JTA / July 15, 2003
By Larry Luxner
MEDELLIN, Colombia -- It's 7:15 on a Friday morning at Congregacion Bet-Or in Medellin -- a city known more for drug-smuggling than davvening. Yet davvening is exactly what 12 Jewish men, mostly in their 60s and 70s, are doing here in this Orthodox synagogue tucked away in an upscale residential area next to the Banco Unión Colombiano.
During the amidah, or silent prayer, the sounds filtering into the empty synagogue become apparent: birds chirping, a dog barking from an apartment balcony, early-morning traffic whizzing by on nearby Avenida Poblada. The few elderly worshippers here seem as much a fixture in this building as the potted palms around the pulpit, or the beautiful stained-glass windows representing the 12 tribes of Israel.
It wasn't always this way. Medellin, a city of three million inhabitants, today has only 360 Jews, down from 1,000 less than 20 years ago.
"The richest ones have already left for Miami or Israel. The rest of us have stayed here," says Moisés Milwer, a retired real-estate developer whose father settled here in 1933 from Russia. For years, Milwer has led religious services at Bet-Or; most days, he's lucky to get a minyan.
Things aren't much better at the Comunidad Hebrea Sefaradí de Bogotá, whose members are mostly of Syrian, Turkish and Moroccan origin.
"Two hundred families from our shul have left the country in the last few years because of the situation. This is very sad for the community," says Rabbi Shlomo Meir Elharar. "Before, on Yom Kippur, we had to add chairs because there wasn't enough room for everybody."
The reason for the Jewish exodus is obvious: a rash of kidnappings and murders that has made Colombia, with 41 million people, one of the most violent nations on Earth.
Today, only 4,200 Jews live here, about 60% of them in Bogotá, the capital. The remaining 40% live in Cali and Barranquilla, with smaller numbers in Medellín and the island of San Andrés. How that compares with years past depends on who you ask.
Abraham Menashe Fefer, president of the Centro Israelita de Bogotá, says that at its peak in the 1970s, some 12,000 Jews lived in Colombia. Alfredo Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of that same congregation and director of the Colegio Colombo-Hebreo, insists there were never more than 7,200 Jews in the country.
Yet the recent election of President Alvaro Uribe — a pro-American politician who has taken a hard line against guerrillas and common criminals — may be inducing some Jews to come back to Colombia.
"At this moment, there's a trickle of people returning," said Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenfeld, the director of Lubavitch Colombia. "There's a feeling of stability with President Uribe, and secondly, it's not that easy economically in the U.S. Once upon a time, running to the States was a solution to all your problems. Today, people realize that's not a solution."
Even so, it's clear that Colombia's Jewish community has shrunk substantially in recent years, with many people making new lives in South Florida, Israel or Costa Rica.
"Most people have left precisely because of the uncertainty, economic stability and kidnappings," said Fefer, noting that 10 to 20 Jews were kidnapped by left-wing and right-wing guerrilla groups in the last two decades. One of them, Peter Lewinsky, was killed by his captors in the 1980s; another one, Benjamin Khoudari, was murdered in 1998.
"I'm an optimist. I don't agree with the Jewish exodus," says Fefer. "I think that yes, we have problems, but that we'll solve them in the long term. Opinion within the community is divided. Some people think like me, others think we're crazy for staying here. But I'm very proud to be Colombian, and I'm very proud to be Jewish."
Goldschmidt, a 57-year-old Argentine rabbi who has lived in Colombia for the last 26 years, says Bogotá has three large communities: the Ashkenazi, with 500 affiliated families; the Sephardic, with 260, and the Germans, with 250.
"Each community has its own synagogue, cemetery and cultural life, even though we get along well with each other," says Goldschmidt, noting that in the last three years, around 20% of the Jewish population of Colombia has left. "In a lot of cases, the man stays here but sends his wife and kids overseas. In Israel, the main concentration is in Ra'anana, where in 1998 they celebrated the 50th anniversary of our school, and 200 alumni showed up."
The Colegio Colombo-Hebreo, located just off Calle 154 in northern Bogotá, has 310 students, down from 570 in the early 1970s. About 8% of them are non-Jews, mainly the children of non-Jewish teachers. Asked why a Jewish school would employ Gentile teachers, Goldschmidt answered rather bluntly: "Because the salary of a teacher in Colombia is not enough for a nice Jewish person to live on."
About 70% of Jews here can be considered upper middle-class, while 10% are "very rich" and the rest are lower-class. "Yet even the lower-class Jew here lives better than the average middle-class Colombian," says Goldschmidt.
Despite the emigration, Bogotá alone has six rabbis -- an astonishing number considering the tiny Jewish population. The intermarriage rate is only 10%, says Goldschmidt, with the non-Jewish spouse nearly always converting to Judaism. Bogotá also has four synagogues, Cali two, Barranquilla two and Medellín one. In addition, Bogotá's 70-year-old Cementerio Hebreo de Bosa has 800 graves and is considered a national monument.
"I think the emigration will continue," says Goldschmidt. "On the other hand, the positive side of emigration is that those who stay participate much more, and there are less internal divisions. There used to be divisions between rich and poor."
Alex Feldman, a 55-year-old Colombian Jew who was born in a small town near Medellín but grew up in Kibbutz Gazit in Israel, said he came back to Colombia in 1975 to work in agriculture.
"When the guerrillas arrived, I saw that it was getting dangerous. I received death threats, so I abandoned my farm," he said. But even with the death threats a thing of the past, "agriculture is difficult. For me, it's better for me at my age to move somewhere else than to stay here."
One bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture is the Casa Lubavitch, a five-story building in northern Bogotá constructed in 1999 with funds from wealthy Colombian Jews now living in Miami. A second Casa Lubavitch also now serves the Jews of Barranquilla.
Rosenfeld, the Brooklyn-born director of Lubavitch Colombia, has spent 23 years here; he and his wife Rivka have seven children, most of them born in Bogota.
"We run a little pre-school with 30 or 40 kids, but there's no davvening here as a matter of principle. We don't want to compete with the community. We do have big shabbatons, couples' nights and university nights on Tuesday. We want to give young Jews a chance to know their heritage in a home-like atmosphere, without preaching."
Rosenfeld says he's encouraged by the fact that 25 familes now keep kosher and follow halachic traditions; 20 years ago, only five families did so.
"There's pressure within the community not to be too religiously Jewish. Those who do become religious have to fight for it," says Rosenfeld. "Our job as rabbis is to give all Jews who stay in Colombia as much strength, hope and Judaism as we can."