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Jewish life lives on in the Dominican

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Congregacion Mesianica Shalom (File Photo)

In a little-known chapter of Holocaust history, a Caribbean country that’s smaller than Nova Scotia offered what Canada didn’t: refuge to Jewish people fleeing the horrors of the Shoah.

While Ottawa’s “none is too many” immigration policy blocked entry to thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis, the Dominican Republic was offering up to 100,000 visas to Jews. The Dominican Republic, under dictator Rafael Trujillo, was the only country that said it was willing to accept a large number of Jews at the 1938 Évian Conference, which was held to discuss the Jewish refugee problem. Trujillo was hoping to redeem his international reputation, following his army’s unprovoked massacre of 15,000 Haitians. He also hoped to  “whiten” the Dominican population through intermarriage with Europeans and to advance the country’s agrarian economy.

Only about 700 refugees arrived, and in 1940, the kibbutz-like Jewish settlement of Sosúa, which is about 200 kilometres north of the capital, Santo Domingo, was founded. It’s still highly respected for its legacy, including the enduring Productos Sosúa dairy factory. Sosúa Mayor Ilana Neumann is of Jewish descent.

On a recent trip there, I tried to see the Sosúa Synagogue and Museum, to learn about the community. A young guard made an “all-finished” gesture with his hands, indicating that the buildings were closed for a month. A month? Were these sites mere vestiges of a lost community?

Each morning, I returned, as both sites were next to our hotel and were pulling at me like magnets. Each day, the sleepy guard shook his head impassively.

Mid-week, a burly tour guide named Pablo approached me. He had a big smile on his face and asked me if I wanted an excursion. I declined, but asked if he knew anyone in the Jewish community I could talk to. He disappeared and returned with a crumpled piece of paper. “Benny,” he replied. “He’s an old Jewish man with many Jewish things.”

The next day, I found the Congregacion Mesianica Shalom synagogue. A Magen David and menorah adorned the facade. A pretty woman named Alicia greeted me. She had a chai necklace around her neck and a Jewish calendar and Israeli flag on her desk. Her husband, Benny, was out, but she agreed to talk to me. She said that Sosúa’s Jewish community celebrates Shabbat and the holidays, including Hanukkah, with Mayor Neumann present.

Congregacion Mesianica Shalom (File Photo)

“Dominican families keep traditions without knowing why, or where they come from,” Alicia explained. “At Easter, they change dishes, like we do at Passover. After a funeral, there’s a vessel for washing your hands. Mirrors are covered. Ask people why – they can’t answer! These are Jewish observances, which were handed down.”

Alicia believes that many Dominicans are of Jewish ancestry, but until an Israeli academic finishes a research project on the subject, numbers are hard to come by.

When her son met his fiancé’s grandmother, she saw his kippah and brought out a collection of her late mother’s ritual Jewish objects, saying, “We too are from Jewish roots.”

“There’s a strong teshuvah movement,” Alicia explained, as she reached for a dog-eared Bible that was written in Spanish and contained both the Old and New Testaments. Evangelical Christians seek her out, thirsty to explore and reclaim their Jewish ancestry. She read highlighted biblical passages and referred to Jesus as the messiah. I did a double-take.

“Jesus?”

“Yes,” she replied. “Jesus was the messiah, but we’re still waiting for his return. We’re waiting for Mashiach.”

How does she reconcile those beliefs with being Jewish? Is this form of Judaism shared by other Dominicans who identify as Jewish? She offered explanations, but none of them made much sense to me.

(File Photo)

It dawned on me that the country’s Jewish community has, to a great extent, morphed into an evangelical Christian-Jewish blend. I wondered whether that’s better than Sosùa’s Jewish character disappearing entirely.

We discussed how the community celebrates holidays in the building, free of any anti-Semitism, and how the synagogue continues to honour the original settlement’s legacy. She insisted that I stop at Parque Mirador, which is conveniently located beside my hotel.

We fell into a bear hug before I left. “El próximo año en Jerusalén,” she whispered. “Next year in Jerusalem,” I replied.

Dr. Rosen Street, which is named for the representative who negotiated Jewish settlement here, leads to Parque Mirador. It features a breathtaking view of the sea, Israeli and Dominican flags, an asphalt Star of David and a plaque that reads: “In honour of the Jewish colony.”

The couple strolling arm-in-arm and the boys on skateboards didn’t hear the echoes of Jewish history at the site, but to me, they were deafening.

Afterward, Pablo greeted me at the hotel and we approach the guard again. Would they open it for 10 visitors, I asked.

“Yes, for a group of 10,” he replied.

“Excellent, tomorrow at 10:45, I will bring 10 people,” I said.

That night, I gathered my group. The next day, we waddled to the hotel entrance. There was a small flurry of activity in front of the Sosúa Synagogue and Museum. A woman, her husband and two boys looked longingly at the grounds.

She introduced herself as Mariledis and explained that she’s a Dominican who lives in Italy and is home for the holidays.

“I’m Jewish,” she says, showing me her gold chai necklace.

Mariledis asked the guard for a phone number and within seconds was gesticulating impassionedly. “Cinquo minutos,” she implored.

The guard took the phone and unlocked the gate. We were released onto the grounds like giddy kids on the last day of school.

We peered through the museum window at photos of early settlers and what appeared to be Article 1 of the International Declaration of Human Rights. The synagogue’s stained glass windows depict the story of Creation. We darted throughout the grounds, pausing at a stone plaque from a recent commemorative ceremony, which says: “Anniversario de la llegada de Judios” (Anniversary of the arrival of Jews to Sosúa, Puerto Plata).

The closing words of the museum exhibit read: “Sosúa, a community born of pain and nurtured in love must, in the final analysis, represent the ultimate triumph of life.”

Though most original settler families have left, the triumph of Sosúa is that Jewish life lives on, in some form.