History of the Jews in Latin America and the Caribbean
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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, however, these Jews generally concealed their identity from the authorities. By the mid-17th century, the largest Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere were located in Suriname and Brazil. Several Jewish communities in the Caribbean, Central and South America flourished, particularly in those areas under Dutch and English control. Today, there are 500,000 Jews living in Latin America, most of whom live in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, with the first one being the heartland of the Jewish community in the region.
- 1 Argentina
- 2 Bolivia
- 3 Brazil
- 4 Chile
- 5 Colombia
- 6 Costa Rica
- 7 Cuba
- 8 Curaçao
- 9 Dominican Republic
- 10 Ecuador
- 11 El Salvador
- 12 French Guiana
- 13 Guatemala
- 14 Haiti
- 15 Honduras
- 16 Mexico
- 17 Nicaragua
- 18 Panama
- 19 Paraguay
- 20 Peru
- 21 Puerto Rico
- 22 Suriname
- 23 Uruguay
- 24 Venezuela
- 25 Current Jewish populations in the Americas and the Caribbean
- 26 See also
- 27 References
- 28 Bibliography
- 29 External links
Jews fleeing the Inquisition settled in Argentina, but Argentina assimilated into society "is not Jewish." Portuguese traders and smugglers in the Virreinato del Río de la Plata were considered by many to be crypto-Jewish, but no community emerged after the independence of Argentina. After 1810 (and about mid-nineteenth century), Jews, especially from France, began to settle in Argentina. By the end of the century in Argentina, as in America, many Jews came from Eastern Europe (mainly Russia and Poland) fleeing Tsarist persecution. Upon arrival they were called "Russians" in reference to their region of origin.
About 250,000 Jews now live in Argentina, the vast majority of whom reside in the cities of Buenos Aires, Rosario, Córdoba, Mendoza, La Plata and San Miguel de Tucumán, and is considered the third largest Jewish community in the Americas after the United States and Canada, and the sixth largest in the world. According to recent surveys more than a million Argentines have at least one grandparent of Jewish origin. Jewish Argentine community legally receives seven holidays per year, with the first two days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the first and last two days of Passover according to the law 26,089.
Jewish presence in Bolivia started at the very beginning of the Spanish colonial period. A safe haven destination for Sephardic Conversos during the Spanish Colony was Santa Cruz de la Sierra. In 1557 many crypto-Jews from Paraguay and Buenos Aires joined Ñuflo de Chávez and were among the pioneers who founded the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
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.
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.
Jews settled early in Brazil, especially when it was under Dutch rule, setting up a synagogue in Recife—the first synagogue in the Americas—as early as 1636. Most of these Jews were former Christians who had fled Spain and Portugal to the religious freedom of the Netherlands during the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal (1536). In 1656, following the Portuguese reconquest of the area, they left for the Caribbean and New Amsterdam, later to become New York City.
Jews resettled in Brazil in the 19th century after independence and immigration rose throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Jewish immigration to Brazil was rather low between 1881–1900 although this was the height of world wide immigration to Brazil. Between 1921 and 1942 worldwide immigration to Brazil fell by 21%, but Jewish immigration to Brazil increased by 57,000, largely because of anti-immigration legislation and immigration quotas passed by the United States, Argentina, Canada and South Africa. Furthermore, the Brazilian government maintained a good relationship with immigration legislation which they did not enforce. Lastly, the Jews in Brazil developed strong support structures and economic opportunities in the Jewish community which were pull factors that attracted Eastern European and Polish Jewish immigration. Posted by JSF (a summary of Jeffrey Lesser's article: "The Immigration and Integration of Polish Jews in Brazil")
Brazil has the 9th largest Jewish community in the world, about 107,329 by 2010, according to the IBGE census. The Jewish Confederation of Brazil (CONIB) estimates that there are more than 120,000 Jews in Brazil. Brazilian Jews play an active role in politics, sports, academia, trade and industry, and are overall well integrated in all spheres of Brazilian life. The majority of Brazilian Jews live in the state of São Paulo but there are also sizable communities in Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais and Paraná.
- See List of Chilean Jews.
Despite being a relatively small community and accounting for no more than 1% of the country's religious minorities, Jews in Chile have achieved prominent positions in the Chilean society and have played a key part in the diverse composition of the country's culture both before and after its independence in 1810. Most of Chilean Jews today reside in Santiago and Valparaíso, but there are significant communities in the north and south of the country. Some of the country's most recognized personalities are Jews.
