VISITING THE DWINDLING JEWISH COMMUNITY OF URUGUAY

After hearing about these threads of anti-Semitic behaviour, I was surprised when Margolis told our group that Uruguay supported the Balfour Declaration and was the first Latin American country to recognize the state of Israel. Montevideo was the first Latin American capital to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. Even though the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in the ’60s caused neo-Nazi groups to stir up trouble on the streets of Uruguay, nowadays, Margolis says that anti-Semitism is virtually non-existent.

Today, Uruguay’s Jewish community is considerably smaller. During the military dictatorship that ruled from 1973 to 1984, many Jews relocated to other countries for political and economic reasons. Margolis estimates the population to be around 15,000 people, while Google searches put the population at 10,000, out of a total of 3.5 million citizens.

The majority of the country’s Jews live in the capital city of Montevideo, near one of the Jewish community centres.

When we arrived at the three-story Kehila community centre, our attention was refocused on the Jewish community. This multipurpose building without any signage or symbols is located in a residential area. For security reasons, we were not allowed to take any photos of the neighbourhood, or the outside of the building and our passports were kept until we exited the building. Once inside, we learned a little bit about the community’s 100-year history and the building’s current amenities – a mikveh, a synagogue, a museum, day schools, an arts and craft room, a kitchen and services for the developmentally disabled. The most memorable feature was a gigantic glass menorah that stands prominently in the red-carpeted sanctuary.

At this memorial, the wall is split, to represent the Shoah. Walking down the path toward the opening and looking toward the river, the designers hoped that visitors would imagine the divine intervention associated with the biblical parting of the sea. The setting likewise encourages people to appreciate the river view that represents the arrival of immigrants and the acceptance of individual differences.

The leadership of the community has attempted to respond to the rise in assimilation and the large number of Jews choosing to move to Israel. During our visit, Rabbi Yacov Kruger, who was born in Canada, talked about his attempt to make all Jews feel at home in his synagogue and the need to provide education to adults, as well as to kids. He is now in Israel and another Orthodox rabbi has taken his place.

As I waved goodbye to Margolis and walked toward the cruise ship, I couldn’t help but wonder about the future of the Uruguayan Jewish community. With an aging population that sees more deaths than births, it appears that the population will continue to decline. This trend is accelerated by two more factors: intermarriage rates are approaching 50 per cent and the community’s Zionist leanings have encouraged people to make aliyah. Margolis estimates that there are already 10,000 Jews who have moved to Israel. The outflow of people causes a decline in available funds. Communal organizations will have to adjust accordingly, as the population continues to decrease. Unless there is a resurgence of interest in living in Uruguay, its Jewish core will fade away like so many other Jewish communities around the world. For now, people like Margolis will continue to keep Uruguay’s Jewish spirit alive. Memorial to the Holocaust of the Jewish People (Memorial del Holocausto del Pueblo Judio) adjacent to the shoreline SANDY BORNSTEIN PHOTO