Uruguay’s Dwindling Jewish Community Falls Victim to Its Zionist Spirit

A combination of aliyah and assimilation has seen Jewish numbers plummet 80 percent in the small South American country, leaving the close-knit community with a crisis it is reluctant to address

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A public school in Montevideo's Goes neighborhood, which many older Uruguayan Jews attended.
A public school in Montevideo's Goes neighborhood, which many older Uruguayan Jews attended.Credit: Andrés Franchi Ugart / Panorami
Martín Saps
Martin Francisco Saps

MONTEVIDEO — An anomaly in Catholic Latin America, Uruguayans are quick to boast of their national religion: Laicismo (secularism). Nestled between Argentina and Brazil, this country of some 3 million people, half of whom live here in the capital city, has the highest rate of people (40 percent) identifying as secular in Central and South America.

The same can be said of the country’s rapidly shrinking Jewish community, which has dwindled to about 10,000 in recent years. Yet even though 75 percent of Uruguay’s Jews identify as secular, according to Rafael Porcecansky’s book “The Jewish Uruguay,” Zionism remains the official religion of the community here (known locally as the colectividad). “A Zionism that has passed in the world still exists there,” observes Yacov Kruger, a Canadian rabbi who spent a year working in Montevideo in 2017.

Zionism is inculcated among Uruguay’s Jews from a young age. Some 80 percent of Jewish children attend tnuot — Zionist youth movements where, in addition to playing soccer (the country’s other religion), they participate in organized activities aimed at cultivating a personal connection to Israel.

In addition to organized activities, the tnuot teach Zionism by example. “When as a kid you see that, every year, another of the older kids from your tnua has made aliyah, that fosters Zionism,” says 20-year-old Fede Czarnievicz, the current head of Maccabi Tzair (Uruguay’s largest tnua).

Many Uruguayan Jews, like Czarnievicz, proudly boast that there are more Uruguayan Jews living in Israel than in Uruguay itself. Indeed, over the past 50 years, Uruguay’s Jewish community has been reduced by 80 percent largely due to young Jews practicing what they learned at their tnuot.

“I think that’s why there’s so many Uruguayans in Israel,” says Maia Abuchalja, 24, who immigrated to Israel in 2016 — “because we receive that education that Israel is a part of our lives. We don’t feel it’s so foreign.”

Still, if it were only aliyah that were responsible for the shrinking size of Uruguay’s Jewish community, its members would likely be unconcerned. But like elsewhere in the Diaspora, assimilation — a topic many are hesitant to mention — also contributes to the community’s withering.

Three hundred Jewish refugees from Europe at Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1939 after arriving from France.Credit: Associated Press

“I think assimilation is increasing,” says 24-year-old Maia Saps, explaining that many of her friends have non-Jewish significant others, something largely looked down upon by the small community. (Full disclosure: The writer of this story is Maia Saps’ cousin.)

Pulled by aliyah and assimilation, demographic trends show that Uruguay’s Jewish community will continue to decrease. The former is, at most, a cause of lamentation; the latter, however, is seen as an impending crisis few can agree how to resolve.

Seven synagogues

According to Shai Abend, a 37-year-old social activist and scholar of Uruguay’s Jewish community, the first Jews came to Uruguay from modern-day Turkey in the 1870s. Many of them, also of Turkish origin, were transplants from already-existing Jewish communities in neighboring Argentina and Brazil — mostly young men sent by their families to seek new opportunities on what was then the South American frontier. Abend explains that Uruguay’s Jews came in four waves, with the largest influx coinciding with the establishment of U.S. immigration quotas in 1924.

As immigration increased exponentially in the ’20s — both of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Sephardi Jews from various Mediterranean countries — Jewish life in Uruguay gradually became more organized. Abel Bronstein, the 78-year-old former president of one of Uruguay’s Jewish organizations, explains that, unlike Sephardi Jews who spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and therefore had an easier time adjusting to life in their new country, Ashkenazi Jews formed closer-knit communities to help each other adapt to their new society. It is estimated that about three-quarters of the country’s remaining Jews are Ashkenazim.

This was reflected in the decision of most Ashkenazi Jews at the time to live among themselves in Goes, a lower-middle-class area of southern Montevideo. (The barrio has since been absorbed into the Villa Muñoz district.) Although few Jews still live in “the Jewish neighborhood,” as Goes is colloquially known, it was once home to most of the city’s Jews. At one point, the neighborhood boasted no fewer than seven synagogues, two Jewish schools, seven tnuot, two mikvehs (Jewish ritual purification baths) and two Jewish banks, all within a six-block radius, Abend says.

The neighborhood is now a shadow of its former self: Most of the synagogues in Goes have moved to the more upscale Pocitos beach neighborhood, where most Uruguayan Jews live nowadays.

The entire Maccabi Tzair tnua, clad in their orange colors, posing for a photograph in Montevideo, 2018.Credit: Federico Czarnievicz

Provincial exodus

For the first half of the 20th century, the four Jewish communities living here — Polish-Lithuanian, German, Hungarian and Sephardi — coexisted despite some stigmas on intermarriage. That changed as the proportion of Jews born in Uruguay increased. In 1942, the four Jewish communities formed the umbrella organization Israelite Central Committee, and the country’s Jews began to unify into the aforementioned colectividad.

Fifty thousand seems to be the commonly accepted number for Uruguay’s Jewish population at its peak, in 1950. Jonás Bergstein, a lawyer and scholar of Uruguay’s Jewish community, estimates that, at one point, the country boasted as many as 30 Jewish schools (although some were part-time.)