The famous host of Latin TV sensation and longest running TV show in the world 'Sábado Gigante', Mario Kreutzberger—otherwise known as "Don Francisco"—is a Chilean Jew of German origin. Among the Chilean Jews who have achieved recognition in the field of Arts and Culture are Alejandro Jodorowsky, now established in France and best known for his literary and theatrical work. Others include Nissim Sharim (actor), Shlomit Baytelman (actress) and Anita Klesky (actress). Volodia Teitelboim, poet and former leader of the Chilean Communist Party is one of the many Jews to have held important political positions in the country.
Others include Tomás Hirsch, leader of the radical green-communist coalition and former presidential candidate in 2005 plus two current state ministers, Karen Poniachick (Minister for Mining) and Clarisa Hardy (Minister for Social Affairs). In the field of sport, tennis player Nicolás Massú (gold medalist in Athens 2004 and former top-ten in the ATP rankings) has Jewish background. Many of the country's most important companies—particularly in the retail and commercial field—have been set up by Jews, for example, Gendelman and Hites (commercial retailers) and Rosen (Mattress and Bed Industries).
Marranos fled the Iberian peninsula in search of religious freedom and escaping from persecution during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is estimated that some of them escaped to northern areas of Colombia, which at the time was known as New Granada. Most if not all of these people assimilated into Colombian society, although traces of Sephardic Jewish rituals are to this day, often unknowingly, practiced.
In the 18th century, practicing Spanish and Portuguese Jews came from Jamaica and Curaçao. These Jews started practicing their religion openly at the end of the 18th century, even though it was not officially legal to do so. Once Judaism was made a legal religion after independence, the government granted the Jews a plot of land for a cemetery. Many Jews who came during the 18th and 19th centuries achieved prominent positions in Colombian society but were forced to either abandon or play down their Jewish identity. These included author Jorge Isaacs of English Jewish ancestry, the industrialist James Martin Eder (who adopted the more Christian Santiago Eder when he translated his name to Spanish) originally of the Latvian Jewish community, as well as the De Lima and Lobo families of antillean Sephardim. Coincidentally, all of these persons and their families settled in the Cauca Valley region of Colombia where they continue to be influential members of society in cities such as Cali, although over the generations almost all of their descendants converted to Catholicism.
During the early part of the 20th century, a large number of Sephardic immigrants came from Greece, Turkey, North Africa and Syria. Shortly after, Jewish immigrants began to arrive from Eastern Europe. A wave of Ashkenazi immigrants came after the rise of Hitler in 1933, including more than 7000 German Jews. From 1939 until the end of World War II immigration was put to a halt by anti-immigrant feelings in the country and restriction on immigration from Germany. The Jewish population grew dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, when several institutions such as synagogues, schools and social clubs were established throughout the largest cities in the country.
In the present, most of the Jews in Colombia are concentrated in Bogotá, with about 7,000 members and Barranquilla, with about 6,000 members. There are smaller communities in Cali and Medellín and some Jewish presence in resort cities such as Cartagena, Santa Marta and the island of San Andrés. The size of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic population is about the same. There are nine official synagogues throughout the country. In Bogotá, the Ashkenazi, Sephardic and German Jews each run their own religious and cultural institutions. One organization, Confederación de Asociaciones Judías de Colombia, located in Bogotá, is the central organization that unites all Jews and Jewish institutions in Colombia.
Because of the unstable economy and rising situation of violence and kidnappings suffered in the country during the final decade of the 20th century, many members of Colombia's much appreciated Jewish Community chose to emigrate. Most settled in Miami and other parts of the United States. However, many of Colombia's Jews are coming home thanks in large part to the success that the so-called Democratic Security Policy has had in drastically reducing violence in the rural areas and criminality rates in urban areas as well as in spurring the economy. The situation in Colombia has taken such a turn that many Venezuelan Jews are now seeking refuge in Colombia, among other countries, in order to escape the changing circumstances in Venezuela.
Recently, a group of Colombians have converted to Judaism.
