If you’ve never visited Panama (and no I’m not biased), Pesach is a perfect time to plan a tour of this lovely Central American country. Panama has a long and proud history of Judaism, and is a popular spot today for both visiting and establishing a retirement home. It’s even referred to as the “new Miami” (not sure if that’s good or bad but hey I’m not a Floridian).
A Little About the Jewish History of Panama
It’s thought that the first Jewish settlers in Panama were Spanish and Portuguese refugees. After Panama became a part of Colombia in 1821, at the end of Spain’s colonial rule, many Sephardic Jews from the island of Jamaica also settled there, as well as Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe. By the mid-nineteenth century, a larger number of Caribbean immigrants and refugees from the Netherlands came to make their home in Panama.
Judaism in Contemporary Panama
During periods of earlier settlement, intermarriage and assimilation did not support a strong, traditional Jewish community. But in recent decades, traditions have strengthened, and Panama is home to a proud Jewish community today. Many recent Jewish immigrants arrive from the United States, attracted by the comfortable climate, the presence of Jewish community, and I sued to say the strong U.S. dollar (although in Panama the USD goes a lot further than in the rest of the world — still today) (Panama has established many incentives to lure American retirees.)
Trivia Worth Sharing
What’s a little known fact is that Panama is the only country in the world, other than Israel, that had two Jewish presidents in the twentieth century. Most Panamanian Jews are very traditional today in their practices. At least 85 percent of households keep kosher, and most observe Shabbat. In this small country, there are eight kosher restaurants and numerous other businesses that provide kosher foods such as breads, cheeses, or cakes. In Panama City, you’ll even find a famous kosher supermarket known as “Super Kosher.” It’s one of the largest kosher stores outside of Israel, this thriving market offers over 10,000 kosher foods and products from Israel, Europe, the United States, and Panama.
In addition to its wonderful kosher selections, Panama also now boasts three integrated Jewish schools with a total over 1,600 students, and several synagogues. Over 10,000 Jews live in Panama today. While most have settled in the capital, there are also populations in Colon and David.
Tourism in Panama
Panama has become a quite popular tourist destination. Its close proximity to the United States makes it a convenient travel spot for U.S. travelers, and the U.S. dollar is accepted in Panama. The countryside is beautiful. Panama offers the contrasts of lush jungles, mountain villages, and unspoiled beaches, as well as the cultural attractions of cosmopolitan Panama City. On my visits to Panama, I’ve most enjoyed getting out in the countryside and enjoying the slow-paced life of areas such as Chiriqui, with its flower and coffee plantations stretched out for miles.
I also enjoyed visiting the mountain village of El Valle. I was staying in Panama City, so I drove along the stunning Pacific coast to get there. El Valle is known for its wonderful market, where you can buy native products ranging from handmade baskets and ceramics to fruits and vegetables.
Of course Panama City, the country’s capital, offers a variety of sights, from art galleries to ancient ruins. My favorite part of Panama City is the Casco Viego, its old quarter, where you can purchase artwork of the country’s Kuna Indians, and see the historical Plaza Bolivar and Palacio Presidencial.
A Panamanian Pesach
During Pesach, the small but strong Jewish community unites in celebration. While I’m going to be home in Israel this year if there’s enough interest we’ll organize a Pesach in Panama (PIP) in the coming yearsâ€¦..I’m gauging interest.
Against the backdrop of such natural and varied beauty along with a rich Jewish cultural heritage, it’s hard for me to imagine a more enjoyable place in which to spent Pesach than in the heart of Panama (OK besides at home in Israel).