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Paraguayan Paradox
Bnai Brith Jewish Monthly / August 1995

By Larry Luxner

It's 7 a.m. at the Pechugón processing plant just outside Asunción, as Rabbi Yehoshua Forma -- Paraguay's only shochet -- wraps up his morning prayers. Then, as tradition demands, he takes out a stainless-steel knife, brings it up to his chin and splits a beard hair lengthwise to test the blade's sharpness.

Satisfied that the Israeli-made instrument is right for the job, Forma enters the exact time into an electronic notebook, which fits neatly in a small black briefcase that also contains other tools of the trade: a leather-bound siddur, various sharpening blocks and a picture of the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson.

Finally, Forma murmurs a blessing and, with the help of two Guaraní-speaking indigenous women, begins slaughtering chickens one at a time, pausing after every eighth bird to sharpen the blade. The whole koshering operation, a ritual he oversees once a month, is little more than a primitive assembly line made of plastic yellow crates and galvanized metal funnels. It's not pleasant work -- particularly as the morning sun climbs in the sky and the stench worsens -- but, like Forma says, somebody's got to do it.

"Young people here are not being brought up with enough Jewish conviction," complains the rabbi, ankle-deep in feathers. "In the past seven years, there have been only four or five Jewish marriages here, and 10 to 15 intermarriages. Some Paraguayan Jews have even become Jews for Jesus."

Such a development is unthinkable for Forma -- the son of Cuban immigrants in Miami -- who can barely bring himself to say the word "Jesus." Yet the very idea of a Chabad emissary from the United States koshering chickens in Paraguay would itself have been unthinkable as recently as 1989, the year this landlocked country began to emerge from 35 years of isolation and political repression under its corrupt dictator, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.

Latest estimates put Paraguay's Jewish population at just over 1,000. Nearly all of them live in Asunción, the capital of this sparsely populated, California-sized agricultural nation that is sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil. The rest of Paraguay's remaining 4.7 million inhabitants are predominantly Catholic, with a smattering of Mennonites, Muslims and Mormons living in outlying areas.

Regardless of religion, most Paraguayans suffered to some extent under Stroessner, who grabbed power in 1954 and held onto it longer than any caudillo in the country's sad and violent history. Under Stroessner's regime, Paraguay sank into a morass of widespread torture and corruption, and became a haven for thousands of escaped Nazi war criminals including -- many Nazi-hunters believe -- the notorious "angel of death," Dr. Josef Mengele.

Despite what would develop as Stroessner's unabashedly pro-Israel policies, Jews kept a low profile and rarely spoke out against the regime. Like other Paraguayans, they lived in fear of Law 209, which imposed jail terms for "subversive activities." Among the activities considered subversive was criticism of Stroessner. When the dictator was finally overthrown in 1989 by his own son-in-law, Gen. Andres Rodríguez, South America lost one of its last military regimes, and Paraguayan Jews lost their last obstacle to complete freedom of expression.

"In the house, we'd talk about the horrors and injustices, but we'd never talk in the street," says travel agent Clara de Cohenca who, growing up in the 1950s, was warned by her parents never to criticize the government openly and who, in turn, passed that lesson on to her own children.

Members of the community point out, however, that the persecution Jews experienced was not generally directed against them as Jews. Ricardo Abraham, the newly installed president of Paraguay's B'nai B'rith unit, explains that in 1986, "some members of the [ruling] Colorado Party staged an anti-Semitic campaign that lasted for six months, but Stroessner stopped it. Other than that, the community was allowed to develop freely in this country. There were some observant Jews, but no really Orthodox Jews. Those who respected kashrut bought their meat in Argentina."

"The official regime wasn't anti-Semitic," agrees Jacobo Cohenca, a relative of Clara. "The president would not permit it. He was an intelligent person who knew that the Jews were intellectual people. Even though there were Nazis living here, we didn't have problems."

