The New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Mendi Karniel, Chabad Panama, to ask a few questions about Jewish life and the community in Panama. The following interview was edited for clarity:
NYJTG: Thank you very much for your time, Rabbi. Could you please provide a brief introduction for yourself? How long have you been residing in Panama, and what prompted your decision to come here?
Rabbi Karniel: I originated from Israel and dedicated my formative years to studying in Yeshiva until the age of 22. Following this, I embarked on my shloshim journey, representing Lubavitch in various locations, such as India and Hong Kong. Subsequently, I married my wife, who hails from France, and we resided there for a year while I continued my studies at the Kollel.
The birth of our first child prompted a desire to broaden our impact, leading us to accept an invitation from the Ashkenazi community to relocate. Initially serving their needs, our increasing popularity underscored the necessity for a dedicated space where everyone, regardless of background, could feel welcomed. Eight years ago, with the unwavering support of our community, we established this space.
In addition to our center, Chabad operates other centers in Panama, including Bocas del Toro, situated on an island, and Boquete, a five-hour journey away, which is renowned for its popularity among American retirees. Another center, Playa Venao, approximately four hours from here, attracts Israeli backpackers and hosts a small local Israeli community.
NYJTG: Can you describe the programs you have for the community and how many members you have? Can you give me some insight into the Jewish population of the communities in Panama?
Rabbi Karniel: Upon my arrival here, I witnessed a notable influx of individuals from Venezuela and Argentina, leading to rapid community expansion. While our community has now reached a stable point, growth continues as locals form families and new members join us. Panama is home to approximately 4000 families, totaling around 15,000 individuals. Ensuring that every member feels embraced and at home within our community remains my primary goal.
At the Chabad of Panama, we pride ourselves on our unwavering commitment to treating everyone with equality, regardless of their outward appearance or religious beliefs. Following the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, we place significant emphasis on the neshama—the divine soul within everyone. Our mission is to ignite this inner flame within every Jew, providing them with the necessary energy to enrich their lives and fostering a profound connection to the shared soul of the Jewish community.
Our Alef Klum program is designed specifically for Jewish children who do not attend a Jewish school, which is quite rare in Panama, where most Jewish children do. It’s crucial to us that these children feel deeply connected to their heritage and community. Each week, these children gather for a nourishing kosher lunch, prayers, and engaging lessons tailored to their age group, ranging from six to thirteen years old. Additionally, we diligently prepare them for their bar or bat Mitzvah, instilling a sense of independence in their Jewish identity. Witnessing the emotional celebration of our first bar Mitzvah two months ago was truly heartwarming. My objective is to provide these children with the tools to read fluently, empowering them to embrace their Jewish identity wholeheartedly. Presently, we have 15 students enrolled in the program, and I am honored to play a role in their growth and development, irrespective of the number of students.
On Shabbat, we warmly welcome between sixty and eighty local individuals for services. Throughout the week, our doors remain open to learners and numerous tourists eager to engage with and learn from our vibrant community.
NYJTG: Transitioning to holiday celebrations, could you provide insights into how major Jewish holidays, particularly Hanukkah, are celebrated here? Are there outdoor Hanukkah events that congregants attend? Additionally, how are festivities observed for Purim and Simchat Torah? Is there a tradition of closing the street for dancing during these celebrations?
Rabbi Karniel: Let’s momentarily set aside our discussion on programs and focus on how we celebrate Hanukkah in Panama. This holiday holds deep significance for the Rebbe, emphasizing the importance of openly embracing one’s identity. Like cities around the world, Panama marks Hanukkah with grand public menorah lightings, drawing around six to seven hundred children each year. In addition to delicious foods like donuts, lively entertainment, and interactive games, this joyous occasion includes the traditional lighting of the menorah. Moreover, we extend our celebration by visiting homes, senior care facilities, restaurants, and offices to distribute menorahs to those in need, with our outreach efforts expanding annually.
