Jews of the Andes
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
"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
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