Still, Clara adds, Jews may have felt more reason for caution than their non-Jewish compatriots. "For Jews it was worse because being a Jew implied being anti-Catholic. This is a very Catholic country," she notes. "We didn't have the option of going against both the regime and the dominant religion. At least now," after decades of repression, she says, "we can talk."

According to Cohenca, who has written a 250-page history of Paraguayan Jewry, the first Jews to set foot here were marranos who arrived with the first Spanish conquistadores in the early 1500s. The modern community began to develop at the turn of the century, some 100 years after Paraguay declared independence from Spain. In 1913, the Sociedad Templo Israelita Latino -- Paraguay's first and only Sephardic synagogue -- was founded. The community today comprises Sephardic Jews from Greece and Turkey, as well as Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom immigrated as displaced persons after World War II.

As was the case in other Latin American countries, the new arrivals immediately found work as merchants or small-businessmen, and in professions like medicine, law or accounting. Yet, while the Jews of Paraguay prospered financially, their community never grew large like those of neighboring Argentina and Brazil, partly because of the country's history of anarchy and partly because of Paraguay's crushing defeat in the 1865-70 war against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. More-over, the country's physical and political isolation made it difficult for the community to keep in touch with world Jewry. After a 1947 internal revolution and the establishment of the State of Israel a year later, Paraguay's Jewish community began declining.

"The religious feeling was much stronger in Jews of my generation," said Cohenca, a 62-year-old retired chemical engineer. "Most of those who had a strong Jewish identity went to Israel. The ones who didn't began to mix."

In 1954, when Stroessner came to power, Jews were not sure what to expect. Many became members of his political party, the Partido Colorado, in order to land lucrative jobs in their respective professions, explains Cohenca. Only a tiny fraction, however, got directly involved in politics.

Humberto Rubín, Paraguay's most outspoken radio commentator, and his wife Gloria founded Radio Ñandutí, in 1962 when, as Humberto puts it, "we all believed in Stroessner." As the regime became more oppressive, Radio Ñandutí's coverage of the dictatorship's human-rights abuses became more critical until finally, the station was forced shut three times -- in 1983, '85 and '87 -- on grounds of violating state security. One night in May 1986, hoodlums screaming "death to the Jewish communist" broke into Ñandutí headquarters, smashing windows and destroying equipment.

"After they attacked the station, we received daily, anonymous death threats by telephone," recalled Gloria Rubín. "Two politicians from the Colorado Party publicly threatened Humberto's life, saying it was better to kill him than attack his station." Added her husband: "The Jews were afraid. They didn't want to get involved. I was always a problem for the Jewish community because I was so opposed to Stroessner."

It was just as the regime was on its last legs that Rabbi Forma and his Brazilian wife Rica arrived from Lubavitch headquarters in New York. "When I started, we only had 10 people attending services," he says. "Three years later, we still had only 10 people. So I decided to open up a shul, and today, we get 65 people on Friday nights. People are coming back to Judaism."

In 1990, Forma and other community leaders celebrated Hanukkah for the first time with a public menorah-lighting ceremony in Asunción's Plaza de Independencia -- a tradition they have continued for the past five years. Forma has also started a newsletter and established a Chabad House where local Jews can find, among other things, spiritual guidance, kosher wine imported from Brazil and, of course, fresh kosher chicken. There's also a backyard mikveh for Orthodox Jewish women, though at the moment, its only visitors are Forma's wife and one other religious woman.

"From the moment we stepped into Paraguay, the Jewish conscience began waking up," said the rabbi, who is fluent in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew. Jacobo Cohenca agrees, recalling that "six years ago, this was a spiritual desert. The rabbi is an excellent example of how to live a Jewish life. He is like a light."

Despite the rabbi's increasing popularity with some members of the community, only a fraction opt for his services. A handful still attend the Sephardic synagogue, but more choose the liberal atmosphere of the Unión Hebráica del Paraguay, known simply as La Hebráica, which up until five or six years ago, served ham-and-cheese sandwiches in its cafeteria. While the Ashkenazim and Sephardim generally get along well with each other, worshippers of La Hebráica and the Bet Chabad do not. According to Forma, members of La Hebráicaonce once called him a "terrorist" on a radio call-in program for his angry criticism of Jews who don't keep the faith.

