The arrival of Jews to the Banda Oriental goes back to the 16th century, when conversos began settling there. The Spanish Inquisition was not a significant force in the territory, and the first recorded Jewish settlement there was in the 1770s. When the Inquisition ended in 1813, it paved the way for Jews being more accepted in Uruguay throughout the 19th century.
Significant Jewish immigration began in the late 19th century, when Jews from neighboring Brazil and Argentina emigrated to Uruguay. Most of them were Sephardim, followed by Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, and Italkim. The largest Jewish population was in Montevideo, which had 150 Jews in 1909. The first recorded minyan in Uruguay happened in 1912, and the first synagogue was opened in 1917 by a small Ashkenazi community. Jewish schools were opened in the 1920s, and in 1929, the Ashkenazi community set up an educational network.
The majority of Jewish immigration to Uruguay took place in the 1920s and 1930s. A large percentage of Jewish immigrants during this period were German Jews and Italian Jews.
Uruguayan Jews initially made a living in small retail trade and peddling, with some becoming craftsmen and artisans. In time, they moved up the economic scale, and many became the owners of large stores or medium-sized businesses. Following World War II, Jews increased their representation in the professional world and became primarily middle-class, particularly as many Uruguayan Jews were by then second or third-generation Uruguayans. Their economic advancement was aided by the creation of Jewish loan and assistance funds, which evolved into Jewish banks. From the 1930s to 1950s, there were several failed attempts to establish a Jewish agricultural settlement.
During the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which involved the mass exodus of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, primarily to Israel, more than 18,000 Jews immigrated to Uruguay, primarily from the Arab world and Rhodes. In the 1950s, a number of Russian Jews and Hungarian Jews moved to Uruguay.
Uruguay, which had supported the creation of a Jewish homeland during the 1920 San Remo conference, was one of the first nations to recognize Israel, and the first Latin American country to do so. It was the first Latin American country and fourth country overall in which Israel established a diplomatic mission. It was also one of the few nations to support Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and oppose internationalization of the city. Its diplomatic mission in Jerusalem was upgraded to the status of an embassy in 1958, but subsequently downgraded to the status of consulate due to Arab pressure.
The Jewish community experienced a serious decline in the 1970s as a result of emigration. By the mid-1990s, there were no Jews in the upper echelons or military, and little Jewish representation in the legislature. The Latin American economic crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s had an impact on the 40,000 Jews still in Uruguay. Between 1998 and 2003, many Uruguayan Jews emigrated to Israel.
Currently, 20,000-25,000 Jews live in Uruguay, with 95% residing in Montevideo. There is a small organized community in Paysandú, while other Jews are scattered throughout the country's interior. As of 2003, there were 20 synagogues, but only six of them held weekly Shabbat services, and one functioned every day.
Former President Luis Alberto Lacalle, although belonging to a Roman Catholic family, has a surname of Sephardic origin.
The history of Uruguay's Jewish community parallels that of the country, which has been a geographic buffer between Argentina and Brazil. Uruguay did not have an active Inquisition and there are some traces of Conversos who lived in the 16th century. Today's Jewish community dates back to 1880. For many Jews Uruguay was a temporary station on their way to Argentina or Brazil. In 1909 there were 150 Jews living in Montevideo. By 1916 there were enough Ashkenazi Jews to form a chevra kadisha, and in 1917 to open the first synagogue. In 1918 there were some 1,700 Jews in Uruguay, 75% of them Sephardim (from the Balkans, Syria, Cyprus, Morocco, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and France) and the rest from Eastern Europe (mostly from Russia, Poland and Lithuania).
In the years 1925-28 and 1933 many Jews passed through on their way to Argentina. At the outset of World War II Uruguay imposed immigration quotas. Nevertheless, in 1939 some 2,200 Jews succeeded in entering the country, mostly from Germany, as did an additional 373 Jews who arrived in 1940. After the war, Jews from Hungary and from the Middle East also sought refuge in the country. Jews have always been well integrated in the cultural, economic and political life of Uruguay. That integration brought with it an increase in assimilation.
Nearly all the Jews of Uruguay live in Montevideo. There are several hundred families living in Paysande and in other small towns. Some 75% of Uruguayan Jews are of eastern European origin, 14% of western European descent, and 11% are Sephardim.
The Jewish community of Uruguay is made up of some 10,000 families, organized into four separate religious communities-Polish-Russian, Sephardi, German, and Hungarian.
The 60 Jewish organizations in Uruguay are all under the auspices of the Israelite Central Committee. There are several Zionist social and cultural organizations, B'nai B'rith, eight youth movements, several women's organizations, and the Association of Friends of Israeli Universities.
CULTURE AND EDUCATION
Uruguayan youth have four Jewish schools with curricula both in Spanish and Hebrew. The "Integral" school is the largest and includes classes from pre-school through high school. The Chabad Center also runs an "integral" school. There are also several vocational schools offering special training. About a third of the country's Jewish children attend these schools. There are a few Jewish weekly and monthly publications and a regular radio program.
There are 14 Orthodox synagogues in Uruguay and a Conservative one (the German community). Two Orthodox rabbis and two Conservative rabbis cater to the needs of the religious communities. The Chabad Center, which has its own rabbi, is not affiliated with the community organization. Kosher food, both locally produced and imported, is readily available. There are several kosher restaurants, mainly in Jewish institutions.
Uruguay was the first country in South America to officially recognize Israel, and the first Israeli Embassy on the continent was opened in Montevideo in November 1948. Aliya: Since 1948, 6,850 Uruguayan Jews have emigrated to Israel.
Montevideo has a Jewish museum and documentation center, as well as a Holocaust memorial museum which has been declared an historic national landmark. A monument to Golda Meir stands in the square named for the late Israeli leader, adjacent to the opera house Teatro Solis. In Rodo Park by the seaside stands the Albert Einstein Monument. Within the Jewish cemetery there are monuments in memory of the victims of the Shoah, Israeli soldiers who fell in battle, and victims of the terrorist attack on the AMIA building in Buenos Aires. The old Jewish neighborhood of Goes contains traces of its Jewish past.