The first Jews in Costa Rica were probably conversos, who arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 19th century Sephardic merchants from Curaçao, Jamaica, Panama and the Caribbean followed. They mostly lived in Central Valley and were soon assimilated into the country's general society and eventually gave up Judaism altogether. A third wave of Jewish immigrants came before World War I and especially in the 1930s as Ashkenazi Jews fled a Europe threatened by Nazi Germany. Most of these immigrants came from the Polish town Żelechów. The term Polacos, which was originally a slur referring to these immigrants, has come to mean salesman in colloquial Costa Rican Spanish.
The country's first synagogue, the Orthodox Shaarei Zion was built in 1933 in the capital San José (located along 3rd Avenue and 6th Street). Along with a wave of nationalism, there was also some anti-Semitism in Costa Rica in the 1940s, but the co-existence between the Jews and the Catholic majority has only led to few problems. Recently there has been a fourth wave of Jewish immigration consisting primarily of American and Israeli expatriates retiring or doing business in the country. The Jewish community now consists of 2,500 to 3,000 people, most of them living in the capital.
The San José suburb of Rohrmoser has a distinct Jewish presence. A couple of synagogues are located here, as well as a kosher deli and restaurant. The Plaza Rohrmoser shopping center has the only kosher Burger King in the country. The Centro Israelita Sionista (Zionist Israeli Center) is a large Orthodox compound where a synagogue, library and museum are located.
Jews have lived on the island of Cuba for centuries. Some Cubans trace Jewish ancestry to crypto-Jews—derisively called Marranos—who fled the Spanish Inquisition, though few of them practice Judaism today. There was significant Jewish immigration to Cuba in the first half of the 20th century. There were 15,000 Jews in Cuba in 1959, but many Jews left Cuba for the United States after the Cuban revolution. In the early 1990s, Operation Cigar was launched, and in the period of five years, more than 400 Cuban Jews secretly immigrated to Israel. In February 2007 The New York Times estimated that there are about 1,500 Jews living in Cuba, most of them (about 1,000) living in Havana.
Curaçao has the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas—dating to 1651—and the oldest synagogue of the Americas, in continuous use since its completion in 1732 on the site of a previous synagogue. The Jewish Community of Curaçao also played a key role in supporting early Jewish congregations in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, including in New York City and the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island.
Converso Merchants of Sephardic origin arrived in southern Hispaniola during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, fleeing the outcome of the Spanish Inquisition. Over the centuries, many Jews and their descendants assimilated into the general population and some have converted into the Catholic religion, although many of the country's Jews still retain elements of the Sephardic culture of their ancestors. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Sephardic families from Curaçao emigrated to the Dominican Republic.
Sosua, meanwhile, is a small town close to Puerto Plata was founded by Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the rising Nazi regime of the 1930s. Rafael Trujillo, the country's dictator, welcomed many Jewish refugees to his island mainly for their skills rather than for religious persecution, and with a hidden motive on his part to encourage European and Middle Eastern immigration instead of Haitians. Present-day Sosua still possesses a synagogue and a museum of Jewish history. Descendants of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews can still be found in many other villages and towns on the north of the island close to Sosua.
Many Jews in Ecuador are of Sephardic ancestry and many still speak Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino) language. Some assume that they were among the European settlers of Ecuador. Others came from Germany in 1939, on a ship called the "Koenigstein". During the years 1933-43, there were a population of 2,700 Jewish immigrants. In 1939, the Jewish population, mostly German and Polish Jews, were expelled by a decree of the Italian influenced government of Alberto Enriquez Gallo. The antisemitism spread in the population, but was stopped by the intervention of the American embassy. In 1945, there was a population of 3,000. About 85% of them were European refugees.
The rise of Jewish immigration to Ecuador was when the Holocaust started. In 1950, there was an estimation of 4,000 persons living in Ecuador. Most of the Jewish communities in Ecuador are from German origin. The majority of Ecuadorian Jews live in Quito and Guayaquil. There is a Jewish school in Quito. In Guayaquil, there is a Jewish Community under the auspices of Los Caminos de Israel called Nachle Emuna Congregation. Now in Ecuador there are only 300 Jews in the country. "Among the Jewish immigrants who came to Ecuador were also professionals, intellectuals and artists, some of whom were professors and writers. Other Alberto Capua, Giorgio Ottolenghi, Aldo Mugla, Francisco Breth, Hans Herman, Leopold Levy, Paul Engel, Marco Turkel, Henry Fente, Benno Weiser, Otto Glass, Egon Fellig, and Karl Kohn. Olga Fis valued and spread the Ecuadorian folk art, Constanza Capua conducted archaeological, anthropological and colonial art.
