Dominican Jews Adapt

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  |  12/19/1999

SOSUA, Dominican Republic - Midway through the Shabbat service, after belting out Judaism's most sacred prayer, Benny Katz uttered several words that most Jews would say qualify him as Christian.

With his son shaking a scratchy-sounding noisemaker, his niece jamming on a keyboard and other relatives on a tambourine and on drums, Katz, accompanied by a bouncy merengue beat, blew into a ram's horn and asked his small congregation to repeat after him: "Glorious is Jesus. He is our God!" he chanted, dancing among 15 answering congregants along rows of assembled lawn chairs on an open-air patio next to his home. "Hallelujah, Jesus. We are following your path."

Few statements so succinctly show the assimilation of the second- and third-generation remnants of the once-thriving Jewish community here, historically important because it was accepted in this Caribbean nation when other countries such as the United States turned their back on Jewish migrants during the Holocaust.

Katz is the son of one of the first of 645 Jews to immigrate during World War II to the Dominican Republic's north coast. Thousands more who received Dominican visas left Europe and illegally entered countries such as the United States and Argentina.

While Katz's father's family was never very religious, they were traditional Jews who kept the High Holy Days and believed that the messiah has yet to come. Katz, however, said he believes Jesus was and will be the messiah.

The pattern of assimilation is common worldwide, specialists say.

"I am not worried about there being some assimilation," said Benno Weiser Varon, a Jewish history professor at Boston University who once served at the Israeli ambassador to the Dominican Republic. "In Latin America, this is a minority. There is a strong Jewish community in South America, especially in Argentina.

"But I would accept them as Jewish, even though some very Orthodox rabbis might not."

Like many descendants of the pioneering Jews who in 1940 began taming this patch of raw, tropical jungle into arable land, Katz married a non-Jewish Dominican. Today, however, his wife, Alicia, wears Star of David earrings and leads Shabbat services, singing prayers in Hebrew.

She considers herself and her children Jewish, although she has not formally converted. There are now only a few more than 70 Jews or those who consider themselves Jews living in Sosua, and nearly a quarter belong to the Jews for Jesus sect. Most of the others are secular.

Other than posting traditional mezuzas - small cases containing a Biblical verse - on the doors of their homes, they exhibit few signs of their religion. Katz sees no contradiction between the mingling of Catholic and Jewish traditions.

"We are just as Jewish as anyone else who believes in the Torah," said Katz, 36, a mechanic and motorcycle racer, who wears the traditional skull cap and shawl during the services his family holds each week. "We just believe Christ is our savior."

Katz's 82-year-old father, Martin, one of only two of the
initial Jewish refugees remaining in Sosua, is not concerned about his son's deviation from tradition. Nor is Martin Katz's friend, Arturo Kirchheiman, 91, the other pioneer still living here, who jokingly calls himself "the godfather of Sosua," because he helped develop the town and make it a tourist destination.

Both smiled and shrugged when asked about Benny Katz's nontraditional beliefs. To the two elderly pioneers, both of whom married Catholics and at one time raised pigs to sell as pork throughout the Dominican Republic, assimilation is part of the community's natural evolution.

"My son and his son were bar mitzvahed," said Martin Katz, who still speaks Spanish with a German accent. His son and grandson did their bar mitzvah with a rabbi visiting from elsewhere in Latin America.

"That's enough. Our traditions will continue, even if they change some," Katz added. "But the Jewish community's future in Sosua is not bright. There are so few of us left."

With only 63 cents in his pocket, Martin Katz arrived in Sosua on an Italian ship after fleeing his home near Frankfurt. Before departing from Genoa, Italy, in 1940, the 22-year-old clothing designer had little idea where the Dominican Republic was. He knew, however, that he was one of the lucky ones.

Less than a year later, Kirchheiman, at age 32, sailed from Portugal on the third of nearly a dozen ships that ferried European Jews to Sosua. Months had passed since he had escaped from his Hamburg home, a time passed in hunger, imprisonment, and negotiations for his freedom with German forces in southern France.

Katz, Kirchheiman, and thousands of other Jews mainly from Germany and Austria benefited when the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo declared his government would issue 5,000 visas to the stranded European Jews.

Trujillo's generosity - when no other nation would welcome Jewish refugees - remains a mystery. Three years earlier, the Dominican leader had ordered 30,000 Haitians killed in an effort to halt the mainly mulatto Dominican population from becoming darker-skinned. The Jews here say he either wanted to atone for his bloodshed or to help "whiten" the Dominican Republic.

When the Jews arrived, with help from international Jewish organizations, each settler was given 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule, and a horse. Although many of them had no background in farming, they learned quickly. Today, Productos Sosua, the Jewish cooperative for which Katz and Kirchheiman worked for many years, produces most of the Dominican Republic's meat and dairy products.

Despite the success in overcoming a dense jungle and surviving multiple strains of malaria, typhoid, and other debilitating diseases, Sosua's Jewish community may not be able to surmount the more benign obstacles of assimilation and migration.

While the community is refurbishing its little-used synagogue and a small museum preserves the early settlers' history, Sosua has evolved from a small farming town to become one of the Dominican Republic's centers of tourism. The tourists, many of whom are German, come to enjoy Sosua's beach and aquamarine bay.

Most of the Jews who arrived here and their descendants have moved to the capital, Santo Domingo, or immigrated to Miami and New York. Only 300 Jews remain throughout the Dominican Republic.

Benny and Alicia Katz, despite their belief in Jesus and the New Testament, say they are upholding his father's traditions, observing Shabbat on Friday nights and High Holy Days such as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish New Year.

Benny only recently found Jesus. Driving home a few years ago on one of the Dominican Republic's perilous mountain roads, Katz said he had heard strange voices in his head telling him he would not make it back to Sosua.

So he called on Jesus for help.

"I said, 'Jesus, if you help me get home safely, I will serve you the rest of my life,' " Katz said. "It's what has kept our family together."

David Abel can be reached at

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