Jewish Life in El Salvador

by Aaron Sztarkman

The Salvadoran Jewish Community was founded in the late 1940s predominately by Jews from the Alsace-Lorraine area in France. Jews from Central Europe followed and in the subsequent years, the community swelled to nearly 400 people until the beginning of the Civil War in 1980 when kidnappings and murders started to take place and the community was dramatically reduced to around 120 people.

The Civil War, which lasted more than 12 years (it lasted from the late 70s through 1992), was a turning point in our Jewish community since most of our members fled to Israel and the U.S. During that time, we had no rabbi. We had no one who could read Torah, except for one Israeli. We had no proper synagogue. Our community was barely breathing.

Nonetheless, the Jewish spirit continued to thrive in the most difficult moments and we somehow managed to have Kabbalat Shabbat services (my uncle Max would lead them) in family homes. We managed to support a youth movement made up of more than 20 kids. Called Noar Shelanu, young people would receive informal Jewish education on Saturday mornings since we were without a rabbi. We also managed to have Bar and Bat Mitzvot, brisses and Torah readings for the High Holidays.

When the Civil War ended in 1992, some of the Jews who had fled began returning. These were people who were concerned about the future of our community and their children. So the search for a rabbi began and after a couple of candidates, a young rabbi named Gustavo Kraselnik from Argentina was chosen. His enthusiasm plus the drive of the community started to yield results and in a short time, we had a community newspaper, Torah readings for every holiday, Hebrew and Judaism classes, informal education for youth during the week and committees that were devoted to different values in Jewish life and community priorities.

One of the most important things that took place during this time were the conversions within our own community. Many of the members of our community had been living Jewish lives all along, but since they were products of mixed-marriages, they were not halachkically Jewish. Our rabbi would gather a Beit Din every year and perform conversions, along with marriages of couples who never had the chance to have a Jewish wedding or who were starting a family.

Many “lost” Jews in the country, mostly with children, started to take note of how the community was flourishing and decided to become more connected to ensure a Jewish education for their family. Many of these young people were given the opportunity to attend Jewish camps in Israel, Latin America and the U.S. to strengthen their identity. The community grew to 150 members more or less, which is the current number today.

In terms of how we define ourselves, we always say that we are too Conservative to be Reform and too Reform to be Conservative. Some people regard us as “Conservative Egalitarian.” Our Rabbi Fernando Lapiduz from Argentina has increased Jewish life significantly. Since last year when he and his wife, Patricia, settled here, the community has had a boost in terms both of spirituality and attendance. We can proudly say that we have minyan every Shabbat morning and holidays, with many people contributing by reading from the scrolls.

Some four years ago, an initiative to found a Tikun Olam committee with 20-30 year olds was put in motion. Its objective was twofold: to fulfill the Tikun Olam mitzvah and to activate this demographic that was in a community void. The main focus of the committee was to help in education, mostly in public schools. We help three non-Jewish institutes that are scattered around the country: a kindergarten (150 kids), an elementary school (1,200 kids) and a vocational center (200 youth). Interestingly, all three schools are called, “State of Israel,” even though they are not Jewish since many schools here are named after countries. We help mostly with infrastructure, books, sporting goods and musical instruments. The committee organizes events like ping-pong tournaments, movie nights or raffles to raise funds for these projects.

Trying to live a Jewish life in this country is often difficult. One big obstacle is that there is no kosher food available. Another big problem is the fact that we are so few and familiar with each other that marrying a Jew here is almost impossible. Mixed marriages with converted partners are the rule, unless you find someone outside the country.

But as I said earlier, the Jewish spirit thrives in difficult times. And those difficult times and moments are the ones that make us want to be better Jews for our community and our families.

Aaron Sztarkman, 36, is Chair of the Tikun Olam Committee. He is a part-time musician and the father of Leah, age 3.