Bnai Brith Jewish Monthly / Fall 2001
By Larry Luxner
Jews make up fewer than 9,000 of the 83 million inhabitants of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Here's a look at how these Andean Jewish communities are faring:
Members of the Circulo Israelita in La Paz like to joke that when praying, they feel closer to God than any other Jewish congregation in the world. After all, at an altitude of over 13,000 feet, this remote synagogue is one of the highest on Earth.
"We are a small congregation, but we're very active," says Argentine-born Rabbi Palti Somerstein, 42, of the fewer than 700 Jews that live in this poor, mountainous and overwhelmingly Catholic country in the heart of South America.
Bolivia's Jewish presenceówhich began in the 16th century and reached its zenith right after World War IIóhas been dwindling for decades. According to historians, "secret Jews" from Spain, called Marranos (literally, swine) by suspicious Catholic neighbors, arrived to work in the vast silver mines of PotosÌ. Others are known to have been among the pioneers who founded the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in 1557.
A large wave of Jewish immigration to Bolivia began after Adolf Hitlerís rise to power in Germany and Nazi persecution in Europe. In 1933, there were still only 30 Jewish familes in Bolivia. Between 1938 and 1940, several thousand Jewish immigrants arrived from Germany, Poland, and Russia. After the war, between 1946 and 1952, another wave of Jews -- Holocaust survivors from as far away as Shanghai -- settled in Bolivia. At its peak, the Jewish community in Bolivia numbered 10,000.
Beside giving refuge to Jews, Bolivia also opened its doors to more than a few Nazi war criminals.
One of the most notorious, Klaus Barbie -- said to be responsible for the torture and murder of 26,000 Jews and others -- obtained Bolivian citizenship in 1957 and lived for many years under an assumed name in La Paz. The infamous "Butcher of Lyon," as he was known, finally was deported to France in 1983 and sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity. He died in a French prison in 1991.
"During World War II, there was strong antisemitism here, even a Nazi political party," says Marek Ajke, 73, a Polish-born Jew who survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and immigrated to Bolivia in 1947. "Now, acts of antisemitism are rare. Sporadically, people put swastikas on the walls, like when they showed the movie Schindler's List a few years ago. Happily, this is disappearing."
Nevertheless, Jewish institutions in Bolivia -- like their counterparts in much of Latin America -- keep a low profile, with armed guards protecting the mostly unmarked buildings and all visitors carefully scrutinized before being allowed to enter.
A recent Saturday afternoon visit to the Circulo Israelita along Calle Landaeta found 27 men, most of them well over 60, praying in an old sanctuary on the building's fourth floor. Displayed on a long hall just outside were the portraits of 16 past-presidents of the community, along with aging travel posters of Israel and an oil painting of a colonial street in Potosi. Just outside the building is Bolivia's only mikve, or ritual Jewish bath.
In another part of La Paz, along Avenida Esteban Arce, there's a monument to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
According to community leaders, approximately 500 Jews live in La Paz, most of them in the well-to-do residential area of Calacoto. They work as merchants, business executives, doctors, lawyers, accountants, or engineers. Another 150 live in Santa Cruz, the country's fast-growing industrial capital, and approximately 60 Jews live in Cochabamba.
Not many Jews keep the traditional dietary laws, given the fact that there's no shochet (ritual butcher) in Bolivia. But a surprising number of Bolivian Jewish youth speak Hebrew, and many have visited Israel.
La Paz gynecologist Ricardo Udler, current president of the Circulo Israelita, says that despite the difficulties of being Jewish in Bolivia, the community's intermarriage rate is only 20 percent.
Born of an Argentine father and French mother, Udler, 44, is known in Bolivia for delivering the country's first test-tube baby. He's also president of the local chapter of the Macabi, an athletic organization for Jewish youth.
Another prominent Bolivian Jew is attorney Rene Dorfler, who in his distinguished career has served as city manager of La Paz, Bolivian minister of economy, and director of Bolivia's Banco del Estado. "We do everything we can to preserve our Jewish traditions," says Dorfler, noting that, thanks to a stronger economy and the return of democracy in the early 1980s, fewer Jews are emigrating.
The story of the Jewish communities in Colombia has become a story of emigration in recent years because of economic instability and increasing crime.
Today, only 4,200 Jews live in Colombia, 60 percent of them in Bogotá, the capital. The remaining 40 percent live in Cali and Barranquilla, with smaller numbers in Medellín and the island of San Andrés.
"The richest ones have already left for Miami or Israel," says Moisés Milwer, a retired real-estate developer whose father settled in Medellín in 1933 from Russia. For years, Milwer has led religious services at the Orthodox Congregación 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.
