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Bolivia's few Jews cling tightly to their traditions
The Miami Herald / June 14, 1999

By Larry Luxner

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- 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 4,000 meters, this is the highest synagogue on earth.

It is also one of the most remote, considering that fewer than 700 Jews live in this poor, mountainous and overwhelmingly Catholic country in the heart of South America.

"We are a small congregation, but we're very active," says Rabbi Palti Somerstein. "We have Shabbos services every Friday night and every Saturday morning and afternoon. We also have classes twice a week where the kids learn Hebrew and Jewish history."

When Somerstein, a conservative rabbi from Buenos Aires, arrived in La Paz four years ago, the tiny community had been without a religious leader for 20 years. And when he leaves in May, no one's sure where the next rabbi will come from.

The problem is that Bolivia's Jewish presence -- which began in the 16th century and reached its zenith right after World War II -- has been dwindling for decades.

According to historians, Jewish settlement in Bolivia dates from the colonial period, when "secret Jews" from Spain called Marranos arrived to work in vast silver mines of Potosí. Others are known to have been among the pioneers who founded Santa Cruz de la Sierra in 1557 under the leadership of Nuflo de Chavez.

The real wave of Jewish immigration to Bolivia didn't begin, however, until the early 19th century. In 1905, a group of Russian Jews arrived in La Paz; several years later, a handful of Sephardic Jews came from Turkey and Syria. Yet as late as 1933, the year Hitler grabbed power in Germany, there were still only 30 Jewish families in the entire country.

Things changed rather suddenly with the rise of Nazi persecution in Europe. Unlike neighboring Peru, which kept a tight lid on immigration before and during World War II, Bolivia granted thousands of visas to stranded German, Polish and Russian Jews in search of a homeland. 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.

Besides giving refuge to Jews, Bolivia also opened its doors to more than a few war criminals.

One of the most notorious was Klaus Barbie, a high-ranking Nazi said to be responsible for the torture and murder of 26,000 Jews and others. He obtained Bolivian citizenship in 1957 and lived for many years under an assumed name in an apartment building only a few blocks from Marek Ajke, a Polish-born Jew who survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and arrived in La Paz in 1947. The infamous "Butcher of Lyon," as Barbie was known, was finally 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 very strong anti-Semitism here, even a Nazi political party," said Ajke. "Now, acts of anti-Semitism are very 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 very 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 revealed 27 Spanish and Yiddish-speaking men, most of them well over 60 years old, praying in an old sanctuary on the building's fourth floor. Behind the synagogue is Bolivia's only mikveh, or ritual Jewish bath.

Ironically, the well-known Colegio Boliviano Israelita, founded in 1940 for children of newly arrived Jewish refugees, began accepting non-Jewish students in the 1960s. Today, the school counts only 20 Jews among its 500 students -- the result of emigration by many Bolivian Jews to Argentina, the United States and Israel in the 1970s and 1980s.

According to community leaders, 400 to 450 Jews today live in La Paz, with another 150 in Santa Cruz. In addition, maybe 50 Jews live in Cochabamba, which was once home to hundreds of Jewish families and to this day boasts Bolivia's most beautiful synagogue.

Despite their small numbers, says Rabbi Somerstein, Jews are generally accepted in Bolivian society.

"Recently, we built an entire hospital -- the Centro Medico de Alto Obrajes -- in a very poor area of La Paz, together with a Lutheran German pastor and a Catholic priest," he said. "We're also working on an anti-discrimination project with the Conferencia Episcopal Boliviana and the Consejo Latinoamericano de Iglesias."

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% -- far lower than the 50% among Jews in the United States.

"Here, most Jews keep the Shabbos," he says proudly. "Not one Friday night goes by that we don't celebrate Shabbos."

Udler, 44, is known in Bolivia for delivering the country's first test-tube baby. Other prominent local Jews include Moises Jarmusz, secretary of the UCS political party, and attorney Rene Dorfler, who has served as city manager of La Paz, director of Banco del Estado and Bolivia's minister of economy.

"We do everything we can to preserve our Jewish traditions," says Dorfler, noting that, thanks to a stronger economy and the return of democracy, fewer Jews are leaving Bolivia these days. "Our priority is that our children maintain this tradition."

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