From Sephardic ancestry were Leonidas Gilces and his younger brother Angel Theodore Gilces whom helped many immigrants such as Charles Liebman who reach the capital with his library, which became the most important of the capital. Simon Goldberg who had a library in Berlin, Goethe library of old books that contributed to the dissemination of reading. Vera Kohn was a psychologist and teacher, tasks that at mid-century were not of interest of Ecuadorian women who used to live in their homes given away, devoid of intellectual curiosity and only care about social life. They were not interested in politics, with the exception of Paul Beter, belonging to the second generation of Jews, who became Minister of Economy and Central Bank President.
Alsatian-born Bernardo Haas, who came to El Salvador in 1868, was believed to be the country's first Jewish immigrant. Another Jew, Leon Libes, was documented as the first German Jew in 1888. Sephardic families also arrived from countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia Spain and France. De Sola helped to found the first synagogue and became an invaluable member of the Jewish community. In 1936, World War II caused the Jewish community to help their ancestors escape from Europe. Some had their relatives in El Salvador. But some were forced to go into countries such as Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala and Panama. On July 30, 1939, President Martinez barred an entry of fifty Jewish refugees going to El Salvador on the German ship Portland. On September 11, 1948, the community started and continues to support a school "Colegio Estado de Israel". According to the latest Census, there are currently about 100 Jews living in El Salvador, mostly in the capital city of San Salvador. Most of them have Sephardic roots.
Jews arrived in French Guiana by the way of the Dutch West India Company. Later on September 12, 1659, came Portuguese Jews from Brazil. The company appointed David Nassy, a Brazilian refugee, patron of an exclusive Jewish settlement on the western side of the island of Cayenne, an area called Remire or Irmire. From 1658 to 1659, Paulo Jacomo Pinto began negotiating with the Dutch authorities in Amsterdam to allow a group of Jews from Livorno, Italy to settle in the Americas. On July 20, 1600, more than 150 Sephardic Jews left Livorno (Leghorn) and settled in Cayenne. The French agreed to those terms, an exceptional policy that was not common among the French colonies. Nevertheless, nearly two-thirds of the population left for the Dutch colony of Suriname.
Over the decades, the Leghorn Jews of Cayenne immigrated to Suriname. In 1667, the remaining Jewish community was captured by the occupying British forces and moved the population to either Suriname or Barbados to work in sugarcane production. Since the late 17th century, few Jews have lived in French Guiana. In 1992, 20 Jewish families from Suriname and North Africa attempted to re-establish the community in Cayenne. A Chabad organization exists in the country and maintains Jewish life within the community. Today, 800 Jews live in French Guiana, predominately in Cayenne.
The Jews in Guatemala are immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe that arrived in the 19th century. Many immigrated during World War II. There are approximately 800 Jews living in Guatemala today. Most live in Guatemala City, Quezaltenango and San Marcos. Today, the Jewish community in Guatemala is made up of German, Eastern European Jews, and Sephardi Jews.
In 2014, numerous members of the Haredi sects Lev Tahor and Toiras Jesed began settling in the village of San Juan La Laguna, sparking tensions with residents. The mainstream Jewish community was reportedly dismayed and concerned that the arrival of extreme sects might stir up anti-Jewish sentiment. Despite the tropical heat, the women of the group continued to wear their trademark dark chadors. 
When Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti, he had an interpreter, Luis de Torres. Luis was one of the first Jews to settle on Haiti in 1492. When Haiti was conquered by France in 1633, many Dutch Jews came from Brazil, who arrived in 1634. In 1683, the Jews were expelled from Haiti, and the other French colonies. But a few remained as leading officials in French trading companies. In the mid-18th century the Jews that were expelled returned. When the slave revolt happened (Toussaint L'Ouverture), many people of the Jewish community were murdered, and some were expelled. A few years later, Polish Jews arrived due to the civil strife in Poland and settled down in Casal, in the region of Grand-Anse. Most Jews attempted to settle in port cities. In 1881 a crowd in Port-au-Prince attacked a group of Jews but was drawn back by militia men.
