By Beth Weiss
Jews have achieved prominent positions in the Chilean government and other realms of influence, and have played a key part in the founding of the country, both before and after its independence in 1813. Approximately 12,500 of Chile's 15,000 Jews today reside in the capital of Santiago. Other smaller communities exist in Vino Del Mar (Valparaiso), Concepcion, Temuco, and Valdivia. A group of Indians in the south, the Iglesia Israelita, observe many Jewish customs and consider themselves to be Jewish as well.
Early 16th Century+
Several of the very first explorers to Chile were accompanied by Conversos, or converted Catholic Jews secretly practicing Judaism. Legend maintains that the very first explorer in 1535, Diego de Almagro, came with a Converso by the name of Rodrigo de Orgonos. Five years later, Pedro de Valdivia, another conquistador, came with Diego Garcia de Caceres of Plasencia, Spain, who is also believed to have been a Converso. Scandals erupted in 1621 after the geneology of Caceres was traced to include many prominent families in Santiago, including the founder of the Chilean independence movement, General Jose Miguel Carrera. Caceres' family roots were published in a pamphlet entitled La Ovandina, but the arrival of the Inquisition at that time forbade the circulation of the pamplet, which was reprinted in 1915.
The Converso community prospered enough to be persecuted during the Inquisition. In 1627 Francisco Maldonado de Silva, the director of Santiago's well-respected hospital, San Juan de Dios, was arrested and sent to Lima. During his time in prison he gave spiritual inspiration to many other Conversos and even succeeded to proselytize to Catholics. He was sentenced to death in 1639. Despite the persecution many Conversos continued to live in Chile.
Jews from other countries became interested in the Jewish community in Chile. Simon de Caceres, an ex-Converso based in London, tried get permission from Oliver Cromwell to lead a military contingent of Jews to conquer uninhabited lands in Chile in 1656.
The persecution of Conversos ceased when the country gained formal independence from Spain in 1818.
The Inquisition was abolished with the establishment of Chilean independence in 1818. (The first steps towards independence led by Bernard O'Higgins began in 1810 and failed due to repeated attempts of the Spanish to regain control of the country).
Many Jewish citizens or descendants of Converso families were involved in the country's struggle for independence, including General Jose Miguel Carrera, who traced his lineage back to Diego Garcia de Caceres. Carrera was nominated to be the first president of Chile, although Manuel Blanco Encalada actually became the Chilean leader. Diego Portales, father of the 1833 Chilean constitution, also claimed descent from Caceres.
Many non-Jewish leaders of the revolution had close ties with Jewish individuals. The first president of the Republic of Chile, Bernard O'Higgins, spent time in the home of Juan Albano Peyreyra, possibly of Jewish ancestry.
Since 1920, Chile has implemented a clear separation between church and state, which allows the Jews to achieve prominent status in the government and other fields. Chilean Jewish politicians included the first Jewish diplomat, Martin Levison Bloch and Daniel Schweitzer Speisky, representative to the UN as ambassador and president of the Securtiy Counsel. Speisky's brother Meguiel was a minister of justice.
A Jewish journalist by the name of Benjamin Cohen worked at El Mercutio, the country's top newspaper.
Other influential Jewish individuals contributed to Chilean trade and industry. Julio Bernstein started the first sugar refinery in Vino del Mar. Saloman Sack, a successful steel businessman, financed the University of Chile's School of Architecture. Pedro Herzl was Chile's first Jewish doctor of the new period.
Pre-World War II
Until World War I most Jewish immigrants were of East European descent from Argentina or Sephardi Jews from Monastir, Macedonia. The Sephardi Jews arrived in Temuco and started the Chilean Sephardi community. These early immigrants were sometimes connected with influential politicians. Naum Trumper was from Moiseville in Argentina was close with Chilean President Arturo Alessandri.
Chile became a refuge for Jews in the early part of the 20th century. Russians Jews fled to escape the Russian Revolution. Many fled Hitler in the 1930s and after Argentina limited the number of immigrants, Jews traveled further south to Chile. The Jews were treated well in Chile and actively participated in politics and other professions.
After the Balfour Declaration, Zionist activity in Chile increased. The Congress of Chilean Jewry met in 1919 as part of a movement to centralize the Jewish community. Local community matters were discussed at this meeting with representatives from 13 cities, including Caracuatin (home of the Indian Jewish sect). The Federacio Sionista de Chile, the central organization of Chilean Jewry was established at this meeting. Since this time a local Zionist congress meets in Chile every year. The Chilean community in the 1920s contributed generously to Zionist causes.
In 1920, the Ashkenazi population in Santiago united and formed the Ciculo Israelita, the main Jewish organization in Chile today. Today the Comite Representative de las Entidades Judias de Chile (Respresentative Committee of the Jewish Organizations in Chile, or the CREJ), is the organization responsible for community activities.
Post- World War II
With the increase in Jewish immigration, anti-Semitism reappeared. In 1940 a new committee called the Comite Representivo was created to deal with anti-Semitic behavior. This committee is a member of the World Jewish Congress, and in 1943 the committee granted responsibility for all Zionist activities to the Zionist Federation.
At the beginning of World War II, 879 Jewish refugees were told that they could only live in southern Chile, a region known for its harsh climate. Fifteen families lived in these difficult living situations for several years and subsequently found homes in more populated cities.
The Jews continued to prosper even with the increase in anti-Semitism. A number of Hungarians entered the country following the Hungarian Revolution.