During Purim, our celebrations extend beyond the confines of our center. We take our festivities to office buildings and towers, offering Megillah readings to employees. Additionally, we schedule readings at various restaurants throughout the day, ensuring widespread participation in the joyous occasion.
For the Passover holidays, we warmly welcome approximately two hundred guests from across the globe. Our services are conducted in English, Spanish, and Hebrew, with plans to add French due to the growing number of visitors from France. Registrations for Shabbat dinners and lunches typically come through our website or WhatsApp. Recently, we hosted 300 guests for dinner one week and 400 the following week, with a significant number of them being vacationers from New York, especially during Yeshiva week, resulting in a notable increase in tourists visiting our community.
NYJTG: I’ve noticed the remarkable work and program initiated by Rebbetzin Braha Karniel, particularly the offering of Shabbat meal packages for families in need. Could you please elaborate on the program and share how individuals can actively participate, make a positive impact, and contribute to this meaningful cause?
Rabbi Karniel: This program stands out for its exceptional impact, particularly through its provision of Shabbat meals to those in need. The positive effects it brings to the community are immeasurable, and we’re actively seeking more volunteers to help us expand this remarkable initiative, which touches the lives of numerous individuals facing hardship.
The genesis of this initiative can be traced back to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which many activities came to a halt, leaving countless people isolated and unable to cook for themselves. Recognizing this pressing need, we sprang into action. We began preparing Shabbat meals and mobilized volunteers to ensure they reached families and individuals who were struggling. The response was not only encouraging but deeply moving, prompting us to persevere in this mission. Behind each meal package lies a unique story, and the joy it brings to these families every Shabbat is truly heartwarming. Presently, we distribute approximately 90 to 100 meal packages each week, making a tangible difference in the lives of those we serve.
NYJTG: How does the Panama community observe Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah)? Are there particular events or educational initiatives dedicated to commemorating and honoring the memory of the Holocaust within the community?
Rabbi Karniel: Holocaust education is integral to the curriculum in local public schools, ensuring that students receive crucial lessons about this significant historical event. Panama is home to a branch of Yad Vashem, and a museum in the Causeway area showcases a car train imported from Germany, often visited by schoolchildren on educational trips. However, additional efforts such as the Yad of Hashem program have been introduced into our community and seamlessly integrated into school curricula, enriching education on this crucial subject even further.
NYJTG: In reference to the Latin America Kinus Banquet in May 2023, during the two-day event with the Message of Unity, can you provide an overview of the recent event where 30 Shloshim from 11 Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America gathered in Panama City? What was the main purpose or theme of the event?
This collaborative program, co-hosted by myself and Braha Kraniel, was proudly orchestrated by the Chabad of Panama and held at the Chabad House of Panama City. Over the course of two days, we warmly welcomed 30 shloshim from 11 Spanish-speaking countries across Latin America to Panama City. The primary objective was to facilitate the exchange of ideas and reinforce their dedication to advancing Yiddishkeit throughout the region.
The event drew participation from hundreds of local residents, with a strong emphasis on Latin American countries, excluding Brazil and Argentina. Furthermore, the program aimed to include smaller communities within the Spanish-speaking countries, acknowledging the common challenges they face. Through this gathering, our goal was to cultivate collaboration and solidarity among Jewish communities across the region.
NYJTG: What is the process for guests to contact you regarding Passover holidays, Shabbat dinner registration, or making reservations?
Guests can easily reach us for Passover holidays, register for Shabbat dinners, or make reservations through various channels:
Website: We have a dedicated section on our website where guests can find information about Passover holiday events, meal registration, and reservations. They can fill out an online form to register for meals or make a reservation directly through our website.
Email: Alternatively, guests can email us at [firstname.lastname@example.org] to register for Shabbat meals or make reservations. They can provide their details and preferences.
Regardless of the channel they choose, guests can expect a warm and accommodating response from our team as we strive to make their Passover holiday experience memorable and enjoyable.
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Story by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide.com, and New York Jewish Guide.com
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