A few years ago archaeologists discovered a synagogue of Crypto-Jews in Jérémie. In Cap-Haïtien, Cayes and Jacmel, a few Jewish tombstones have been uncovered. By the end of the 19th century, Jewish families immigrated from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. These Jews brought their Sephardic culture. In 1915, there was a population of 200 Jews in Haiti. During the 20 years of American occupation, many of the Jews left to the United States. In 1937, the government issued passports and visas to Jews in Eastern Europe, to escape the Nazi persecution. During this time, 300 Jews lived on the island. Most of the Jews stayed until the late 1950s.
Haiti and Israel maintain full diplomatic relations, but Israel's nearest permanent diplomat to the region is based in neighboring Dominican Republic.
During the 20th century-1980s, Jewish immigrants came to Honduras, mainly from Russia, Poland, Germany, Hungary and Romania. There were also immigration from Greece, who are of Sephardic origin and Turkey and North Africa, who are of Mizrachi origin. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it has been absorbed a huge number of Jewish immigrants from Israel. Through the past two decades, the Honduras experienced a resurgence of Jewish life. Communities in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula grew more active. In 1998, the hurricane Mitch destroyed the synagogue, which was part of the Jewish community center in the Honduras. But the Jewish community contributed money to re-build the temple. Most Honduran Jews live in Tegucigalpa.
New Christians arrived in Mexico as early as 1521. Many of these conversos had fled Spain to escape the Inquisition, but no infrastructure was left by them in what is the modern day Mexican Jewish community. Due to the strong Catholic Church presence in Mexico, few conversos and even fewer Jews migrated there after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.
Then, in the late 19th century, a number of German Jews settled in Mexico as a result of invitations from Maximilian I of Mexico, followed by a huge wave of Ashkenazic Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. A second large wave of immigration occurred as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, leading many Sephardic Jews from Turkey, Morocco, and parts of France to flee. Finally, a wave of immigrants fled the increasing Nazi persecutions in Europe during World War II. Today, there are more than 50,000 Jews in Mexico, the third largest Jewish community in Latin America.
In the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, there is a thriving Jewish community that has been growing over the past decade. In 2007, Chabad Headquarters in New York decided to send their first representatives to Quintana Roo, in order to spread Judaism and to teach people Torah. They appointed Rabbi Mendel Druk as the regional representative, he arrived with his wife Rachel and their young baby girl. They quickly got to know all the local Jews and started serving them, along with tourist for all their Jewish needs.
Based in Cancún, they reached out to the whole Quintana Roo and Mexican Caribbean including Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and Mérida.
In 2010 they opened a Chabad branch in Playa del Carmen to expanded their activities. Rabbi Mendel Goldberg along with his wife Chaya and two daughters where assigned to direct the activities there and open a new center.
The State of Baja California has also had a Jewish presence for the last few hundred years. La Paz, Mexico was home to many Jewish traders who would dock at the port and do business. Many locals in La Paz descend from the prominent Schcolnik, Tuschman and Habiff families, although most are assimilated into Mexican life. In recent years, the tourist industry has picked up in Baja California Sur, which saw many American retirees purchase and live in properties around the Baja. In 2009, with a grassroots Jewish Community formulating and with the help of Tijuana based businessman Jose Galicot, Chabad sent out Rabbi Benny Hershcovich and his family to run the operations of the Cabo Jewish Center, located in Los Cabos, Mexico, but providing Jewish services and assistance to Jews scattered throughout the Baja Sur region, including La Paz, Todos Santos and the East Cape.
The first Jewish immigrants to arrive in Nicaragua came from Eastern Europe after 1929. The Jews in Nicaragua were a relatively small community, the majority lived in Managua. The Jews made significant contributions to Nicaragua's economic development while dedicating themselves to farming, manufacturing and retail sales. The Jewish community encountered anti-semitism by individuals, the majority who claimed that Nicaraguan Jews were responsible for Israeli arms sales to the Somoza regime. Many of these individuals were part of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). There was much hostility between the Sandinista government, which came into power in 1979, and the Jews. This was mostly due to the Sandinista government's close relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
It was approximated that the highest number of Jews in Nicaragua reached a peak of 250 in 1972. However, in fear of persecution and imprisonment by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, all the remaining Jews fled Nicaragua, they went into exile mainly in the United States, Israel, and other countries in Central America.
