Uruguay has a long and established Jewish community, and its development parallels the development of the country. Uruguay did not have a significant Inquisition and there are some traces of Conversos who lived in the 16th century. Few documents relating to Jewish 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 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 nineteenth-century. 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. Documentation of today’s Jewish community dates back only to 1880. In 1905, there were various records of the Jews’ arrival. The first recorded minyan was not until 1912. In 1909, 150 Jews lived in Montevideo, the city with the largest Jewish population. Despite the history of settlement, the community did not open its first synagogue until 1917.
For many Jews, Uruguay was a temporary stop on the way to Argentina or Brazil and the majority of immigration occurred between the 1920s and early 1930s. A large number of these immigrants were secular leftists who disassociated themselves from the Jewish community. 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. Jews were singled out and many people opposed Jewish inclusion in Uruguayan society. This harsh treatment abated around the time of World War II due to the administration of the antifascist General Alfredo Baldomir. Despite harsh immigration quotas, immediately prior to and during World War II, Jews also used Uruguay as a way station to other countries. After the establishment of the State of Israel and the forced exodus of Jews out of Arab lands, there was a considerable wave of immigration to Uruguay, more than 18,000 Jews. Among other places, these Jews came from Algeria, Egypt and Rhodes.
During the time of early settlement, the Jews engaged primarily in commerce, light industry and crafts, and salaried jobs. German immigration in the 1930s contributed to an economic increase through World War II. From the 1930s until about 1950, there were several failed attempts at creating Jewish agricultural settlement in Uruguay. Post-WWII, Jews increased their representation in the professional world, particularly as the community became second and third generation and assimilation increased. Beginning in the 1920s, the Jewish community became predominately middle class and their economic development basically mirrored that of the general middle class. This economic development was helped by the creation of Jewish loan and assistance funds, which gradually evolved into Jewish banks.
In the 1960s, there were sporadic anti-Semitic outbursts among nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations, many originating in Argentina. In 1961, during the Eichmann trial, Neo-Nazi groups provoked serious anti-Semitic disturbances. Anti-Semitism in Uruguay tends to mirror negative general trends; for example, when the economy is in crisis, anti-Semitism tends to increase. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, very few anti-Semitic incidents were recorded; however, one exception occurred in 1998 when a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window of the Anshei Emet synagogue.
The Jewish community is predominately secular while observing basic elements of the Jewish tradition. Organizationally, the religious and secular functions have been separate since 1942. Jewish cultural life is the prominent expression of Jewish identity in Uruguay, and there is an organized community of secular humanists in Uruguay. In the mid-1990s, there were 14 Orthodox and 1 Masorti (Conservative) synagogue and two Orthodox and two Masorti (Conservative) rabbis. The growing Masorti community is partially due to the growing population of the Seminario Rabinico Latinamerico rabbinical school of the Conservative movement in Argentina (1 of 5 Conservative rabbinical schools in the world). Chabad-Lubavitch also runs a center and several schools in Montevideo and a center in Punta del Este. As of 2003, Uruguay has 20 synagogues, but only six hold weekly Shabbat services, and only the Yavne Community Center synagogue in Montevideo functions every day.
The Jewish community of Uruguay is made up of 10,000 families of Polish-Russian, Sephardi, German and Hungarian descent. Approximately 75% of Uruguay’s Jews are Ashkenazi, while only 11% are of Sephardic descent, however, that was not always the case. In 1917-1918, 75% of the Jewish population were Sephardim. Uruguay has Ashkenazi and Sephardi schools and youth groups such as the national-religious Bnai Akiva, the socialist HaShomer HaTzair, HaNoar HaTzioni, and the Revisionist Betar give informal youth education. Uruguay has eight strong Zionist youth organizations and Uruguay is the only South American country authorized to administer Israel’s university entrance exam. Local youth organizations include the Maccabia sports group, and the youth section of the Nueva Congregacion Israelita (NCI). The NCI is the umbrella organization of the Uruguayan Jewish community.
At the 1920 San Remo Conference, Uruguay supported Jewish aspirations in Eretz Yisrael and the Balfour Declaration. In 1947, it voted for the establishment of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which had a delegate from Uruguay who was one of the Jews’ most ardent supporters. Uruguay was the first Latin American country, and one of the first countries overall, to recognize the State of Israel. Montevideo was the first Latin American capital (and fourth globally) in which Israel established a diplomatic mission. Uruguay was also one of the few nations willing to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It opposed the proposed internationalization of the city in 1949 and upgraded the diplomatic representation in Jerusalem to the status of an embassy in 1958. It was subsequently downgraded to the status of consulate, however, due to Arab pressure.
Montevideo has a Jewish museum, documentation center and a Holocaust memorial. The Holocaust museum has been declared a national historic landmark. Next to the major opera house (Téatro Solis), there is a square named after Golda Meir. The Albert Einstein monument stands in Rodo Park, opposite the casino. There is also a Jewish cemetery, with monuments to victims of the Holocaust, Israeli soldiers, and victims of the terror attack on the AMIA Building in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Various neighborhoods also contain traces of a long-abandoned Jewish past. While dwindling because of the economic crisis, many of the small shops are Jewish owned. Kosher food is available at the Hogar de Padres, the senior citizens’ residence of the Nueva Congregación Israelita. Instituto Integral Hebreo Uruguayo “Yavne” is a school, synagogue and adult education center. Also, a Hillel was opened for students in Montevideo.
The Uruguayan Jewish community is less than 1% of the total population and has undergone a serious decline since the 1970s due to emigration. As of the mid-1990s, there are no Jews in the upper echelons of the social strata or military. There is also very little Jewish representation in the legislative bodies of the Uruguayan political system. In the wake of the Latin American economic crisis of the early twenty-first century, Uruguayan Jews have been hit hard. Between 1998-2003, more then half of the community’s 40,000 Jews have immigrated – mostly to Israel. Today, 23,000 Jews live in Uruguay, with 95% residing in Montevideo. Many of the Jewish owned shops have closed due to lack of business. The Israelite Community of Uruguay, also known as the Ashkenazi Kehilah, has been, and continues to be, the main source of social service aid within the traditional system.
According to a 2003 study commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, titled “Poverty, Vulnerability and Risk in the Uruguayan Jewish Community,” 22 percent of the country’s adult Jewish population is “poor” and 40.5 percent is “vulnerable.” The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and local Jewish organizations are providing thousands of dollars in assistance and enabling children to obtain a free Jewish education. However, while Argentina is receiving significant international financial assistance to meet that Jewish community’s desperate needs, much less aid is coming in to Uruguay. In June 2002, the World Zionist Congress declared Uruguay’s Jewish community to be in a state of emergency.
Notable Jews of Uruguay
Monsieur Chouchani, mysterious scholar
Gisele Ben-Dor, conductor
Daniel Drexler, singer/songwriter
Jorge Drexler, singer/songwriter
Ricardo Ehrlich, mayor of Montevideo
Jose Gurvich, painter
Teresa Porzecanski, writer
Mauricio Rosencof, writer
Gabe Saporta, singer/songwriter/bassist of Cobra Starship and Midtown
Carlos Sherman, writer (Uruguay-born)
Robert Yabeck, photographer