Sephardi in Panama seek a rabbi from within

panama city, panama | For a country once colonized by Catholic missionaries, Panama has managed to produce a remarkably consolidated and Orthodox Jewish community — although the nation’s never had a homegrown rabbi.

That might soon change. But some of the community’s biases — among them the conviction that its sons should go into business — might have to be overcome.

As the Sephardi community’s top rabbi, Zion Levy, nears retirement after 53 years of spiritual guidance, the pressure is on to find a replacement. Levy himself said that he would like to see a Panamanian take over for him, if possible.

Already, there is one Panamanian nearing completion of his studies at a yeshiva in Israel and the Sephardi community hosts a kolel, or seminary, that, given the many secular distractions of this lively tropical country, is notably active.

“This serves as protection for our people,” says 28-year-old Henry Oulfali, one of four Panamanian members of the kolel and an aspiring rabbi. “When people see religious families and their children following the way of the Torah, it is an inspiration.”

The Jewish population in Panama is about 8,000, concentrated in Panama City. According to the World Jewish Congress, in the last two decades immigration has tripled the number of Jews in the community, which includes more than 1,000 Israelis.

The WJC also notes that Panama is the only country aside from Israel that has had two Jewish Presidents in the 20th century: Max Shalom Delvalle, in 1969, and Eric Delvalle Maduro, from 1987-1988.

The country’s Sephardi community is made up of about 7,000 people — most of whom keep kosher and many

of whom observe Shabbat. There is a smaller Ashkenazi community as well.

The Sephardi community traces its roots back to the opening of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, but its ranks include many first- and second-generation families. Its members usually keep within the community as much as possible, helping to avoid assimilation.

Oulfali says that after he got married his parents stopped pressuring him to pursue another profession and that now, after three years in yeshiva in Israel and a stint at a Brazilian kolel, they have been supportive of his dedication to religious studies since his return to his native land in January.

Despite stymied efforts in the past, Levy has high hopes for the future of Jews in Panama.

“My desire is that Panama produces all its needs for religious guidance,” he said, adding that he expects to retire just as soon as a suitable successor is found. “I ask God to give me life to be able to see that.’