Sunday, April 10, 2016

Jews of Dominican Republic

     Nadene Goldfoot                                                              
A beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic in the Caribbean
The Alcázar of Colón, located in Santo Domingo, is the oldest Viceregal residence in all of the Americas.
Is anyone adverse to taking a vacation on a Caribbean island these days?  How about the Dominican Republic?
Some Jews from Western India who were Sephardim were the first to venture here to live in the city of Santo Domingo.  Santo Domingo, is the oldest continuously inhabited city and the first seat of the Spanish colonial rule in the New World. The Jews  were probably escaping the Spanish Inquisition around 1492.  It was much later that Ashkenazin arrived on this beautiful island from Europe in the latter 19th century.

" In the 19th century Jews from Curaçao settled in Hispaniola, although they did not form a strong community. Most of them hid their Jewish identities Marranos, now called (Anusim),  or were unaffiliated with Jewish tradition by that time. Among their descendants were Dominican President Francisco Henríquez y Carvajal and his issue Pedro Henríquez Ureña,  Max Henríquez Ureña, and Camila Henríquez Ureña. "Hazim and Majluta” which are Sefardi names, are representative of the large number of such Jews who settled the island throughout the 1800s."
The Dominican Republic is a Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti to the west. Though known for its pristine beaches, all-inclusive resorts and golfing, it has a varied terrain comprising rainforest, savannah and highlands, including Pico Duarte, the Caribbean’s tallest mountain. It has Spanish colonial history going back 500 years, and passionate merengue is its official music and dance.

Christopher Columbus landed on the island on December 5, 1492, which the Taíno people had inhabited since the 7th century.

WWII brought on the Evian Conference. "In March 1938, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt convened a 32-nation conference at Evian-les-BainsFrance, to discuss the resettlement of German and Austrian Jewish refugees to other lands. At that time, the Nazi regime was still agreeing to let Jews emigrate if they transferred their assets to the German government. As a result of it, a colony of over 1,000 European Jewish refugees was established here in Sosua, but most emigrated after WWII, and a few remain. "The Dominican Republic  helped settle Jews in Sosúa, on the northern coast.   About 700 European Jews of Ashkenazi Jewish descent reached the settlement where each family received 33 hectares (82 acres) of land, 10 cows (plus 2 additional cows per children), a mule and a horse, and a US$10,000 loan (about 161,000 at 2016 prices) at 1% interest.   Other refugees settled in the capital, Santo Domingo   One of the descendants  turns out to be my 4th cousin, found through DNA tests through 23&Me that we both took.  We've also sent our results to so will have another view of our DNA there as well.  

The Dominican Republic in 1938 proclaimed their willingness to admit 50,000 to 100,000 Jewish refugees, but the project made little progress.  It was 1939 that my uncle in Germany boarded the last ship and arrived in the USA, something that was very difficult to carry out. 

Dictator Rafael Trujillo had taken over the Dominican Republic by military force in 1930 and lost power in 1952 after his assassination.  He feared takeover by Haiti – the French, black, and poor country that shares the island.  He was the only one  willing to take in the Jews, probably to cover up his reputation, having massacred 25,000 Haitians in 1937.  He also had in mind to "whiten" the people on the island, expecting the European men to marry Dominican women and have light-skinned children.They were expected to become agricultural workers rather than "commission agents," though.  

"The Joint Distribution Committee created a special organization, the Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA) and funded it to purchase 26,000 acres in the Dominican town of Sosua, which had previously been developed as a banana plantation but then abandoned by the United Fruit Company." They gave a guarantee to the Jews.  "The Republic ... hereby guarantees to the settlers and their descendants full opportunity to continue their lives and occupations free from molestation, discrimination or persecution, with full freedom of religion ... civil, legal and economic rights, as well as other rights inherent to human beings."

None of this worked out.  At the time, people on the island were living in dirt floor huts.  Most refugees wanted to go to the USA if at all possible.  They had no idea of what was in store for them.  Only 50 people were able to make it to the island.  "Submarine warfare in the Atlantic and the need to use Allied ships for troops and supplies made it incredibly hard to relocate refugees.

