The history of the Jews in Latin America dates back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. By the 16th century, fully functioning Jewish communities existed in Brazil, Suriname, Curaçao, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Barbados. In addition, there were unorganized communities of Jews in the Spanish and Portuguese territories, where the Inquisition was active, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Peru though this was usually concealed. By the mid-17th century, the largest Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere were in Suriname and Brazil. Several communities in the Caribbean, Central and South America flourished, particularly in areas under Dutch and English control. Today, there are 500,000 Jews in Latin America, most of whom live in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, with the Argentina being the heartland of the Jewish community in the region. (Wikipedia)
Jews in South America are a small, though distinct, ethnic and religious minority. The Jewish population in the ten South American countries where they live was as follows in the late 1980s: Argentina, 228,000; Bolivia, 6,000; Brazil, 150,000; Chile, 17,000; Colombia, 7,000; Paraguay, 900; Peru, 5,000; Suriname, 350; Uruguay, 44,000; and Venezuela, 20,000. Jews in South America are mostly Ashkenazim descended from Jews who arrived in South America from Germany, eastern Europe, and Russia. Sephardic Jews (descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal) form a minority of the Jewish population, constituting 50 percent of the Jewish population in Venezuela, 20 percent of that in Brazil, 15 percent of that in Argentina and Peru, and 12 percent of that in Uruguay. The Sephardic community is composed both of descendants from early settlers from Spain and Portugal and those whose Sephardic ancestors came later from Middle Eastern nations such as Morocco, Syria, and Lebanon. Sephardic identity remains an important marker of social identity within the Jewish community.
The first Jewish settlers were Conversos (Marranos), who accompanied the earliest Spanish and Portuguese explorers to South America. Forbidden from practicing Judaism in Spain and Portugal, some of the settlers formed practicing Jewish communities in the New World. With the exception of a few communities in Brazil, however, most of these early Sephardic settlers were eventually assimilated into Christian European society in South America. The major influx of Jews came in the period from 1880 to 1914, when many arrived from both the Middle East and eastern Europe and settled in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Most Jews in South America are descendants of these people, with their numbers increased somewhat by refugees who arrived in the 1930s from Germany and eastern Europe. Jewish settlement in South America compared to North America is characterized by a high outmigration rate, especially to Israel. This reflects, perhaps, the less-than-full acceptance of Jews in South American society. The Jewish community is aging and decreasing in size as a result of out-migration, a high intermarriage rate, and a rejection of Jewish values by some in the younger generations.
The earliest Jewish settlers tended to establish themselves as small-scale traders and craftsmen. Over the generations, these activities expanded into ownership of large-scale industries and wholesale and retail outlets and, later, into employment in the professions and service industries. Despite the economic success of some, Jews have never dominated any economic sector in any South American nation. Although some individuals have achieved personal political influence, Jews as a group have never been a political force, in part because of their small numbers. Unlike the situation in North America, there is a marked tendency in South America for Jewish economic success to be accompanied by assimilation into Christian European society. Until recently, religious belief and practice rigidly followed the Orthodox tradition. Only since the 1970s have Conservative and Reformed traditions been accepted.
Jews have been the frequent target of anti-Semitism, which in South America is part of the popular culture, has often been supported by right-wing political movements and governments, and of late has also been adopted by some left-wing organizations that sympathize with the Palestinian cause in the Middle East.
IN LATIN AMERICA, JEWISH COMMUNITIES ARE BOOMING By Diego MelamedSeptember 10, 2012
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (JTA) — When the Sao Paulo Hebraica Sports Club and Community Center in Brazil opened the Aleph School earlier this month, it welcomed 450 students and had 120 more on the waiting list for next year.
Hebraica, which is similar to an American Jewish community center, has reached 24,000 members and has a $30 million budget. Meanwhile, Sao Paulo’s oldest synagogue, Temple Beth El, recently dedicated a new building, leaving the original one to become the Jewish Museum of Sao Paulo.
In Panama, the Jewish community has grown by 70 percent in the past 10 years. The 8,000-member community in that period has seen a rise from three to 10 b’nai mitzvah a week.
In Argentina, the number of children in Jewish preschool programs has soared by nearly 1,000 — from 3,952 in 2005 to 4,914 in 2012.
Nearly wherever one looks, Jewish life is growing in Latin America, which is now home to an estimated 500,000 Jews. The growth comes as the region continues to transform economically as part of a social evolution following the end of military dictatorships that ruled many countries into the 1980s.
From 2000 to 2010, poverty in the region dropped from 44 percent to 32 percent of the population, according to the Economic Committee for Latin American and the Caribbean, or CEPAL. In large part it is because of the increase in jobs that has come from rising prices for the region’s commodities and natural resources, such as copper, oil, soybeans, meat, fruits and other agricultural products.
And more growth is on the horizon. Latin America will contribute to global growth more than Europe in the next seven years, according to CEPAL, which released a study in August that said the 2013-2020 period “will be a low-growth cycle for industrialized economies while it will display dynamism in emerging economies.”
Despite the growth, challenges remain for many Jewish communities.
“We have strong signals of a new flourishing situation, but we also will still have a variety of problems, like the poor knowledge about Judaism in our members and some type of hidden anti-Semitism in the general society,” said Alberto Milkewitz, director of the Isaraelite Federation of Sao Paulo.
