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Showing Posts from Panama  |  View All

Stop the Car or Turn Left?

September 12, 2017 3:43 PM

Most of my fellow roving rabbis have already returned to their respective yeshivas, and we’ve spent some time exchanging stories from our time abroad. While this is not a new discovery, a common thread of our tales is the Divine Providence that seems to be working overtime to enable us, despite our limited human capabilities, to discover precious Jews isolated in some truly far flung locales.

On a Friday afternoon, we were driving though the small town of Boquete. We passed a cafe and thought some of the people sitting outside might be Jewish. We backed up and parked in front, but as we were about to exit the car, I suddenly felt uneasy suggested we continue driving. We turned left and drove down a side street where we spotted a young man walking. We rolled down the windows and called out, trying not to startle him, “Hey, are you by any chance Jewish?”

He stared at us for a moment before replying, “Yes, I guess you can say I am ethnically Jewish.”

This time, we got out of the car. “Wow, we’re so glad we bumped into you!” We introduced ourselves and our mission, and he told us that his name was Andrew and his mother was a descendant of one of the two main Jewish families in the region. His family had immigrated to the States before Andrew was born, and had returned to Boquete when he was nine. He told us he currently attends university in the States, and was visiting his family during his summer break.

After some more chatting, we showed him our tefillin and asked him if he wanted to put them on. He wasn’t too keen. Moving on, we asked him if he wanted to join us for Shabbat dinner in a few hours, and he was enthusiastic about that. We gave him all the details. Ten minutes before the start time, he texted us that he wouldn’t be able to make it, so we gave him the option of joining us for Shabbat lunch. To our surprise, he did show up, and actually stayed until the end of Shabbat. Before he left that evening, he offered to take us on a hike at one of the local mountain ranges the next morning, which we happily accepted.

We hiked and chatted, and when we reached the peak we again brought up the tefillin. Andrew was still ambivalent. “Andrew, we’re pretty sure no one has celebrated their bar mitzvah on this mountain. You’ll be making history!” This, along with all the quality time we had spent together, seemed to shift his perspective and he finally agreed.

He was soon wrapped up and repeating the accompanying prayers after us word by word, followed by lots of photos and some spirited dancing. Luckily, none of us is afraid of heights!

On the way down, Andrew wanted to discuss every detail of what had transpired: the meaning of tefillin, of the shema prayer, of a bar mitzvah. It was clear that it had all affected him very deeply. He hugged us both and we thanked him for the hike and told him we would definitely keep in touch.

The three of us have since returned to the States, and we have kept up via the wonders of modern technology. In fact, next week, Andrew is coming to New York for a visit, and we have plans to catch up in person. All because we decided to turn left.

Just Light the Candles!

August 31, 2011 1:00 AM
We received the warmest welcome.
We received the warmest welcome.

“If you are looking for Jewish people, you have to meet Joanie on the next island,” a resident of Bocas del Toro exclaimed with excitement. “She has become the source of everything Jewish in this area.” Jumping into a water taxi, we made our way to Caremero, the next island over. At Caremero, we began walking around the exotic island to find the Jewish people we had come to visit. With no street signs, we had to continually ask people for directions. At one point we even thought we would not be able to find the people we had come for. But we did not give up, and after asking a few more people and walking around a little bit more, our efforts paid off.

Walking up a pastel-colored restaurant dock on the water, not really knowing who we were looking for, a woman jumped out of her chair and ran towards us. “Chabad! I can’t believe you are here. What are you doing here?” She invited us to sit down for a drink, and for the next several hours we discussed a gamut of topics. Just as we were getting ready to leave, we decided to end the visit with a few words about the importance of lighting the Shabbat candles. But as soon as we started, she replied, “It’s too much. I can’t prepare my house for Shabbat every week. There is no way it will happen!” “Don’t worry about the house,” we reasoned, “just light the candles.” As soon as she heard these words, she fell back in her chair and looked as if she had been struck by lightning. “What did you say?” she asked in a dazed voice. “Just light the candles,” we repeated, not knowing why these words had struck such a raw nerve, but she interrupted us and began to tell us her story.

“I had unsuccessfully been trying to have children all my life. One day it looked like I was going to have a beautiful healthy child; I was in my eighth month, and things were going really well, when suddenly, inexplicably, I had a miscarriage. The doctors told me to stop trying. They said I was not made for childbirth, and I was on the brink of accepting their advice.

A short while later we were visiting Israel. I felt horrible. Life had no meaning. And as I was sitting there pondering my fate, I fell asleep and began to dream. I saw my grandmother. She looked happy to see me. She told me, “If you want to be blessed with kids, light the Shabbat candles.” “But it’s too big of a job,” I complained. Her response seemed to put me at ease, convincing me that I could do it. She simply said, “Just light the candles.”

