text and visual stimuli, new material and reviews, and to act with encouragement while offering a challenge. I must say he is a quick study and quite capable of leading the classes. Among his current students are even a few from the neighboring community in Nauisalco (where Loli is from), about an hour away from Armenia, and from San Salvador, an hour in the other direction. I am able to visit Nauisalco during my stay. There I see a small synagogue, but can see the community has few financial resources. Hopefully, a way will be found for residents there to attend classes in Armenia.

The children's program is my main excuse for being here.

image: Small members of the community (Photo by A. Rehberg)

Small members of the community.
(Photo by A. Rehberg)

The children's program is my main excuse for being here, and a wonderful excuse it is. The first Sunday there are about 35 children in attendance. I put them in a class with David Guzman, the first community member who took the initiative to learn Hebrew on his own David learned by using the Internet whenever he had the opportunity and by studying Hebrew materials left in the community by Christian missionaries. He is the unanimous choice because of his love of reading. At the beginning, he has two helpers, the two young women studying to be teachers at the university.

By the second week, the two neighboring communities are sending their children to Armenia on Sunday to learn. I believe there will eventually be as many as 70 or 80 children attending. David is recruiting his neph- ew, Rueven Beltran, to help with administrative duties and teaching. Reuven is a college graduate and has a burning love for Judaism and Torah. Malkiel Grande, whose children attend classes, assists the teachers.

When Ishai and Yosef were children, the community tried to put together a Hebrew school but lacked the organizational skills and experience to do so. This time around it should be easier because they are developing the tools to succeed. I tell David and the teaching staff that for the younger group, reading Hebrew is less important than using projects and games centered on letter recognition and sounds to encourage interest. For them, it has to be fun, I say, or else they won't pay attention.

I explain to him that once a child is eight or nine, then he/she can begin to read words and sentences. I also remind him that the children are also learning to read and write Spanish in school and they should not feel too overloaded. I suggest he read aloud to the children and have them repeat. Maybe provide them with goals and prizes. Tell them Bible stories and make sure they know the stories before they read them. I say it will help them in their learning. I also suggest they combine Spanish and Hebrew reading. I will probably have to remind him about these and other pointers. Thanks to Skype and email we can be in frequent contact.

Speaking of computers, Skype and the Internet - While in El Salvador, it became apparent that community members were dependent on Internet cafes that were unreliable and expensive and would be ineffective for research and long distance learning. With support from Kulanu, I am able to purchase a new computer for the community with multi printer/copy/scanner capacity and I install Skype for face to face communication once I am back in Israel.

Anna could only stay for part of the trip, but she didn't let her language skills become a crutch for me and instead prepared me to function on my own. Even after she had returned home, I continued teaching classes, interviewing community members and moving forward with the organization of the Sunday school.


Can you help the emerging Jewish community in Armenia, El Salvador, find books and Jewish ritual objects? They observe Sephardic Orthodox practice and could use daily, weekly and high holy day prayer books and blessings after meals (preferably Spanish and Hebrew - some copies with transliteration). They also need tefillin and mezuzot and two copies of a Tikkun for Torah-readers (Hebrew only).

If you have access to these items, please contact Rabbi Aaron Rehberg (in Israel) at: elsalvador@kulanu.org.

Since returning to Israel, I have continued instructing Yishai, Yosef and the other teachers in Hebrew comprehension and instructional methods. They often have questions as they are preparing for the week's classes and a few other adult students can be seen huddling around their new computer to listen and learn. Skype is an invaluable resource, as my progressing Spanish language skills still require some occasional hand gestures to be completely understood.

My positive feelings for this special community remain with me and I continue to be inspired by their good heartedness and generosity, their devotion to Judaism and their communal spirit of helping their neighbors. The community has already begun to give what financial support is possible to Yishai Avalos, their primary adult educator and cantor, who is married with two daughters. This is one more example of the strength of this community. It is well organized and functions very well with a clearly defined leadership structure that has been together and growing in their knowledge and observance of Torah and Judaism.


* *Anna Wilson, a British citizen and professional translator with an interest in far-flung Jewish communities, met Kulanu president Harriet Bograd in England last year and volunteered to serve as translator for the first eight days of Rabbi Rehberg's stay in El Salvador.

The Good People Fund

Kulanu thanks the Good People Fund for its generous support of the El Salvador program.