Liberal Jews seek support, solutions in Central America

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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Proving that Jewish solidarity can flourish in a most unlikely place, a little-known alliance of liberal Jewish congregations has emerged in Central America.

Eager to share their experiences, representatives from congregations throughout the region converged on Costa Rica's capital last month to participate in the annual meeting of the Union of Liberal Jewish Congregations from Central America and the Caribbean.

The union — whose liberal congregations correspond to the U.S. Reform movement and other alternatives to Orthodoxy — was formed with the goal of forging Jewish connections in countries where pockets of Jews are struggling for recognition and, in some cases, survival.

Despite differences in nationality and language, the participants shared a desire to discuss the issues confronting the progressive Jewish movement in this part of the world.

"We often feel like the poor, forgotten relative compared to some of the wealthy communities with such abundant resources," said Martha Lichtenstein, the union's incoming president, who hails from Aruba. "This gives us a voice."

The union — which includes representatives from Aruba, Cuba, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama and Puerto Rico — has gained surprising momentum since its inception in Costa Rica four years ago.

What began as an informal meeting among four countries has blossomed into a weekend event involving hundreds of Latin American Jews, including native sons, transplants from other countries and a substantial number of converts.

"When this idea first got started, we thought how wonderful it would be to get to know all these little congregations from throughout the region. It just took off from there," said Marvin Sossin, the union's outgoing president and a member of Costa Rica's Reform Jewish congregation, B'nai Israel.

Four more Jewish communities — in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, the Bahamas and Bermuda — have expressed interest in sending representatives to next year's event, tentatively scheduled for Jamaica in January.

Blending cultural, academic and religious elements, this year's conference featured a series of workshops and discussions, interspersed with Friday night services, a Saturday night dinner and the election of a new board of directors.

Speakers and special guests included Israel's ambassador to Costa Rica, Daniel Gal, and rabbis from Central America and beyond.

The conference also drew a representative from the U.S. Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which the Latin American delegates considered an important step toward worldwide recognition.

According to Angela Sacher, the UAHC's Miami-based regional outreach director for the southeast United States, there are many similarities between Jewish life in Latin America and the region she normally handles.

"Some of the smaller communities that I work with struggle with the same issues that I have learned about in Costa Rica," said Sacher.

The issues confronted by union members are as intricate as those faced by small congregations anywhere else in the world. Some of the touchier topics — among them interfaith marriages, and whether being "progressive" means permitting gay marriage — are familiar to liberal Jews throughout the world.

The union is currently working on a Web site that will include a description of the organization and a brief history of each member congregation. For more information about the union, contact Martha Lichtenstein at [email protected].