"We have absolutely nothing to do with the Lubavitch," said the 51-year-old Abraham, an active member of La Hebráica. "It's not our philosophy."

Abraham said about 80% of Paraguay's Jews are Ashkenazim; La Hebráica has become the focal point of the community. The Sephardim, on the other hand, often have trouble getting a minyan.

"The community is very mixed now. Ashkenazim and Sephardim are integrating into one community," he said. "There are, however, many cases of mixed marriages -- usually Jewish men and Paraguayan Christian women who convert to Judaism."

In many ways isolated from the rest of world Jewry -- and occasionally, each other -- the community here is also isolated from most other Paraguayans. Almost without exception, the Jews are well-off in a country whose per-capita income hovers around $800, making it one of the poorest nations in South America. And few Jews speak Guaraní -- the country's indigenous language which shares official status with Spanish -- though its teaching is now obligatory at all Paraguayan schools including the Colegio Estado de Israel, where most Jewish children get their primary education.

Manuel Acosta, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, says 20% of the kids here aren't Jewish; except for those who teach Hebrew, nor are any of the professors. "There are Jews capable of being professors," says one community member, "but they're not interested for two reasons: one, salaries are low, and second, there's too much [internal] politics involved."

Says Israel's ambassador to Paraguay, Yoav Bar-On, who arrived in March 1995: "Obviously, it's a very small community, almost unknown to the outside world. There's no future for a cultural or religious life here. What the rabbi is doing is important, but it's only a small step. The Lubavitch can't change things in one or two days."

Clara de Cohenca tends to agree. "In 20 years, the Jewish community will disappear," she says matter-of-factly. "We have two options -- blend in with the way the majority thinks, or assimilate into our own reality. If we want to conserve our Jewish identity, we'll have to leave Paraguay."

Not everyone, however, concurs with her gloomy assessment. Abraham, the B'nai B'rith president, says Jews have a genuine stake in Paraguay's future.

"It's a difficult question. It's what we're always arguing about," he said. "But we see our continued presence as our mission, and we think the colegio is really the instrument to keep the community going."

In the meantime, the country is changing politically and economically. Six years after Stroessner's overthrow, Paraguay has a new constitution with democratic roots, a freely elected president, a multiparty parliament and an independent judiciary. Economically, the country has been admitted to Mercosur -- the South American equivalent of NAFTA -- which unites Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay into one trading bloc, and the idea of selling off inefficient state enterprises -- a practice well underway in the rest of Latin America -- has finally taken off in Paraguay.

For the Jewish community, life remains fairly comfortable, with rare overt anti-Semitism, and none of the synagogue desecrations of the type found in Argentina. Paraguay's new president, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, recently won praise from Jewish groups from agreeing -- after a long legal battle -- to extradite five Lebanese and two Brazilians wanted on suspicion of helping plan two murderous terrorist attacks against a leading Argentine Jewish organization and the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that left more than 100 people dead.

The alleged links between these suspects and the shadowy Hezbollah terrorist group have made many Paraguayans -- Jews and non-Jews alike -- suspicious of the large community of Lebanese and Palestinian merchants in Ciudad del Este, a congested city on the Brazilian border that thrives on contraband trade. Several Asunción newspapers even accused individual Arab businessmen of having attempted to bribe Paraguayan judges with huge sums of money to prevent the suspects' extradition.

Yet the real danger for Jews in Paraguay, says Forma, isn't anti-Semitism or terrorism -- but assimilation and intermarriage, which he puts at 50%. And all the kosher chickens in the world won't reverse those trends.

"Against my own interests, I tell young people to get out of here," the rabbi says sadly. "There isn't much to choose from. Have they listened? Some of them did and left. Others didn't. They got married to goyim."

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