Américas / July-August 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 Ñuflo de Chávez.
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.
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.
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.
"Recently," says Rabbi Somestein, "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."
"We do everything we can to preserve our Jewish traditions," says attorney Rene 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."