Bolivia: Bolivia's only mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, is located in downtown La Paz. Photo: Larry Luxner
Bolivia: Plaque marks site of Bolivia's first Jewish school, founded 1940 in La Paz. Photo: Larry Luxner
During the 16th century, several alleged marranos (that is, New Christians whom others rightly or wrongly suspected of crypto-Judaism), settled in Potosi, La Paz and La Plata, but soon gained economic success in mining and commerce and faced persecution from the Inquisition and local authorities. Most of these marrano families also moved to Santa Cruz de la Sierra for it was the most isolated urban settlement and because the Inquisition did not bother the Conversos (another term for New Christians) of Santa Cruz for this frontier town was meant to be a buffer to the Portuguese and Guaraní raids that threatened the mines of Peru. Several of them settled in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and its adjacent towns of Vallegrande, Postrervalle, Portachuelo, Terevinto, Pucara, Cotoca and others.
Bolivia: Interior of the synagogue in Cochabamba, today home to 30 Jewish families. Photo: Larry Luxner
Several of Santa Cruz's oldest Catholic families are in fact of Jewish origin; some traces of Judaic practices may still be alive among them and have also influenced the rest of the community. As recently as the 1920s, several families preserved seven-branched candle sticks and served dishes cooked with reminiscing kosher practices. It is still customary among certain old families to light candles on Friday at sunset and to mourn the deaths of dear relatives on the floor, though the real provenance and recency of these practices is still a matter of scholarly dispute. After almost five centuries, some of the descendants of these families claim or have proven their Jewish origins, but practice Catholicism (in certain cases with some Jewish syncretism).
From independence in 1825 to the end of the 19th century, some Jewish merchants (both Sephardim and Ashkenazim) came to Bolivia, most of them taking local women as wives and founding families that merged into the mainstream Catholic society. This was often the case in the eastern regions of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando, where these merchants came either from Brazil or Argentina.
During the 20th century, substantial Jewish settlement began in Bolivia. In 1905, a group of Russian Jews, followed by Argentines, settled in Bolivia. In 1917, it was estimated that there were only 20 to 25 professing Jews living in the country. By 1933, when the Nazi era in Germany started, there were 30 Jewish families. The first huge amount of Jewish immigrants was in the 1930s and there were 7,000 of them estimated at the end of 1942. During the 1940s, 2,200 Jews emigrated from Bolivia. But the ones who remained have settled their communities in La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, Santa Cruz, Sucre, Tarija and Potosí. After World War II, a small amount of Polish Jews came to Bolivia. By 1939, Jewish communities gained greater stability in the country.
Today, there are approximately 700 Jews living in Bolivia. There are synagogues in the cities of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and La Paz.