Jews in Colombia

One year a Jewish family was invited to our family’s big drunken romp known as Christmas Eve, and we served ham. I was too young to feel awkward, but the kids made a big fuss and the parents shut them up, quietly assuring them it was OK this time. They ate it. And once in NYC I got lost in Brooklyn and walked through a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood on a Saturday. The orthodox ones grow long hair at the temples and wear funny clothes. It was surreal. I caught a lot of stares, like I was the weird one. There are a few areas in St. Louis where many Jews live, but it wasn’t where I lived, so that’s about the extent of this Missouri boy’s experience. Many ignorant Americans like me may not know that Jews comprise a significant part of Latin America as well.

The United States has the largest population of Jews after Israel. If you look at the regions with significant Jewish populations, four are in Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile (in that order). Besides South Africa, Latin America is the only region outside typical gringo havens with significant Jewish populations. Whether fleeing the Spanish Inquisition or the Nazis, not all Jews went to North America. Many came to Latin America, and many Latin people have Jewish ancestors. I had a student with the surname, Ruth. I don’t know if she was Jewish in the religious sense, but she surely had Jewish ethnicity/race. I think most of the Jews in Colombia assimilated, converting to Catholicism, and mixed in with the general population. So most probably don’t even know they have Jewish blood.

colombian-cupid-buttonAt ~4,000, the Jewish population in Colombia isn’t big enough to be “significant,” but there are Colombian Jews, concentrated in Bogota. The first Jews came to Colombia from Spain in the 1500s to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Marranos were the Spanish Jews who publicly proclaimed Catholicism but secretly remained loyal to Judaism. A few hundred of these folks got tired of the charade and relocated to Colombia. That group in Colombia was mostly killed off in the 1600s.

A second wave of Jews came to Colombia in the 20th century to escape Hitler and Nazi Germany. Research shows most of these were Sephardi and Ashkenazi immigrants, but I’ve also read many of the Bogota Jews were French. So the Jewish community in Bogota and greater Colombia has been around for over 60 years. However, according to this article, they’re largely leaving Colombia for Miami or Israel. Read an in-depth piece on the Jewish community in Bogota. Here’s a list of synagogues in Bogota.

When The Mick was in Colombian prison, his best friend Tachuela, an assassin, was contracted to kill a Colombian Jew who had been conspiring with a kidnapping gang to target wealthy Jewish families whom he had information about.

On Carrera 11 at Calle 94, in the heart of Bogota affluence, stands this statue – a dedication to the state of Israel:

Avenida Estado de Israel

Famous Colombian Jews

Fanny Mikey – actress and founder of the Bogota Iberoamerican Theatre Festival

Rogelio Salmona – architect of many of Bogota’s most distinguished landmarks

Isaac Lee Possin – media mogul (Univision)

Germán Efromovich – Avianca / Taca airlines chairman, owner

Jaime Gilinski Bacal – banker

Jorge Isaacs – author

Read more about the history of Jews in Latin America.

Support what Expat Chronicles is all about. Leave a tip to keep the laughs coming (and the news, insight and other stuff too).

Donate

22 comments

  1. The linked article about Jews leaving for Miami and Israel is about Jews in Medellin 11 years ago when it was a lot more dangerous.

    When I was there in December, I hang with some Israelis who moved there, and this Jew is trying to get down there.

    Like

  2. Spanish Speaking spokesmen for the Israeli Defense Force invariably have an Argentinian Accent.

    In 1994 Hezbollah exploded a bomb outside the Jewish Mutual Aid Society in Buenos Aires. Eighty five were killed and many more injured. Many of the Argentinians I have met openly express negative, even annihilationist , sentiments regarding Jews.

    In the 1970’s, Jews who generally fear nationalist movements, supported the radical leftwing movements against the military dictator ship.

    Unlike the USA where mainstream lefties are anti-(anti-communsit), most of the Argentinian working class hated the Comminist rebels and resented affluent Jewish lending them their financial support. In a country that has long flirted with facism Jews could never rest easy and many of them left for Israel.

    In stark contrast, Mexico City is home to between 250,000 and 500.000 fully intergrated Mexican Jews. I have never heard a single Mexican, and I know many, make a negative comment regarding jews. In fact Mexicans, in the US or Mexico, pull people of other ethnicities into their cultural orbit and never let them go. If you can fire up the grill and cook some carne asada, and down a couple of beers you are unofficially Mexican.

    Like

  3. I am actually Sephardic, (my last name is Albelda), my family fled Spain in the 1500’s as well, but they ended up in Bulgaria and then left for the states during the Holocaust. My great grandma actually spoke some crazy ass medieval Spanish language called, Ladino.

    I lived in Buenos Aires for a summer in 2008 and I was actually shocked how many Orthodox Jews I saw. They even have a kosher McDonalds there, the only one outside of Israel. And yes, there is a lot of antisemitism there. It seems us Jews are blamed for anything that goes wrong because we always somehow have a finger in it, oh well, at least I look about as Aryan as they come!

