Behind the Headlines: Peruvian Jewish Community Boasts Jewish Prime Minister and Active Life

This country has a Jewish prime minister, a mikvah that uses snow brought from the Andes and Indians baking challah every Thursday night.

And all this with a Jewish community of only some 3,000 people.

Peruvian Prime Minister Efrain Goldenberg-Schreiber, appointed to the position earlier this year, continues to play an active role in the Jewish community.

Some 15 years ago, the Jewish community in the capital of Lima, where nearly all Peruvian Jews live, was three times its current size.

Because of the protracted terrorist activities of Marxist guerrillas belonging to the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path movement, and also for economic reasons, two-thirds of the Jewish population has since left for Israel, the United States, Canada, Venezuela or elsewhere.

This exodus particularly involved young people, who left for university studies abroad and did not return.

Jorge Gruenberg, president of Lima’s Jewish community, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the terror has been virtually eradicated, and that he hopes the younger generation will soon begin returning.

Almost all the children in the community attend the Leon Pinelo Jewish School from preschool through high school, and half of them subsequently go on to study in Israel for at least three months.

The school, with 450 children between the ages of two and 17, has a reputation as the finest private school in all of Peru, and as one of the best Jewish schools in Latin America.

About 25 percent of the school’s pupils who have studied in Israel have subsequently made aliyah.

RABBI WAS SENT IN FROM ISRAEL

The vast majority of the community today belongs to the Orthodox Ashkenazic synagogue, Union Israelita del Peru. The congregation’s rabbi, Yaakov Kraus, was sent here from Israel six years ago as the result of an arrangement with the Jewish Agency.

Kraus serves as the community’s shochet, or ritual slaughterer.

He has also recently set up a center that houses challah-baking facilities, a mikvah, a kosher “minimart” with frozen meat and poultry and imported items, a small Jewish library and a cafe.

Every Thursday night, Kraus supervises as Peruvian Indians bake challah for the community. He said that about 15 to 20 women use the mikvah every month.

Because there is virtually no rain in Lima, Kraus brings snow from the Andes to fulfill the requirement of having running water in the mikvah.

The 1870 Synagogue, which Gruenberg heads, was the first Jewish congregation in Peru, founded in the year it is named for.

It was established primarily by German Jews, along with some French and English Jews, who came to this western South American country for business reasons.

According to Leon Trahtemberg, principal of the Jewish school and a historian of the community, a yellow fever epidemic in 1868 that resulted in the death of about a dozen Jews was one incentive for founding the synagogue.

Beginning in 1875, there was a Jewish cemetery, and by 1880 some 300 Jewish people were members of the synagogue.

They met for holidays, bar mitzvahs, circumcisions and mourning. They also initiated social service activities for orphans and widows.

Most people in the original community were young men who had come to Peru for business, Trahtemberg said. They married Peruvian non-Jews, and by the beginning of this century the Jewish community had almost disappeared.

Some had assimilated and others had returned to Europe after the 1879-84 Peru-Chile war and ensuing economic crisis. The community consisted mainly of an older generation of Jews.

Beginning in 1910-1915, there was a Sephardic immigration that revitalized the community. Along with the Sephardim from Greece, Syria and Turkey, some Eastern European Jews also arrived from Russia and Poland.

The Sephardic and Eastern European communities began their Jewish life in Peru together along with the earlier German Jewish community, but by the end of the 1920s there were three separate communities.

HUGE SUMS PAID FOR VISAS

During the 1930s, some 500 German-speaking Jews, 500 Sephardim, and 1,500 Jews from Eastern Europe arrived in Lima.

During World War II, it was almost impossible to enter, Trahtemberg said. But some 500 Jews were able to enter Peru after their families paid huge sums for visas.

In general, immigration to the East Coast of South America was easier than to the Pacific Coast during the war, he said.

In 1942, the three communities decided to unite in a Jewish association, to fight anti-Semitism in Europe and to send clothing, money and food to the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Since 1972, this organization, the Jewish Association of Peru, has conducted most Jewish activities that are of a non-religious nature.

There are three synagogues today; the Conservative 1870 Synagogue, a Sephardic synagogue and the Union Israelita del Peru Orthodox Ashkenazic synagogue.

In addition to the association, the synagogues and the school, the community also has a communal club, two old age homes, and groups such as the Women’s International Zionist Organ ization and ORT.

Regarding the future of Peru’s small Jewish community, Trahtemberg said, “There is potential to maintain Jewish life, both economically and spiritually, but anything can happen.”

He said he feels there is at least one more generation of Jewish life here, but there is always the possibility that the rate of emigration or assimilation will grow.

He maintained that intermarriage has not been a problem because in most cases the non-Jew in a mixed marriage has converted to Judaism.

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