Peru’s Jewish community is slowly seeing its numbers increase after years of watching families pack their bags and head abroad in search of a more secure future.
Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein, an Argentine who has served as a rabbi in Peru since 1985, says the size of the community is roughly half what it was at its heyday in the 1970s, when Peru’s Jewish population was about 5,200.
Despite the small number of Jewish families in the country, the community is active and shows signs of growth, he says.
Nearly all Jewish families now live in the capital city of Lima.
The community is divided into three congregations, which are based on different geographical roots.
The largest community, the Israeli Union, which is made up primarily of Jews of Eastern European ancestry, represents about 75 percent of the country’s Jewish population.
The other two congregations, which are about equal in size, are comprised of Sephardi Jews and of Jews with Central European or German heritage.
The exodus of Peruvian Jews began in the early 1970s, when the left-wing military government of Gen. Juan Velasco nationalized the media and most of the country’s industries.
During Velasco’s years in office, many Jewish families disagreed with the sweeping nationalization plan of the administration, says Bronstein.
“At the time, nearly all Jews were business owners, and they saw the nationalization program as a threat to their livelihood,” Bronstein says.
Eduardo Vigio, a Peruvian land developer and president of the Third World Commission of the World Jewish Congress, adds that Jews left the country not because of political troubles and anti-Semitism, but because they felt suffocated by the atmosphere created under Velasco, who was in office from 1968 to 1975.
“There was a lot of censorship, and your children couldn’t study where or what they wanted to study, so many people found it easier to move to countries where they could live the lives they chose,” Vigio says.
The rate of emigration slowed after Velasco was overthrown in 1975, but it picked up with force in the 1980s because of governmental economic mismanagement and political violence.
“The number of people leaving reached its peak toward the end of the 1980s. Many Jewish families left Peru during Alan Garcia’s government (1985-90), because of the economic chaos caused by his programs,” says Bronstein.
At the same time, rising levels of terrorism at the hands of the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla movement added to the atmosphere of instability in Peru.
Although the Shining Path never openly attacked a Jewish target, terrorism and clashes with government forces in the late 1980s fueled the desire of families who wanted to leave Peru.
More than 30,000 people have reportedly been killed in 15 years of political violence in Peru.
Despite a promise by President Alberto Fujimori to eradicate the Shining Path rebels before the end of his first five-year term, he began his second term in late July amid renewed attacks by the Communist guerrillas.
Although the Shining Path still maintains a presence in Peru, it has not undermined the high popularity of Fujimori, who is credited with halting the country’s runaway inflation and reinvigorating the country’s economy.
There are no exact figures as to how many Jews left Peru between 1973 and 1990, but Bronstein says an estimate can be drawn from the number of students enrolled at Lima’s Jewish school.
The enrollment at the Leon Pinelo School, where 90 percent of Peru’s Jewish families send their children, fell from 1,200 students in the early 1970s to 450 students today.
Even with the recent growth, the composition of the Jewish community today is much different from what it was 20 years ago.
Unlike in the 1970s, the typical Peruvian Jew today is middle class and holds a salaried position, Bronstein says.
“In the 1970s, the immense majority of Jews were business owners. There were very few salaried workers in the community,” he says.
“Today, the majority are salaried workers. They do not have the same economic power as earlier generations. The Jewish community in Peru is not as wealthy as it was 20 years ago,” Bronstein says.
Gradual improvement in Peru’s economic situation is attracting the attention of middle-class Jews in countries such as Argentina, where the economy is stagnant, or in other places where anti-Semitism runs high.
Larissa and Alexander Beloserkovski came to Peru two years ago from Russia.
Anti-Semitism in Russia had increased in the past few years, causing Alexander Beloserkovski to take a job in Peru even though they did not speak Spanish and knew little about the country, they said.
However, since they moved to Peru, the Peruvian Jewish community and Peruvians in general have been very sympathetic, says Larissa Beloserkovski.
“When I go to the market, people say `hello’ to me. They don’t treat me different because I am a Jew. We are not going to leave,” she says.
In addition, Peru’s Jewish community is represented at the highest levels of society.
Until he left office in July, Efrain Goldenberg, a Jew, served as the country’s prime minister and foreign minister.
Vigio, who has been with the World Jewish Congress for the past 10 years, said that even though Goldenberg’s position had nothing to do with his heritage, it is one more example of the changes that have taken place in Peru during the last two decades.
“The traditional power myths in Peru have been broken. Economic and political power are no longer in the hands of a small minority, but have been extended and represent the will of the people,” he says.