"Most people have left precisely because of the uncertainty, economic stability and kidnappings," says Abraham Menashe Fefer, president of the Centro Israelita de Bogotá, noting that more than ten Jews have been kidnapped by left-wing and right-wing guerrilla groups in recent years. Two of them were murdered.
Salomón Winograd, a 24-year-old Orthodox Jew from Medellín, says "the people here believe in a false security. [But] we can't travel on the roads because they might kidnap us." Reluctantly, he's leaving for Spain, where he'll study environmental science.
But Fefer, 48, an administrative manager at the Casa Dann Carlton, a Jewish-owned hotel on Calle 94 in upscale Bogotá Norte, is still positive about staying. "I don't agree with the Jewish exodus," he says. "Yes, we have problems, but we'll solve them in the long term."
According to Alfredo Goldschmidt, 55, chief rabbi of Centro Israelita de Bogotá and director of the Colegio Colombo Hebreo, Bogotá has three Jewish communities: the Ashkenazi, with 500 affiliated families, the Sephardic, with 260, and the Germans, with 250. (The Germans split from the Ashkenazim many years ago.) "Each community has its own synagogue, cemetery, and cultural life, even though we get along well with each other," says Goldschmidt.
About 70 percent of Jews here can be considered upper middle-class, while 10 percent are "very rich" and the rest are in lower socio-economic classes. "Yet even the lower-class Jew here lives better than the average middle-class Colombian," says Goldschmidt.
Despite emigration, Bogotá alone has six rabbis. The intermarriage rate is only ten percent, says Goldschmidt, with the non-Jewish spouse nearly always converting to Judaism. Bogotá has four synagogues, Cali two, Barranquilla two and Medellín one.
Two years ago, Casa Lubavitch, a five-story building was constructed with funds from wealthy Colombian Jews living in Miami. Rabbi Yehoshua Rosenfeld, originally from Brooklyn, has spent 20 years here; he and his wife Rivka have seven children, all of them born in Bogot·.
"We run a little pre-school with 30 or 40 kids, but there's no davening 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.
"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."
Heading south toward Quito along the Pan-American Highway, motorists can't miss Ecuador's most famous landmark: a concrete globe and painted yellow line marking latitude 0º0'0", where the Northern Hemisphere meets the Southern.
About five miles past the Equator, and not visible from the highway, is a more important landmark, for Jews at least: the lavish new sede or headquarters of the Comunidad JudÌa del Ecuador (CJE).
The architecture of the 200,000-square-foot, $3 million complex is reminiscent of Jerusalemís Jewish Quarter, with buildings decorated in varnished wood and marble. CJE boasts a synagogue, Torah study room, tennis courts, mikve, swimming pool, jacuzzi, weightlifting room, cafeteria, sauna, children's activity rooms, administrative offices and a ballroom so big that it can accommodate every one of Ecuador's 700 Jews with plenty of room left over.
Though small in number, many Jews have a high profile, says Enrique Heller, 38, president of the CJE and owner of Texas Chicken, a fast-food chain with 19 outlets throughout the country. "If you took a poll and asked people in the street how many Jews live in Ecuador, they'd tell you at least 100,000."
Prominent Ecuadoran Jews include Pedro Kohn, manager of Corporación Financiera Nacional; Pablo Better, former president of the Central Bank; and Harry Klein, Ecuador's new ambassador to Argentina. The Deller family, which bankrolled construction of the synagogue at the new sede, owns Quicentro Shopping, one of Ecuador's largest malls.
The general absence of antisemitism here may be related to the fact that Judaism came relatively late to Ecuador -- though in recent times, vestiges of Jewish life such as Friday-night candle lighting have been discovered in the small town of Loja, where a Jewish community may have flourished as early as the 17th century.
"Some Jews evidently came with the Spanish conquerors, but those were Marranos. The Jewish community in Ecuador today is mainly a product of World War II," says Johnny Czarninski, general manager of Mi Comisariato, a department-store chain headquartered in the bustling port city of Guayaquil.
"Almost all the original Jewish refugees here were Germans, Austrians, and Polish Jews. They were able to get visas to Ecuador, by whatever means. Some bought them, some came through friends. You can imagine how this climate was for them, with all the fever and diseases. So as soon as they could, they moved to Quito and Cuenca, where the climate is more European."
By 1945, there were over 2,000 Jews in Guayaquil, says Czarninski, who's also the honorary Israeli consul in Guayaquil. "They were very poor. They had a synagogue, but it was a rented place. Guayaquil was a town of 300,000 inhabitants, and Quito was even smaller. The community continued to dwindle. People kept moving away, mainly to the U.S. and Israel. They sent their children away to study, and most did not come back. By 1975, the community in Guayaquil had practically disappeared; only two or three of the original families are still here. The present community is composed of Jews who have come in recent years from Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Israel."