“I decided to begin lighting the Shabbat candles,” she said, and then pointed to the playground where a bunch of children were playing. “You see that boy and girl with the beautiful blond hair? Those are my Shabbat candles.”

Learning the Hebrew letters and having fun doing it. These kids were born after their mom started lighting Shabbat candles.
Learning the Hebrew letters and having fun doing it. These kids were born after their mom started lighting Shabbat candles.

She continued, “At first I was very careful to light the candles, but over time I stopped. My children are now seven years old. And here you rabbis come, and say to me the exact words my grandmother told me. G‑d is sending me a message, I will not forget.

“This time,” she said with visible pride, “my prayer will be for you. What I should pray for? Are you married?” she pointed to me. (Lipa is getting married, please G‑d, right after the summer.) “I will pray for you, and I promise you will see results.” Her confidence and excitement was clear for anyone to see.

We got into our water taxi to make our way back to our accommodations, I don’t know the end of the story, but I sure want to find out.

From G‑d to Shulem with Love!

August 29, 2011 1:00 AM
Shulem in our tefillin.
Shulem in our tefillin.

When you are doing what we do, a guy like Shulem is the kind of guy you want to have around. You see, we Roving Rabbis travel to cities all over the world. And as exotic as that sounds, it’s not always sunshine. Think of it this way: You’re a young man, fresh out of yeshivah (rabbinical college), with no training in business or public relations. Yet your job is to go out there and find people. Let’s just say that it is not always a cakewalk. But getting to know Shulem was a rewarding experience. Shulem, a fella in his mid-forties, with a warm, humorous personality, helped us spend less time as detectives and more time interacting with the local Jewish population.

Shulem lives in David, the largest city in western Panama. (We are told that it was named by Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. Apparently they wanted it to have a Jewish name, but not one that would attract too much unwanted attention.) We had decided to make David our hub. Our plan was to make small trips to various cities in the region, returning to David for supplies and accommodations.

On one of our trips we found ourselves in Boquete, which Forbes ranked as the #3 retirement destination in the world. As we made our way around this beautiful city with sparkling mountain air, we decided to check in with Shulem.

“Do you know anyone in Boquete?” we asked him over the phone.

Somewhat surprised, he responded with his own question, “You are in Boquete?”

“Yes, why?”

“I am in Boquete right now for a business meeting. Why don’t you come on over?”

When we got there, he was noticeably excited. “You don’t understand. Less than a minute before you called, I was telling the person next to me that I needed to call you, but I had no idea you were in town.”

We began to talk, and we soon found out that Shulem puts on tefillin every day, ever since the last group of Roving Rabbis taught him of their importance. Today he had forgotten his tefillin at home in David, and he was worried he would not be able to get home in time to put them on. We handed Shulem our pair, and he put them on with great delight.

He then said to us, “G‑d always helps me put on my tefillin. He makes sure I never miss; today, you were His messengers. Good job!”

Sunday on Monday

August 11, 2011 1:00 AM
A wonderful place to be, but is it a good place to be stranded on a Monday?
A wonderful place to be, but is it a good place to be stranded on a Monday?

Did you ever wonder what it would be like if Sunday was not a day off, as it is in most of the world, or if Saturday was not the day of rest, as we Jews celebrate it? Well, you don’t have to imagine too much, because on this island of Bocas del Toro the slow workday is Monday. You might say it’s too bad we weren’t privy to this information in advance, but the truth is that G‑d runs the world and everything is for the best.

We woke up early Monday morning, prayed, and checked out of our hotel room. Making our way over to the ferry terminal so that we could get to our next city on our itinerary, we found out that there are no ferries on Monday—it’s their day of rest! Oh boy, what now? So we decided to spend the time sleuthing for more Jews, and it’s a good thing we did (but that is a post all for itself).

That night, it took more time than anticipated for us to find a water taxi to take us to our new accommodations. “Let’s check one more place,” suggested Lipa, and just as we were about to get into the boat, we heard some women calling us: “Rabbis! Where is Chabad?” We put down our things and went over to them. It turned out that they had just arrived on the island as tourists, and the first thing they set out to look for was Chabad. We told them that we were on our way out, but we did share some unopened kosher meat packages with them. They were so happy. “We haven't had kosher meat—or any meat for that matter—since we began our trip,” they told us. “This means so much to us, thanks.”

We had to be on that island one more day, even if it was just for them. And the next time you have trouble finding a taxi—well, maybe there is a reason for that too.

