I was born in Panama. If you could see my very pale complexion and auburn hair, you might find that statement hard to believe. I don’t look like your typical Sephardi Panamanian born Jew. The truth is that I grew up in New York and left Panama when I was six months old. The Jewish community and kosher scene in Panama has grown exponentially over the past 50 years. Panama is now a very popular kosher vacation destination for Passover programs and all year round.
Origins of the Jewish Community in Panama
The first Jewish community in Panama was started by Sephardi Jews from the Caribbean Islands and Ashkenazi Jews from Europe on their way to California during the Gold Rush. They stopped off in Panama and never left. Over the past 20 years, the Jewish community in Panama has tripled due to an influx of immigrants including more than 1,000 Israelis. Panama is home to between 12,000 and 14,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in Central America. Most of the Jews live in Panama City, where the majority of Panama’s synagogues and kosher restaurants can be found.
Jewish Community of Panama in the 1970s
It was during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s- early 1970s when my father went into the U.S. army. Fort Clayton was a U.S. army base in the Panama Canal Zone, which was an unincorporated territory of the United States between 1903 and 1979. I was born in a hospital in the Canal Zone and have citizenship papers to prove that I'm a U.S. citizen.
When my parents arrived in Panama, they lived in Panama City for six months until they got housing on the base. Panama City had a shul, Shevet Ahim with a mikveh adjacent to the shul. After they moved to base, they would stay in a hotel in Panama City for the holidays so they could walk to shul and be part of the Jewish community. Shevet Ahim and the Jewish community was mainly in Cangrejo but has since moved to the Bella Vista neighborhood. Rabbi Levy, the Rabbi of Shevet Ahim, was a strong leader for the Jewish community in the 1970s. There were no kosher restaurants in Panama City at that time. There was a kosher supermarket, the Comisariato Kosher which sold kosher meat and chicken as well as imported kosher products.
Panama City (Photo: Envato)
Jewish Life in Panama City - 50 Years Later
Panama has become a very popular Jewish tourist destination. Panama City boasts the world’s largest kosher supermarket and almost 40 kosher restaurants and shops. With so many popular tourist attractions and availability of kosher food, synagogues and mikvehs, no wonder many of my friends have chosen to vacation in Panama.
The Panamanian Jewish Community has three synagogues: the Orthodox-Sephardi Shevet Ahim, which has four synagogues in the city and three in beach resorts; the Orthodox Beth El synagogue; and the reform Kol Shearith Israel synagogue. Additionally, there are four mikvaot in the Shevet Ahim building, as well as a kolel with more than 40 avrehim, a Talmud Torah, a Midrasha and a women’s university. There are also Chabads in Boquete and Panama City.-WorldJewishCongress.com (updated 2018)
As in most cities around the world, Panama City has an active Chabad House with three minyanim a day and services and meals on Shabbat. They also provide meals for those spending Pesach in Panama. A recent visitor to Panama told me that the food was great and there were many restaurants to choose from. They went to the Beth El Synagogue on Shabbat morning. Security is very tight and visitors must register and send their passports in advance in order to get into shul. All the synagogues share the list so once you register for one, you can get into all of them. Many tourists and locals prepay and eat lunch in shul on Shabbat.
Ship crossing Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks (Photo: Envato)
Tourist Attractions in Panama
It’s important to research Jewish life and kosher food options when planning your vacation, but you also want to go somewhere with sightseeing and fun activities. Panama doesn’t disappoint. Panama has a tropical climate, with the weather remaining consistently hot throughout the year. Panama has a dry season and a wet season. The coolest months are usually October and November, at the end of the rainy season but it is very humid. The hottest months are usually March and April. There are indoor and outdoor activities to keep you occupied during your vacation in Panama.
Panama City is a good starting point for a vacation. There are museums, shopping malls and the wonders of the Panama Canal. You don’t have to go too far to lounge on the beaches, hike in the rainforest and take in the beautiful views.
Biomuseo: The museum focuses on the natural history of Panama, whose isthmus was formed very recently in geologic time, with major impact on the ecology of the Western Hemisphere. The colorful building was designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.
Bocas del Toro: Visit the beautiful soft sand beaches of Bocas del Toro.
Isla Taboga: About 12 miles from Panama City, has beautiful beaches, Jet Ski rentals, speed boats and fishing charters.
Metropolitan Natural Park: The nature sanctuary is the only tropical rainforest in the world located within city limits. The park is just minutes from downtown Panama City.
The Amador Causeway: The road extends into the Pacific Ocean, connecting the capital to the Causeway Islands. You can rent bikes, scooters or Paddle board in the Panama Bay.
Capuchin monkey waving from a tree on Monkey Island in Lake Gatun, Panama (Photo: Shutterstock)
Monkey Island: tour around Gatun Lake and the Panama Canal and see the monkeys native to Panama. The tours take you around the waters that surround the rainforest along the canal and visitors are able to feed the monkeys. I was told by one visitor to Panama that “you shouldn’t miss Monkey Island.”
Although I haven’t been back since I was six months old, this Panamanian Jewish gal is ready to start planning my next vacation. I’m sure that my parents would have loved the convenience of all the kosher food that is available in Panama City when they were living in Panama 50 years ago. Kosher travel around the world has gotten much easier over the past 20 years with so many kosher restaurants and Chabad in virtually every city. The biggest dilemma with planning your Panama trip is having to choose between all the delicious restaurants and the amazing attractions.