But that hasn’t dimmed optimism among Jewish leaders.
Some 83 percent of approxiately 400 of the region’s Jewish leaders polled recently by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee believe that conditions in their countries are good enough to further develop Jewish life. Only 10 percent reported that living as a Jew is risky. Brazilians self-reported the most positive feedback, Venezuelans the most negative. The poll’s full results will be released at the Nov. 12 JDC meeting of Latin American and Caribbean Jewish community leaders, which will convene in Quito, Ecuador.
Venezuela is the notable exception to the wave of positivity among Latin American Jewish communities. Political insecurity, economic challenges and state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the country have prompted significant Jewish emigration in recent years, with most expats moving to the United States, Israel, Spain, Colombia or Panama. Venezuela now has an estimated 9,000 Jews, down from about twice that number a decade ago, according to the JDC.
The race for president in Venezuela has seen the incumbent, Hugo Chavez — a close ally of Iran and acerbic critic of Israel — use state media to lob anti-Semitic broadsides against his rival, Henrique Capriles Radonski, a grandson of Holocaust survivors who identifies as Catholic. The election is scheduled for Oct. 7.
In Chile, home to 15,000 Jews among a Palestinian Diaspora as large as 400,000, Rabbi Chaim Koritznisky is much more positive.
“Four years ago I was invited to Santiago by five families to build a new synagogue community called Ruach Ami,” said Koritznisky, who heads a Reform congregation. “The founders felt that there was a void in the Jewish community for those searching for a Judaism that was egalitarian, inclusive, spiritual. We also offer a welcoming home for interfaith couples and families, gays and lesbians.”
A hundred families now belong to the temple and more than 500 people are expected to arrive for the coming High Holidays services.
Also in Santiago, the Dr. Chaim Weizmann Hebrew Institute has seen sustained growth. In 2005 there were 265 children aged 2 to 5 in the preschool. Today the number is at 373, according to Sergio Herskovitz, the school principal.
Similar stories in the region abound. In Panama City, a decade ago there were barely any children at weekly activities at Kol Shearith Israel synagogue. Now nearly 60 young people participate in weekly events and the total budget of the community has tripled.
The community has been strengthened in part by Jewish immigrants from Venezuela and even Argentina and Uruguay, says Gustavo Kraselnik, the rabbi of Kol Shearith Israel.
“We are very optimistic about our future,” he said.
Argentina, with 285,000 Jews, is home to the region’s largest Jewish community. The growth in preschool children there has been matched by a rise in Jewish high school and college students. In Buenos Aires alone the number has risen from 15,593 to 19,162 in the past seven years.
In the capital city, the economic recovery allowed real estate developments such as Nordelta, a gated community with artificial lakes, to erect a new Jewish center two years ago. Last Chanukah, about 150 people came out for a celebration.
“We started from zero," Rabbi Diego Elman of Judaica Fundation, the Nordelta temple, told JTA. "This year we started a monthly Shabbat with an average of 60 people; most of them are children.”
The growth also has brought the need for more Jewish teachers. In 2006, a new training center to prepare Jewish teachers was opened in Buenos Aires. It’s had 35 graduates.
It’s a good start, but there is a scarcity of teachers in every main city of the region," said Leticia Baran, the supervisor of Argentina’s Department of Jewish Education. "We’re starting to export Jewish teachers to other countries.”
International Jewish organizations are noticing the increased Jewish activities. Last November the ROI Community, which convenes creative Jewish social entrepreneurs, celebrated an Ibero-American gathering in Buenos Aires to “propel the Latin American Jewish spring” and to spotlight the region’s “dynamic Jewish social entrepreneurs.”
The same month, the Jewish Agency’s board of governors met in Argentina — the first time in 15 years that its summit was held outside of Israel. The following month, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky announced a $1 million fund to strengthen the connection between young South American Jews to Israel and the global Jewish community. And last December, Bnai B’rith International held its International Policy Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay — the first time the international event was held in Latin America.
“This region has a vibrant reality and an incredible production of knowledge and Jewish life,” Shai Pinto, the vice president and COO of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, told JTA. “In our movement Latin America is the fastest growing region.”
Fabian Triskier, the JDC’s Latin America director, says, “Our conclusion is clear: The Jewish community of Latin America is moving forward.”
THE INQUISITION AND JUDAIZERS IN SPANISH AMERICA (1569–1649): CARTAGENA IN AN ERA OF NETWORKING
Towards the mid-seventeenth century, after seventy years of repression, the Holy Office established in the New World had managed to destroy the main centers of crypto-Jewish activity. A comparative study of more than six hundred cases judged by the three courts in the Americas (Mexico City, Lima, Cartagena) reveals the specific nature of Marrano religious practices in each of the major jurisdictions as well as the diversity of inquisitorial strategies. The overlap of inquisitorial archives in the Americas with those of the Spanish and Portuguese homelands also permits the larger Judaizer family genealogies to be reconstructed and provides proof of their Portuguese origin. Finally, our inquiry reconstructs commercial channels out of Cartagena put in place by the neo-Christian merchants—acting in a quasi-monopoly—for the delivery and distribution of African slaves in the Americas.