Uruguay’s community spanned a wide range of political and social groupings. Some organizations, like Hanoar Hatzioni, saw aliyah to Israel as the highest level of self-actualization. Others, like the communist Jaime Zhitlovsky, were anti-Zionists (although the group has since accepted Israel).

By 1960, the Jewish community had already started flocking to Israel. Although Montevideo’s Jewish community survived the massive wave of aliyah to the newly formed Jewish state, the same cannot be said of the Jewish communities outside the capital. Paysandú, Uruguay’s fourth largest city, on the western border with Argentina, was once home to some 300 Jews (the largest community outside of the capital). Now it has about 75, who are “almost completely assimilated,” according to local Jewish resident Mario Fremd. The 64-year-old explains that “60 to 70 percent of the people” in his generation left for Montevideo or Israel. The only place outside of the capital with a somewhat thriving Jewish life is Punta del Este, a beachside vacation resort that attracts seasonal tourists from all over South America.

Major waves of aliyah also followed Uruguay’s economic crises in 1982 and 2002, when thousands more left for Israel. Many also headed north to Panama, whose economically prosperous Jewish community is keen on helping its members succeed.

Today, those 30 Jewish schools have shrunk to just two. Roby Schindler, 59, who sits on the central committee that oversees Uruguay’s Jewish institutions, says the NCI and Yavne congregations (the former conservative, the latter modern Orthodox) have replaced places of origin as “the two poles of the colectividad.”

Uruguayan and Israeli flags hanging in the courtyard of a home in Holon, Israel, May 2019.Credit: Martin Francisco Saps

Ironically, one symptom of the shrinking community seems to be increasing interest in religion among young people — something that was almost unheard of 15 years ago. Lucio Wainberg, 20, is one of those to has become more observant in recent years. “I realized that the Jew is different to the other in society,” he says. “We have a responsibility to fulfill certain mitzvot.”

But Uruguay’s community has such a secular tradition that even those who choose to observe religious customs, like Wainberg, insist they are not “religious” but “observant.”

Conservative communities

One major effect of the community’s reduction over the past half century is a perceived loss of political and social diversity. “I think we’ve been impoverished intellectually,” Bergstein says, adding that “when you have less diversity, there’s a higher chance that some people will feel less identified.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in Uruguayan Jews’ attitudes toward national politics. Abend says that many young progressives in the colectividad feel a tension between their Jewish identities and individual beliefs.

“The community groups are more conservative,” he says, noting that “people who want to participate in those [progressive] movements leave the community frustrated that there’s no room to debate those topics.” He clarifies that while there are still progressive Jewish organizations, they are small and on the margins.

Ariel Wolf, 48, who considers himself an “outsider” in the Jewish community, says that he personally identifies with Judaism but not the colectividad. “I feel very involved in [Uruguayan] society and sometimes I feel like the colectividad looks inward too much,” he says. Wolf adds that his more critical stance on Israeli politics, which differs sharply from the norm in the heavily pro-Israel local community, makes him feel like his beliefs and identity do not match.

Future Israeli President Yitzhak Navon, center, heading the first Israeli delegation to Uruguay, October 1948.Credit: Hugo Mendelson / GPO

The colectividad’s relative isolation is exacerbated by a feeling among its members that anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Israel sentiment, is on the rise in the country.

Uruguay, the first Latin American country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, has a long tradition of supporting the Jewish state. But in recent years its governing Broad Front party has adopted a more critical stance. Many believe this rhetoric fuels hatred against Uruguayan Jews. “When the president says that what Israel is doing is a genocide, does that not incite anti-Semitism?” Bergstein asks rhetorically, referring to then-President Jose Alberto Mujica’s comments during the 2014 Gaza War that Israel was committing “genocide” against the Palestinians.

Fremd believes such talk created the context for Uruguay’s only anti-Semitic murder since the 1970s: In 2016, his brother, David Fremd, was murdered by a mentally ill man shouting “Allahu Akbar!”

“Just like it happened to my brother, it could have happened to anyone,” says Fremd. The perceived increase in prejudice in this “more divided society” likely contributes to the colectividad’s marginalization and subsequent self-segregation, says Bergstein.

Price to pay

Largely fueled by the perception that assimilation is increasing, there is increasing despair over the future of the colectividad. Schindler and Saps both agree a major issue is that young Jews lack a structured community life after they finish tnua at age 20. Saps explains that many institutions have tried to organize events for young people, including some with free drinks, “but people don’t go.” They both add that the fact the community is so small and isolated may be pushing some people away.

Czarnievicz argues that if the community is to both survive and retain its identity, it needs to be more open to the rest of Uruguayan society and also to interfaith marriages. “That’s what we’re missing,” he says. “We need to make more friends and live alongside non-Jews more.”

The Holocaust Memorial in Montevideo, Uruguay, which was vandalized by graffiti minimizing the Shoah in October 2017.Credit: Hoverfish / Wikimedia Commons

But others believe the opposite must be done: That instead of becoming more open, the Jewish community must connect with itself, including by becoming more religious. “I’d be very happy if other stuff worked, but we don’t see anywhere else that it’s working,” says Kruger, formerly the rabbi at the Yavne synagogue. “A person who joins themselves more to the word of God … there’s more chance.”

Bergstein, meanwhile, believes that “some assimilation is inevitable — that’s the price you have to pay for living in the Diaspora.” The colectividad is slowly figuring this out as members adapt to their shrinking world.

Is the solution for the community to become more in touch with itself or more open? That is the big question facing Uruguay’s Jews. Meanwhile, as scores of the community continue to leave each year for Israel, many remaining community members likely pat themselves on the back and consider it a job well done.

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