In October 1941, the Nazis cut off Jewish emigration from the territories they occupied in Europe. Sosua’s Jewish population peaked at about 500. By this point, DORSA had invested about $1 million in the project.

 " In 1943 the number of known Jews in the Dominican Republic peaked at 1,000.  The Sosúa’s Jewish community experienced a deep decline in the 1980s due to emigration during the touristic boom of Sosúa when most Jews sold their land to developers at exorbitant prices. The oldest Jewish grave is dated to 1826. Finally,  about 25 Jewish families remained in Sosua. Their dairy business supplies most of the butter and cheese consumed in the Dominican Republic. Next to the town’s synagogue is a museum. The final caption on its exhibit reads: "Sosua, a community born of pain and nurtured in love must, in the final analysis, represent the ultimate triumph of life."
Jewish family of Dominican Republic

In 1990, the Jewish population was 150 people in Santo Domingo, Sosua and a few others lived elsewhere on the island.  The Parroquia Iseraelita is the central Jewish body.  They probably speak Ladino and Spanish.  You know the population was larger at one time because they have 2 synagogues on the island, one in Santo Domingo and one in Sosua. Chabad has established an outreach center in Santo Domingo.  The Chabad outreach center focuses on assisting the local Jewish population reconnect with their Jewish roots and (because Chabad is of the Chassidic Jewish tradition) it is a source for traditional Judaism in the Dominican Republic. In Sosua, there is a small Jewish Museum next to the synagogue. On the High Holidays, the Sosua community hires a cantor from abroad who comes to lead services. Most of the people are Roman Catholics, but the population does have "Islam: 0.02%,  and Judaism: 0.01%. The population of Santo Domingo in the last census was  2,908,607.  There are 10 large cities there.  The current population of known Jews in the Dominican Republic is close to 3,000."
Nadene Goldfoot, I found a  4th cousin on Dominican Republic.
 My cousin wrote that her entire family (Maternal and Paternal) came from the northern part of the Dominican Republic, which has the most concentration of European heritage, including Spaniards, Germans, Italians, and there was even the  small town that served as a Jewish haven (Sosua, Puerto Plata).   She has a mixed heritage which might mean that her ancestors could include some Sephardim from 1492, but she thinks our connection is the European one through her father.  My surname started in Germany, and my grandfather lived in Telsiai, Lithuania before traveling to England and then Ireland to reach the USA just before 1900.
People who did settle here other than Jews were "English and French buccaneers who settled in northwestern Hispaniola coast and, after years of struggles with the French, Spain ceded the western coast of the island to France with the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, whilst the Central Plateau remained under Spanish domain.  France created a wealthy colony of Saint-Domingue there, while the Spanish colony suffered an economic decline.
The colony of Santo Domingo saw a spectacular population increase during the 17th century, as it rose from some 6,000 in 1637 to about 91,272 in 1750. Of this number approximately 38,272 were white landowners, 38,000 were free mixed people of color, and some 15,000 were slaves. This contrasted sharply with the population of the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti) – which had a population that was 90% enslaved and overall seven times as numerous as the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo
Today the population is 73% of racially mixed origin, 16% White, and 11% Black.  Ethnic immigrant groups in the country include West Asians—mostly LebaneseSyrians, and Palestinians.  "The amount of known Jews (or those with genetic proof of Jewish ancestry and/or practiced Jewish customs/religion throughout generations) are close to 3,000; the exact number of Dominicans with Jewish lineages aren't known, however, because of intermarriage between the Jews and Dominicans over a period of more than five centuries. "
"Some spouses have formalized their Judaism through conversions and participate in Jewish communal life while other Sephardic Jews converted to Catholicism, still maintaining their Sephardic culture. Some Dominican Jews have also made aliyah to Israel.

More recently, the publication of the paperback book "Once Jews" has made easily available information on many early Jewish Sephardim settlers in the Dominican Republic."

Resource:  VIDEO


  1. Hello, I am from Dominican Republic, this is a very interesting article, thanks for it but I have some questions, can you give me an email or something so I can contact you.

  2. Hi Ulysses, great hearing from someone from the Dominican Republic. My email is Hope to hear from you and hope I can answer your questions.