In Mapasingue, a dirt-poor neighborhood of Guayaquil, where the garbage-strewn roads run with raw sewage and locals make their way through the potholes on bicycles, stands the new Comunidad Israelita de Guayaquil.
Stepping into this fortress -- which is guarded by four security officers and surrounded by a nine-foot-high concrete wall topped with broken glass bottles -- is like entering another world. The sound of birds singing, carefully manicured grass and freshly painted white building attest to the pride of Guayaquil's tiny Jewish community, and its relative wealth.
The center, built in 1990, boasts tennis courts and a swimming pool. A bulletin board is plastered with pictures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, tha late Menachem M. Schneerson, and snapshots of the most recent holiday party. Upstairs are four classrooms and a small bedroom used for hosting visiting rabbis who come for the High Holy Days. Despite the economic disparity with the local surroundings, Jews here say there is no antisemitism.
"We've been able to rekindle Jewish life here," says Czarninski. "Twenty years ago everything had disappeared."
One of the community's oldest members is 93-year-old Gerardo Anker. A retired physician, Anker arrived in 1941 from France, where he was interned in an enemy camp because of his German origin.
"It was very difficult to get visas, and Ecuador was one of the few countries that opened its doors to us," said Anker who, like many in the community, still speaks Spanish with a thick German or Yiddish accent. "In all the years I've lived here, we've never encountered any type of antisemitism."
Yet that hasn't helped stem the exodus of Ecuador's Jews to the United States and elsewhere. Today, at least 80 percent of the 480 students at Quito's Colegio Ecuatoriano Hebreo Alberto Einstein aren't Jewish.
Heller, who was director of the school before being elected president of the community earlier this year, says he hopes to hire a rabbi, "preferably one from Latin America who understands the Latin mentality." The community's current spiritual leader is Dr. León Rzonzew, a 35-year-old Colombian Jew of Polish descent.
Until recently, Peru -- a mountainous nation of 24 million people whose inhabitants speak a mixture of Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua -- was governed by a Japanese president, Alberto Fujimori, while its economy was managed by a Jewish finance minister, Efraín Goldenberg.
Today, Fujimori, who fled the country following last year's election and allegations of corruption, lives in exile in Tokyo, while Goldenberg has returned to Peru's private sector. The new president, Alejandro Toledo, has urged reconciliation among Peru's bitterly divided political parties, yet the country's 3,000 Jews -- down from 6,000 in the 1970s -- continue to leave.
"The community grows smaller every day because of the economic and political situation," says Eric G. Topf, a prominent Lima architect and past-president of B'nai B'rith Peru, which has 80 members, most of them elderly. "People don't encourage their sons and daughters who were sent to college in the U.S. and Israel to come back."
Jews have lived in Peru since the earliest days of the Spanish Inquisition, though in modern times, the first Jewish wave of immigration peaked around 1875. Following a war between Chile and Peru (1879 to 1883) that devastated the Peruvian economy, Jews fled to other countries and the community nearly disappeared.
The second wave of emigration began in the 1920s, when Jews from Europe and North Africa came for economic opportunity. That lasted until the onset of the Holocaust, when immigration was closed to Jews.
Except for the former finance minister, Jews have stayed out of politics, but Peru does have many prominent Jewish businessmen, including Isaac Galsky, owner of Sindicato Pesquero S.A., a fishmeal processing plant, and brothers Isy and Jack Levis, who own Banco del Nuevo Mundo and the five-star Hotel Los Delfines.
Of Peru's 3,000 Jews, says Topf, "2,999 of them live in Lima," where the Unión Israelita del Peru -- an Ashkenazi congregation -- has approximately 250 member families. The remaining Jews are split between the Sociedad de Beneficiencia Israelita Sefaradí and the Sociedad Israelita de 1870. Topf says the intermarriage rate is 15 to 20 percent, "which is a lot compared to 20 years ago."
That could begin changing with the recent establishment of a Bet Chabad in Lima. Lately, the Lubavitchers have begun sending matzohs and other kosher food from New York, and organizing annual seders in Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital that has become a magnet for Israeli backpackers hiking the Inca Trail and visiting the "lost city" of Machu Picchu.
Topf says the community is also encouraged by the recent arrival of Spanish-speaking Rabbi EfraÌm Zik, 28, from Jerusalem.
"We're now making big efforts to develop Jewish life here and educate the children," said Zik, spiritual leader of the Unión Israelita del Perú. "Of course, the most important thing is for young people to be committed to their community. I think that's one of the reasons they chose a young rabbi."