The Man on the Mountain

August 10, 2011 1:00 AM
Showing us pictures of his many descendants.
Showing us pictures of his many descendants.

I now know the limits of a Yaris! We were in Boquete, one of the retirement capitals of the world, driving up a steep, winding, picturesque mountain to visit an 81-year-old Panamanian Jew. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think our Yaris would make it to our destination—not because it’s a bad car, but because the road was so wild. But we did make it to the top of no man’s land, where we were welcomed by a giant reddish fence shaped like a Star of David and a flock of flapping chickens and peacocks!

If I thought the road up to this man’s property was rough, it was nothing compared to the steep winding driveway to his actual house atop this scenic mountain. As we drove to his house, we slowly became more and more aware that we had no way of turning our car around, nor would I possibly be able to back our way out of this crazy driveway.

At the door of the house, a man with greeted us warmly and invited us in. As we sat down, he vividly described to us his religious journey. “Before my bar mitzvah,” he related, “my father, of blessed memory, wanted me to learn Hebrew. But I had a bad experience with my Hebrew teacher. I was so angry, I didn’t have my bar mitzvah until I was eighteen. Even then, I just parroted the words without any meaning.”

Then he pulled out his siddur (prayerbook) and tefillin, showing us with great pride that he could now read any prayer or psalm with ease. “When my father passed away, I took it upon myself to learn the things that would have made him proud. Rabbi Laine (the Chabad rabbi in Panama City) has always been warm and receptive to me and my struggle. I have a lot of admiration for him, and all my kids love him. I am happy that they got a better Jewish education then I did.”

Lipa, who always has wise things to say, shared an appropriate Torah thought, connected to the weekly Torah portion, on the great importance of initiative.

He then showed us pictures around his house of his 29 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. “A lot of them will be rabbis,” he told us.

As much as we wanted to continue this fascinating visit, our phone rang, and it was time to meet our next person. Walking us to the door, this 81-year-old man volunteered to back our car out down the winding path. He got into the driver’s seat, and with great ease backed the car out. He joked that that we should see what he can do with a car during the day, moving forward!

Camp Is on Wheels!

July 14, 2011 1:00 AM

Here are some pics of another great day at camp. As you can see, the weather is great and the spirits are high.

Pontoon biking is a bit harder than some of the kids expected at first, but we all had a fantastic time. These young fellows got a hands-on lesson on unity: when we all pedal together, we can all reach goals that we could not reach on our own.

Prayer Pics from Panama

July 13, 2011 1:00 AM


Not much time to talk. We just want to let you know that we started our day camp. Yesterday we went biking and did lots of other fun things. Today’s plans include bowling, a water balloon game and other activities.

Here are some pictures of the kids praying and learning before we headed out for the day. Enjoy!

Yaacov leading the kids in a quiet game.
Yaacov leading the kids in a quiet game.

These young fellows know that everything in life comes from G‑d.
These young fellows know that everything in life comes from G‑d.

Ready to have a great day, but first he needs to pray.
Ready to have a great day, but first he needs to pray.

Learning comes alive as Lipa leads an interactive Torah workshop.
Learning comes alive as Lipa leads an interactive Torah workshop.

Panamanian Panorama

July 11, 2011 4:04 PM
Spanning the Panama Canal. Photo credit: Dirk van der Made
Spanning the Panama Canal. Photo credit: Dirk van der Made

We are in Panama. Here are the highlights of our first few days:

Someone upstairs is certainly looking out for us. Bogged down with extra luggage, we made our international flight within 45 minutes of takeoff. The guy who checked us in told us that he “never does this” and then proceeded to whisk us past the 300 person security line.

Shabbat in the local synagogue was beautiful. It was the Shabbat before a major wedding in this community, and the excitement was palpable. It was inspiring to see how joyous everyone was in anticipation.

On Friday night we hosted 150 Israeli backpackers for a Shabbat dinner, replete with spicy salsa, stirring songs and suspenseful stories. People were very moved. Some of the guests joked that if they had only known how “damaging” such a dinner would be for their secular lifestyles, they would have never come.

Last night was the wedding. We sang under the chupah (wedding canopy), mingled with people, and made ourselves useful. We also helped open the new kosher kitchen in the Riu Hotel - the kitchen will remain kosher for all upcoming Jewish events.

Tomorrow we are starting a two-week day camp for some lucky Jewish kids. We plan to do some cool projects with them. One idea is a tiled unity mural. With G‑d’s help we'll keep you posted.

After camp we plan to explore other parts of Panama to find more Jews.

We hope to send you pictures when we are able.

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