Dominican Republic Jews
April 26th, 2009 by Elijah





The first known Jews to reach the island of Hispaniola were Spanish Jews. They arrived in 1492, when the island was discovered by Christopher Columbus. Anti-semitism, and the Spanish Inquisition, caused many Jews to flee the country of Spain which was home to Jewish people for hundreds of years. Columbus’ crew set sail from Spain, the very day of the Alhambra Decree. The crew had at least five Jews on board. They were Luis de Torres, interpreter; Marco, the surgeon; Bernal, the physician; Alonzo de la Calle, and Gabriel Sanchez. Luis de Torres was the first man ashore Hispaniola. Later, when the island was divided by the French and the Spanish, most Jews settled on the Spanish side which would later become the Dominican Republic. Eventually, Sephardim from other countries also arrived. In the 19th century Jews from Curacao settled in Hispaniola, but did not form a strong community. It should be noted that most of them hid their Jewish identities or were unaffiliated with Jewish tradition by that time. Among their descendants were Dominican President Francisco Henriquez y Carvajal and his son Pedro Henriques Ureña.

Sephardic Jewish Merchants arrived in southern Hispanola during the 16th and 17th Centuries, fleeing the outcome of the Spanish Inquisition. Over the centuries, many Jews and their descendants assimilated into the general population and some have converted into the Catholic Religion, although many of the countries Jews still retain elements of the Sephardic culture of their ancestors.

Sosua, meanwhile, is a small town close to Puerto Plata was founded by Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the rising Nazi regime of the 1930s. Rafael Trujillo, the country’s dictator, welcomed many Jewish refugees to his island mainly for their skills rather than for religious persecution, and with a hidden motive on his part to encourage European and Middle Eastern immigration instead of Haitians. Present-day Sosua still possesses a synagogue and a museum of Jewish history. Descendants of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews can still be found in many other villages and towns on the north of the island close to Sosua.

The Dominican Republic was one of the very few countries prepared to accept mass Jewish immigration during World War II. At the Evian Conference, it offered to accept up to 100,000 Jewish refugees. The DORSA (Dominican Republic Settlement Association) was formed with the assistance of the JDC, and helped settle Jews in Sosua, on the northern coast. About 700 European Jews of Ashkenazi Jewish descent reached the settlement where they were assigned land and cattle. Other refugees settled in the capital, Santo Domingo. In 1943 the number of known Jews in the Dominican Republic peaked at 1000. Since that time it has been in constant decline due to emigration and assimilation. The oldest Jewish grave is dated 1826.

The current population of known Jews in the Dominican Republic is approximately 400, the majority live in Santo Domingo, the capital. A very high percentage of the nation’s Jews have intermarried although some spouses have fomalized their Judaism through conversions and participate in Jewish communal life. There are three synagogues. One is the Centro Israelita de República Dominicana in Santo Domingo, another is a Chabad outreach center also in Santo Domingo and the other is in the country’s first established community in Sosua. An “afterschool” at the Centro Israelita is active on a weekly basis and a chapter of the International Council of Jewish Women is active. The synagogue publishes a monthly magazine “Boletin Shalom”. The Chabad outreach center focuses on assisting the local Jewish population reconnect with their Jewish roots and (because Chabad is of the Chassidic Jewish tradition) it is the source for traditional Judaism in the Dominican Reupublic. In Sosua there is a small Jewish Museum next to the synagogue. On the High Holidays, the Sosua community hires a cantor from abroad who comes to lead services. Both communities maintain well kept Jewish cemeteries.

A great deal of research on the subject of Dominican Jewry was done by Rabbi Henry Zvi Ucko, a writer and teacher in Germany until political conditions and growing anti-semitism led him to emigrate. His travels eventually took him to the Dominican Republic where he organized a congregation in Santo Domingo (Ciudad Trujillo) and began researching the history of Jews in the country. His research covered much of the history of the Sephardic Jews there, and documents the assimiliation that the population went through (and was going through) during his time. Included in his research is correspondence with Haim Horacio López Penha, a Dominican Jewish writer who encouraged Ucko to write a history of the Jews in the Dominican Republic. President Rafael L. Trujillo Molina, pledged the interest and cooperation of the government in support of Ucko’s research.

In 1938, when no other nation would welcome Jewish refugees, Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic strongman, offered to take in 100,000. Between 1940 and 1945, 5,000 Dominican visas were issued, but only 645 Jews actually made their way to the Dominican Republic. The refugees settled in the tiny seacoast town of Sosua, then just jungle land, that Trujillo had established with funding provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Upon arrival, every new Jewish settler was given 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule and a horse. Although most of the settlers were German or Austrian Jews and had professional or craftsmen’s backgrounds, they quickly picked up the agricultural life offered by Sosua and established a successful Jewish cooperative, Productos Sosua that today produces most of the county’s meat and dairy produce.

By the 1940′s, most of the nearly 700 inhabitants had moved to either New York or Miami. Although no longer in the Dominican Republic, the Sosua Jews have maintained a tight-knit community. Until 1980, the town was still entirely Jewish; however, with the opening of the international Puerto Plata airport four miles west of Sosua, the village has turned into a major beach resort.

Today the town has 3,000 full-time residents, with about 70 Jews. Those who did remain in Sosua and held onto their land, have made a fortune. Erik Hauser, an original settler from Vienna, now owns an entire block of the lucrative downtown area, where hotels and restaurants were built on his original 80 acres. He is Sosua’s wealthiest resident. Only about 30 of the original Jewish families remain in Sosua. Sosua has one functioning synagogue that holds services every other Shabbat and on the High Holidays. Passover Seders are held in community members homes and an annual Purim carnival is a major community event. The small Jewish community also has a museum dedicated to preserving the history and story of the town’s original Jewish settlers.

NOTABLE JEWS

Dominican President Francisco Henriquez y Carvajal
His son Pedro Henriques Ureña
Luis de Torres, interpreter;
Marco, the surgeon;
Bernal, the physician;
Alonzo de la Calle,
Gabriel Sanchez.



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