After Daniel Ortega ran and lost the presidential elections in 1990, a small number of Jews returned to Nicaragua. The current Jewish population is estimated at around 50 persons. Prior to 1979 the Jewish community had no rabbi or mohel (circumcision practitioner). The Jewish community now includes 3 mohalim; however, as of 2005, the community does not have an ordained rabbi or synagogue.
For nearly five hundred years Panama has been a transit station. Long before the construction of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century, merchants and missionaries, adventurers and bandits crossed the swamps of Panama ports and to go from the Atlantic to Pacific or vice versa.
Although descendants of the "anusim" or crypto from the Iberian Peninsula, have lived in Panama since the early sixteenth century, there was there a Jewish community that has openly practiced their religion until it took centuries. Jews, both Sephardic (mostly Spanish and Portuguese Jews from nearby islands such as Curaçao, St. Thomas and Jamaica) and Ashkenazi, began arriving in Panama in large quantities until the mid-nineteenth century, attracted by economic incentives such as bi-oceanic railway construction and the California gold rush.
They were followed by other waves of immigration: during the First World War the Ottoman Empire from disintegrating, before and after the Second World War from Europe, from Arab countries because of the exodus caused in 1948 and more recently from South American countries suffered economic crises. They all contributed to the diversity of the Jewish population in Panama today.
The center of Jewish life in Panama is Panama City, although historically small groups of Jews settled in other cities, like Columbus, David, Chitre, La Chorrera, Santiago de Veraguas and Bocas del Toro, Those communities were disappearing As families were moved to the capital in search of education for their children and for economic reasons. With some 20,000 souls, the Jewish community is a strong presence in the country despite its relatively small demography in relation to the total population (three million).
Panamanian Jews have their peculiar history of participation in government and in civic and diplomatic functions. Panama is the only country in the world except for Israel which has had two Jewish presidents in the twentieth century. In the sixties Max Delvalle was first vice president and then president. Delvalle is famous for its inaugural presidential address in which he said: "Today there are two Jewish presidents in the world who are the president of the State of Israel and myself." His nephew, Eric Arturo Delvalle, was president between 1985 and 1988. The two were members of Kol Shearith Israel synagogue and were involved in Jewish life.
Toward the 19th century, Jewish immigrants arrived in Paraguay from countries such as France, Switzerland and Italy. During World War I Jews from Palestine (Jerusalem), Egypt and Turkey arrived in Paraguay, mostly Sephardic Jews. In the 1920s, there was a second wave of immigrants from Ukraine and Poland. Between 1933 and 1939, between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia took advantage of Paraguay's liberal immigration laws to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. After World War II, most Jews that arrived in Paraguay were survivors of concentration camps. Today, there are 10,000 Jews mostly living in Paraguay's capital, Asunción. Most are of German descent.
In Peru, conversos arrived at the time of the Spanish Conquest. At first, they had lived without restrictions because the Inquisition was not active in Peru at the beginning of the Viceroyalty. Then, with the advent of the Inquisition, New Christians began to be persecuted, and, in some cases, executed. In this period, these people were sometimes called "marranos", converts ("conversos"), and "cristianos nuevos" (New Christians) even if they had not been among the original converts from Judaism and had been reared as Catholics. The descendants of these Colonial Sephardic Jewish descent converts to Christianity settled mainly in the northern highlands and northern high jungle, and they were assimilated to local people: Amazonas, Cajamarca, the northern highlands of Piura as Ayabaca and Huancabamba, among others, due to cultural and ethnic contact with the southern highlands of Ecuador. In modern times, before and after the Second World War, some Ashkenazic Jews, Western and Eastern Slavic and Hungarians mainly, migrated to Peru, mostly to Lima. Today, Peruvian Jews represent an important part of the economics and politics of Peru; the majority of them are from Ashkenazi community.
Puerto Rico is currently home to the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean, with over 3,000 Jews supporting four synagogues; three in the capital city of San Juan: one each Reform, Conservative and Chabad, as well as a Satmar community in the western part of the island in the town of Mayagüez known as Toiras Jesed for Minyanim information. Many Jews managed to settle in the island as secret Jews and settled in the island's remote mountainous interior as did the early Jews in all Spanish and Portuguese colonies. In the late 1800s during the Spanish–American War many Jewish American servicemen gathered together with local Puerto Rican Jews at the Old Telegraph building in Ponce to hold religious services. Many Central and Eastern European Jews came after World War II.
