MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — A visit to Montevideo’s Jewish community is a bittersweet experience. Clearly, numbers in the Uruguayan capital have shrunk dramatically and continue to dwindle. Young and even middle-aged Jews have left, and intermarriage has reached North American levels.
Once 50,000 strong in the first years after World War II, Uruguay’s Jews today number barely 20,000, and even that number is considered optimistic. About 95 per cent live in the capital
Yet, this is a hang-tough, vibrant community where levels of observance, affinity to Israel and overall gumption are high. There are 12 synagogues, nine of which are active; two day schools attended by nearly half of all Jewish children; Zionist youth and women’s organizations; cultural and sporting groups; a weekly newspaper; a small but hard-hitting indoor Holocaust museum, and possibly the most impressive outdoor Holocaust memorial in the western hemisphere.
“We are not excluded,” says our feisty guide, Fanny Margolis. “We are part of society at every level.” She proudly notes that the national cabinet has three Jewish ministers.
A century ago, three-quarters of the community was Sephardi, from Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Greece and Turkey. Today, Margolis notes, it is 70 per cent Ashkenazi, 12 per cent Sephardi and three per cent “Hungarian,” for some reason a separate category (there’s the Comunidad Israelita Hungara in Montevideo).
One of the main shuls is Sinagoga Beit Israel, located within the community centre on Canelonis Street. A non-descript affair also known as the Kehila, it was founded in 1916 when 58 immigrants from eastern Europe established the Jevra Kadisha Ashkenazi.
The community grew with newcomers from Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and Transylvania, the latter two providing a strong chassidic component. Today, the centre is protected by outdoor concrete barriers and guards who keep passports while their bearers are inside. There is no sign to identify it as a Jewish building.
What is stressed here is that Uruguay has the best relations with Israel of any South American country. Margolis relates that it was fiercely anti-Nazi during the World War II; was the first Latin American country, and the fourth in the world, to recognize Israel in May 1948, and was the first Latin American capital to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. For a brief period, Uruguay’s embassy in Israel was in Jerusalem and moved it to Tel Aviv only after strong international pressure.
Uruguay is also the only South American country authorized to administer Israel’s university entrance exams. And some 13,000 former Uruguayan Jews live in Israel, said to be the highest proportion of aliyah from the free world. It’s an alarming state of affairs, though, as Margolis relates that in 2002-03 alone, some 10,000 young Jews moved to Israel to escape economic turmoil.
More heartwarming is the scene in the basement of the synagogue/community centre. Here, some 30 developmentally handicapped Jews assemble, finish and pack local crafts and Judaica in a community-funded sheltered workshop. This year, all will have enjoyed a free trip to Israel courtesy of the Jewish Agency.
Doubtless the highlight of any tour of Jewish Montevideo is the stunning outdoor Holocaust memorial. Spread along a stretch of prime waterfront called the Rambla, it is a promenade of tombstone-like stone slabs and pink granite that was opened by Uruguay’s president in 1994. Built in eight angular sections, it conveys dislocation and destruction through rubble, crooked ramps and broken walls.
Quotes from Elie Wiesel, Maimonides and others adorn slabs that resemble tombstones. A stone plaque tells of 15-year-old Ana Balog, Uruguay’s only known Holocaust victim. She died in Auschwitz in 1945 after returning to Hungary to care for her ailing mother and became trapped in the Nazi maelstrom.
Light and shade alternate, as the sea laps meditatively at the shore. The effect is both troubling and strangely peaceful in the memorial’s idyllic setting.
Uruguayan Jews are tenacious and have hung on. But with intermarriage rates at 45 per cent, an aging community and ongoing exodus, Margolis concedes that “yes, we are in decline” and rues, “but we don’t know what to do.”