Behind the Headlines Colombian Jewry: a Tradition of Service in the Land of Juan Valdez

In the land of Juan Valdez–last seen smiling over sacks full of cafe de Colombia bound for Norteamerica–there live 10.000 Jews. Few, If any of them have contact with their country’s all-important coffee industry beyond enjoying innumerable cup of tinto (black espresso coffee) during a given day along with 18 million fellow non-Jewish Colombians; but in many other aspects of national life. Colombia’s small Jewish community has made its contribution to local society.

Just several weeks ago the front pages of Bogota’s dailies carried a photo of three Colombian chiefs-of-state–President Misael Pastrana Borrero, President-elect Alfonso Lopez Michelsen (due to take office in August), and ex-President Carlos Lleras Restrepo–at the inauguration of the Menorah Technical High School, a building totally financed and equipped through the efforts of Colombia’s B’nai B’rith Women in one of the city’s lower-class neighborhoods.

President Pastrana called the donation “an act of generous solidarity” and referred to the Jewish community as “a splendid group” worthy of “even greater admiration and affection.” The President also mentioned the significance of education as a means of “strengthening the bonds among classes, among races, among the diverse sectors that make up a society.”

JEWISH SETTLEMENT IN COLOMBIA

Pastrana’s words would have turned an inquisitor’s stomach; and indeed, the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias had been one of the principal seats of the Spanish Inquisition in America during the colonial period. History books speak of a crypto-Jewish presence in the Vice-royalty of New Granada, as the area was then called. Some further argue that the Colombian state of Antioquia (Antioch) had a large proportion of crypto-Jews as evidenced not only by its name, but also by the supposedly Judaic traits and practices of the inhabitants–good business sense, a penchant for hard work, lighting candles in the cellar on Friday night–which are still cited by Colombians as characteristics of the present-day antioquenos.

One is on firmer historical ground in saying that the first Jews to openly settle in Colombia were Caribbean Sephardics who came from Jamaica, Curacao, and other islands at the turn of the 19th century when New Granada became independent of Spanish rule and the anti-Jewish legislation was abolished.

One such immigrant was George Henry Isaacs, a resident of Kingston who arrived on Colombian soil in search of fortune and married the daughter of a Spanish ship captain after converting to Catholicism. Their son, Jorge (1837-95), became a leading writer whose romantic novel, Maria, put Colombia on the literary map of the Spanish-speaking world. The heroine, Maria (nee Esther), was modeled on the author’s orphaned cousin, also a Jewish native of Jamaica, Her star-crossed lover, supposedly Isaacs himself, was significantly named Efrain.

While Isaacs was penning his love story, Curacoan Jews were settling in the coastal towns of Santa Marta, Rio Hacha, Cartagena and Barranquilla. Visitors to Barranquilla land at the Cortissoz Airport, named after a Jew from Curacao. The Bank of Barranquilla and the city’s municipal water works were also started by Jews. In the old Sephardic cemetery the tombstones with the names Mendez, Cortissoz. Juliao, De Sola are mute witnesses to a community that helped Colombia progress in its post-Independence years, but that in Jewish terms has largely been lost through assimilation and intermarriage.

A SMALL ECONOMIC REVOLUTION

The founders of the modern Colombian Jewish yishuv were also Sephardim, but these were from North Africa and Turkey and came about the time of World War I. They were followed by their Polish and Bessarabian brethren who in 1929 founded the Centro Israelita de Bogota, the country’s first Jewish institution. Hitler’s persecutions brought other Eastern European and German Jews to Colombia.

Starting out as itinerant salesmen offering dry goods from door to door, these Jewish immigrants–writes prominent Colombian journalist Alberto Lleras in an article entitled “A Humble Jewish Revolution”–”didn’t know that they were making a small economic revolution, but they were.” According to Lleras, until the advent of the Jews only the upper classes could afford the expensive imported items sold in Colombia.

By introducing the system of buying on long-term credit and founding local industries “with their small machines,” the Jews allowed even lower class Colombians to purchase goods and taught them how to save their pennies in order to pay the “Pole”–as the Jew was know–when he came to collect. With skill and dedication the immigrants worked their way up to ownership and management of textile and footwear plants. Their children went on to college and are today professionals–lawyers, doctors, engineers.

They are likely to live in one of Colombia’s four major cities: Bogota, with half the Jewish population. Cali, with 3000 Jews, and Barranquilla and Medellin with about 1000 each. Every one of these communities has a Jewish day school, at least one synagogue and often more, and–with the exception of Medellin–a Jewish country club.

Bogota is also the seat of the B’nai B’rith Hilel House which provides accommodations for students away from home along with the usual Hillel activities. Its director, Rabbi Gunther Friend lander, was trained in Germany and lived in Chile for many years. There are five other rabbis serving the various Colombo-Jewish institutions, all educated abroad, either in Europe, North Africa or Turkey and Argentina.

EXAMPLE OF JUDAEO-CHRISTIAN DIALOGUE

An interesting example of Judaeo-Christian dialogue in the religious sphere took place several years ago in Bogota, when, on the eve of Pope Paul VI’s visit to Colombia, representatives of Latin America’s Jewish communities met with high church prelates, among them Raul Cardinal Silva Henriquez, Primate of Chile.

Since then, Bogota’s Jewish community has also been host to the continent’s first conference on Soviet Jewry which brought together many distinguished Hispanic intellectuals. Perhaps a good example of the attitude of coffee producing and loving Colombia to the Jews and Israel is the fact that one of the few Latin Americans on Mayor Teddy Kollek’s international commission for Jerusalem is Dr. Belisario Betancur, a prominent Colombian writer and ex-candidate for the presidency.

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