Suriname has the oldest Jewish community in the Americas. During the Inquisition in Portugal and Spain around 1500, many Jews fled to the Netherlands and the Dutch colonies to escape social discrimination and inquisitorial persecution, sometimes including torture and condemnation to the stake. Those who were converted to the Catholic faith were called New Christians, conversos, and, less often, "Marranos". The stadtholder of the King of Portugal gave those who wanted to depart some time to let them settle, and supplied them with 16 ships and safe conduct to leave for the Netherlands. The Dutch government gave an opportunity to settle in Brazil. But most found their home in Recife, and merchants became cocoa growers. But the Portuguese in Brazil forced many Jews to move into the northern Dutch colonies in the Americas, The Guyanas. Jews settled in Suriname in 1639.
In 1799, the British occupied Suriname. Although returned to the Dutch in 1802, the British reoccupied it in May 1804 and did not return it to Holland until 1816. Suriname was one of the most important centers of the Jewish population in the Western Hemisphere, and Jews there were planters and slaveholders.
For a few years, when World War II arrived, many Jewish refugees from the Netherlands and other parts of Europe fled to Suriname. Today, 2,765 Jews live in Suriname.
The New Christian presence in Uruguay may date back to the 16th century, yet few documents relating to converso history during the Colonial period are extant. In 1726, the governor of Montevideo called upon the first settlers to be "persons of worth, of good habits, repute and family, so that they be not inferior nor of Moorish or Jewish race." The first record of open Jewish settlement is in the 1770s. With the end of the Inquisition in 1813, the political and social system of Uruguay evolved to a greater level of openness and tolerance. This openness provided the basis for continued Jewish residence beginning in the 19th century. Some Uruguayan Jews later left for the bordering countries of Argentina or Brazil. In 1929, the Ashkenazi Jewish community set up an educational network. Jewish schools have been functioning in various parts of the country since the 1920s. In the 1930s, there were significant Fascist and liberal anti-immigration elements that opposed all foreign immigration, weighing heavily on Jewish immigration. Jews were singled out and many people opposed Jewish inclusion in Uruguayan society. Today, the Jewish community of Uruguay is made up of Polish–Russian families. 75% are Ashkenazi, which 11% are Sephardic.
The history of Venezuelan New Christians most likely began in the middle of the 17th century, when some records suggest that groups of conversos lived in Caracas and Maracaibo. At the turn of the 19th century, Venezuela and Colombia were fighting against their Spanish colonizers in wars of independence. Simón Bolívar, Venezuela's liberator, found refuge and material support for his army in the homes of Jews from Curaçao.
According to a national census taken at the end of the 19th century, 247 Jews lived in Venezuela as citizens in 1891. In 1907, the Israelite Beneficial Society, which became the Israelite Society of Venezuela in 1919, was created as an organization to bring all the Jews who were scattered through various cities and towns throughout the country together.
By 1943, nearly 600 German Jews had entered the country, with several hundred more becoming citizens after World War II. By 1950, the community had grown to around 6,000 people, even in the face of immigration restrictions.
Currently, there are more than 35,000 Jews living in Venezuela, with more than half living in the capital Caracas. Venezuelan Jewry is split equally between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. All but one of the country's 15 synagogues are Orthodox. The majority of Venezuela's Jews are members of the middle class.
Current Jewish populations in the Americas and the Caribbean
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1 Anais da Biblioteca Nacional do Rio de Janeiro; v. 74. Rio de Janeiro: Departamento de Imprensa Nacional, 1953.
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- Jews in Argentina
- Jews in Bolivia
- Jews in Brazil
- Jews in Chile
- Jews in Colombia
- Jews in Costa Rica
- Jews in Cuba
- Jews in Ecuador
- Jews in El Salvador
- Jews in French Guiana
- Jews in Guatemala
- Jews in Haiti
- Jews in Honduras
- Jews in Martinique
- Jews in Mexico
- Jews in Paraguay
- Jews in Peru
- Jewish Puerto Rico
- Jews in Uruguay
- Jews in Venezuela
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- Latin American Jews contend with spike in anti-Semitism By Sara Miller Llana, The Christian Science Monitor July 26, 2009