Under the Allende government (1970-1973) a number of Jewish individuals achieved high status. Among them were: Jacques Chonchol, minister of agriculture; Jacobe Shaulson, a Radical party Parliament member; Volodia Teitelbaum, senator and leader of the Communist Party; Oscar Weiss, editor of the government newspaper; Enrique Testa, professor commercial law at the University of Chile and later the president of the State Defense Council.
Even with these influential individuals in the government, one-third of the Jewish community left under the Allende government and asserted a more capitalist outlook than before.
Jewish individuals were successful under Pinochet's rule from 1973-1988 also. Many returned to Chile after Allende's demise and became active in the government.
Some had been active all along in the political opposition. Marcos Chamudes owned the opposition paper P.E.C. and Angel Faivovich was a former senator. Brigadier General Jose Berdichevsky Scher was one of the Air Force officials responsible for the bombing of the presidential palace where Allende died.
Others Jewish individuals and their families were exiled, as is common among Communist governments in their branding of the enemy.
Pinochet won some favor among the Jewish community (among those not exiled) because of his views on Israel. Pinochet was a strong supporter of Israel despite the 350,000 Palestinians in the country, the largest group of Palestinians outside of the Middle East.
At present there are fewer than 10,000 Jews in the capital of Santiago. The majority are not affiliated religiously. There are two day schools in the country as well as a clinic and old age home for the community.
There are four main communities: Santiago, which is Ashkenazi; the B'nai Jisroel Cultural Society of German descent, Mazse Philanthropic Center of Hungarian origin, and the Sephardi Jewish Community. Two newspapers are circulated within the Jewish communities. La Palabra Israelita is the Ashkenazi paper and Revista Shalom is the Zionist publication.
Anti-Semitic acts have grown due to small Neo-Nazi groups. Nazi organizations and their publications and legal. Despite this, Jews continue to be influential and active in politics, theatre and music, education and the arts. The President sometimes attends Rosh Hashanah services in Santiago. In the mid 1990s, Don Francisco (born Mario Kreutzberger) was a popular Jewish television actor. Actors Alejandro Cohen and Nissim Sharim, along with actresses Birginia Fischer, Jael Unger and Anita Klesky are also well-known Jewish personalities. Vitor Tevah is a famous violinist and once the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra and 1980 winner of the National Art Prize. Andy Pollack is a jazz musician of Jewish descent.
Other famous Jews in the fields of science and medicine include Alejandro Lipschuetz, anthropologist and endocrinologist who broke ground on research on the Southern Hemisphere Indians, and Dr. Abraham Horowitz, director of the Pan American Health Service. Efrain Freidmann is the director of the Chilean Atomic Research Committee and Jaime Wisnaik is the director of the department of engineering at the Catholic University of Santiago.
There are two Jewish day schools in Chile. The largest is the Instituto Hebreo (also known as the Haim Weizman-ORT Hebrew Institue) in Santiago with 1,700 students. A smaller school opened recently, the Collegio Maimonodes. It has 150 students enrolled.
The University of Chile in Santiago has had a Jewish Studies Department since 1968.
One of the most interesting phenomena in Chile is a group of fire fighters who are all Jews. The fire department in Chile is a volunteer fire department, and many different national groups have their own group of volunteers. The Jewish fire department is called “Bomba Israel” and the fire engines fly both a Chilean flag and an Israeli flag.
A small Jewish community of about 1,000 exists in Vina del Mar. A Conservative congregation of about 150 families is a part of the community.
Areas of interest
Comunidad de Santiago Sinagoga
A Sephardi musuem is located in Santiago. A kosher restaurant opened in Santiago in 2004. Kosher food is also available from two butcher shops and one mini-market.
Outside Santiago is Las Condes, home to major Jewish sports fans and the sports club Estadio Israelita. The community has its own synagogue, Talmud Torah and rabbi. On Yom Haatzma'ut, the Chilean Air Force features a performance with paratroopers.
At the intersection of Avenida Manquehue and Avenida Colon is a statue of the Ten Commandments. The inscriptions claims that it was copied from the Jerusalem Bible and presented at the first National Congress of Young Adventists in 1981.
Circulo Israelita Synagogue
The main synagogue is the Circulo Israelita Synagogue in Santiago. It was built with beautiful stained glass windows that encircle the bimah. It serves the Ashkenazi community and has about 1,000 families as members.
The Sephardic congregation was the first Jewish community in Chile. It was started in Timulco but moved to Santiago. There are around 1,000 families that are members of this synagogue.
Within the Estadio Israelita is a Reform temple called Ohr Shalom. About 2,000 families are included in its membership.
In addition to these synagogues, a number of Orthodox synagogues have sprung up recently within Santiago, although the vast majority of Chileans affiliate with Conservative and Reform synagogues.
1. Tigay, Alan M. The Jewish Traveler. NJ: Book-Mart Press, 1994. p 469.
2. Bohm, Gunter. Encyclopedia Judaica. "Chile." p. 1 and Tigay, Alan M. The Jewish Traveler. NJ: Book-Mart Press, 1994. p 470.
Sources: Beker, Dr. Avi. Ed. Jewish Communities of the World. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1998. p. 62-63.
Tigay, Alan M. The Jewish Traveler. NJ: Book-Mart Press, 1994. pgs. 469- 474.
Photo of Circulo Israelita Synagogue by Beth Weiss
Photo of Comunidad de Santiago Synagogue courtesy of HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library (Jono David Media)