    Like

  4. Congrats, great blog. I grew up in Bogota, met the first jews only as i started playing bridge, that was the 80s. A close knit group, had their own club, helped each other, and being a small number they managed to keep everybody out of poverty.
    I was shocked: they truly impressed me, stood high above the rest of the establishment for discipline, ethics, and especially for their fairness, kindness and generosity to employees.
    This is a key point: in Colombia, back then, to judge the character of a person, you just needed to look at how they treated the servants.

    Like

  5. My father was Jewish, my mother Catholic and I am Baptist but most people identify me as Jewish, my wife is Colombian and I been to Colombia many times and consider it my second home. I guess Jews in general are viewed either highly negative or highly positive be it the paramilitary training some of the organizations have provided to the AUC and FARC, or as beneficial to the country. From my understanding during La Violencia, there was a split between the liberals and conservatives and both sides were accusing the Jews of various different things. I did see some grafitti in Bogota that said “Israel not equal to Colombia” and swastikas every now and then, I think this is mainly due to politics between FARC who sympathize with communism and AUC who is more capitalist. I’d like to learn more about the situation, anyways I love Colombia regardless and most of the people don’t seem to really care about your background there.

    Like

  6. Do you know if there are any Jewish peace projects happening in Colombia? I’m just interested in religious peace building in Colombia (I know there are lots of Catholic and some Protestant ones) and was wondering if Jewish groups/individuals are also involved in this in Colombia.

    Like

  7. iam from barranquilla colombia,went to the american school my both parents are jewish.my life i colombia is great and i have live in the USA also.I would never change Colombia for another country.i never saw anything like violence or kidnapping.The first time i saw cocaine was in a burger king in miami.the dramatic situation described onthe newspapers around the world cannot be believed.my father haw a very succesful business he left us in barranquilla.jewish religion was not a prioroty in my family,but intermarriage was prohibited.

    Like

  8. I am half-Jewish, and went to buy a Menorah in Bogotá a couple years ago from a guy who sells Jewish-products in his apartment in Marly.

    He was wearing a yarmulke, and his apartment was filled with all sorts of Jewish books and paraphernelia. He told me that about 2,000 Jews live in Bogotá but that about half of them are “judíos mesiánicos”, which means they still believe that Jesus was the messiah. He kind of looked down at the ground when he told me that he was one of them, maybe expecting a rebuke. I do know plenty of American Jews who would have retched at the thought of a Jew thinking Jesus was the son of God. It is interesting to see the effect of the adopted country on how Judaism evolves there.

    Like

  9. Jewish. Going to medillin last of August and would like to meet some of the community. I’m a doctor thinking of retirement there.

    Like

  10. Live in U S. Will be visiting Medellin the week starting August 30th. Would like to meet others who can show me, educate me on your city. Will be with wife. Will pay going rates for anyone taking time to drive us around. Speak only English. Doctor in my 60’s, young at heart.

    Like

  11. I just moved to Bogota from NY and am looking for a Conservative synagogue or a chavurah that is inclusive of women. Can anyone suggest a place to go?
    Thank yuo.

    Like

  12. We will be coming to Medellin in July to look around and see if we would like to have a second home there (Since we are very concerned about Trump’s policies). My husband is a retired M.D. and I am a retired psychologist. We are interested in meeting some Jewish people in Medellin, who are either Reformed or Conservative (not lubovishers or very ortodox).
    Would love some people to contact us. Thank you.

    Like

  13. Where should a young adult go for High Holiday services? Not orthodox. Any services affiliated with medial school or universities?

    Like

  14. The author forgot to mention a third wave of jews (which I am a descendent of), which took place between the two that the author previously mentioned: the sephardic jews coming from Curacao. These jews were elemental to Colombia’s independence (look for what Mordechai Ricardo did in favor of Simon Bolivar), and they mostly settled in Colombia’s caribbean coast (they weren’t allowed to settle further into Colombia); they were elemental to Barranquilla’s rising as a progressive city and its shaping as a cosmopolitan collective.

    If you meet anyone with a surname such as Sourdis, Juliao, Alvarez-Correa, Curiel, Henriquez, De La Rosa, Lopez-Penha, Heilbron, Senior, Gomez-Casseres or Cortissoz (of which Ernesto, one of the founders of latin american aviation, is a bearer), etc, make no mistake: (s)he is a descendant of sephardic jews (see https://publicaciones.banrepcultural.org/index.php/boletin_cultural/article/view/1533/1587 for more info). There are literally thousands of people with these surnames in Barranquilla.

    Like

  15. Planning to visit Colombia as a possible retirement. Do not see myself and my wife retiring in the US. Scared what is happening. Too much gun violence and right wing policies.

    Like

Leave a Reply to Larry w Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s