When Jack Mezrahi was growing up in Barranquilla, Colombia, a small city one hour from the capital, most Jewish people he knew were on their way out. “Barranquilla is a small city, and little by little, families were leaving in search of better business opportunities or a larger community—in Bogota, or Miami.” From over 800 families, he says, only about 160 remain in the city today.
But Jewish families weren’t the only ones leaving. Alberto Manopla, a Barranquilla native, says that the city’s two synagogues—Ashkenazic and Sephardic—had Rabbis who would “come for a year or two and then leave,” to be replaced by other Rabbis serving equally limited terms. A thriving community since about 1948, when many survivors and immigrants from Egypt and Syria established themselves in Barranquilla, the city was slowly losing its Jewish presence. “There was no continuity here,” Manopla says, “the community was warm and close knit, but there didn’t seem to be much of a future.”
So thirteen years ago, a group of families in Barranquilla contacted Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenfeld in Bogota, who was directing Chabad activities there since 1981, for
assistance in recruiting a Chabad rabbi for Barranquilla. “There were Rabbis in both synagogues at the time. I think people were looking at Bogota and seeing the Jewish energy and influence that Chabad had brought to the city, and thinking that may do a lot for Barranquilla.”
As it turned out, a renewed Jewish energy wasn’t the only thing a Chabad presence would do for Barranquilla. Because thirteen years after their arrival in 1990, Rabbi Yossi and Chanie Liberow are still there, and the Jewish presence in Barranquilla has more or less stabilized, Jack Mezrahi says. “People are staying here now,” he observes. “There’s a sense of permanence to Jewish life here that we never had before.”
That, says Alberto Manopla, a long-time resident of Barranquilla, is Chabad’s greatest contribution to the city. “Aside for all the work they do with the youth and the elderly, Chabad has been the only entirely stable Jewish presence in Barranquilla. That on its own has done a tremendous amount for the city.”
This March, Chabad of Barranquilla completes a four-story building to accommodate their full range of community programs and services. The building will house a large social hall, library, youth center, classrooms, kitchens, offices, gift shop and 12 assisted living units for the city’s Jewish elderly.
Replacing a variety of rented facilities used over the years, Manopla says the center will do more than bring together communities of both synagogues under one roof for a celebration of Jewish life. “People look at this building, and it’s pretty clear that Jewish life is here to stay,” he says
The dedication festivities are planned for March 9th, but Alberto Manopla says the project itself is six or seven years in the making. “When Chabad arrived here, many people, though eager for a stronger Jewish presence in town, were wary of the idea of a new synagogue taking members away from the existing ones,” he says. “We wanted to make it clear to the community that Chabad is not a synagogue, and we’re not taking members from anyone. We’re only enhancing the Jewish infrastructure already in place in the community.” It took several years, but Manopla says the community is “100% united behind Chabad’s endeavors” by now, and eagerly looking forward to the completion of the building.
In thirteen years of work with the community, the Liberows have brought “hope, optimism, and a sense of purpose to Jewish life in Barranquilla,” says Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenfeld. “In building a home for the community, Chabad makes it abundantly clear that they are here to stay.”
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