1. Who are the Jews in the national community? Where did they come from? How many are there? What is their geographical distribution within the country?
There are presently some 20,000 - 25,000 Jews in Uruguay, out of a total population of some 3.3 million. Most live in the capital city of Montevideo, but there is a very small, organized community in the town of Paysandu, Uruguay’s second largest city. Other Jews are scattered throughout the interior of Uruguay.
Conversos apparently figure in the Uruguayan Jewish story, but all traces of them seem to have disappeared other than on the level of folk memory.
The modern community traces itself back to the late-nineteenth century, when Jews wandered through the area, on their way to or from the larger neighboring areas of Brazil and Argentina, and settled in Uruguay. Most of these were Sephardim/Mizrachim from places such as Syria, Morocco Egypt, Greece and Turkey. The first synagogue, however, was formed by Ashkenazim as late as 1917. Most of the Jews that subsequently arrived were Ashkenazim, the majority of them immigrating in the 1920s and 1930s. In the post-World War I period, Jews from Hungary and the Middle East also settled in Uruquay.
Many of the early immigrants made their living in small retail trading and peddling; some were craftsmen and artisans. In time, most of them moved up the economic scale and became owners of large stores or of medium-sized businesses. Many Uruguayan Jews are still connected with trade but, as is the case in many other communities, the second and third generations have tended to move into the professions. A high proportion of the country’s young Jews have a university education, and fit somewhere into the middle class of Uruguayan society. They have provided government ministers and leaders of academia.
There is an interesting dichotomy within the Jewish community. On the one hand, there is a strong secular, leftist tradition. Indeed, the Jewish communists, a group that - until recently - numbered in the thousands, refused to be part of the structured religious community, and organized themselves into a kind of sub-community that still exists. For example, they maintain their own cemetery, since they refuse to be buried according to traditional Jewish ritual.
On the other hand, while not generally observant, the rest of the Jewish community has been organized along quite traditional lines. This situation has continued: of the twelve-odd synagogues active in Uruguay, three of which are fairly large, all but one is officially Orthodox. The relatively recently-established Conservative congregation has become the most active of all the Uruguayan synagogues. This may have less to do with its ideology than with the inclusive quality of its programming. It should be emphasized that, for most Uruguayan Jews, religion plays a relatively small part in their Jewish identity: their Jewish outlook is largely secular and cultural.
There are four different streams within the organized community. The largest is the Ashkenazi, which accounts for about two thirds of the community. Less than half their size is the Sephardi community. Far smaller yet is the German stream, with the Hungarian community almost extinct as a distinct grouping. It is the German synagogue that became Conservative around ten years ago. The community is well organized from a religious point of view, with adequate facilities for kashrut, for example. Besides the separate Communist community, there is a small Haredi community, based on the arrival in the 1950s of Hungarians and Transylvanians, which also stands outside of the main community.
The main community is well organized with regard to education. Three schools provide a full education with both Spanish and Hebrew curricula. The Jewish flavor of the schools varies from institution to institution. All are Zionist but one is religious, another traditional and the third one, secular and cultural. Until a few years ago, their students numbered approximately two thousand students. There is also a trade and professional school run by the ORT organization. Outside of the main community, distinct educational institutions have been established by the Jewish communists, the Haredim and -in recent years - the Lubavitch movement.
Jewish cultural life in Uruguay is well organized. There is an active Jewish club, the Hebraica-Maccabi, which has a full cultural program in addition to its social and sporting facilities. Dozens of different societies and organizations, many of them Zionist, operate within the community. There are a number of publications, including a weekly community newspaper. The main language is Spanish although, only a generation ago, there were several regular Yiddish-language publications. There is also a regular Jewish radio show at prime time on the main state radio station.
With regard to informal education, there are several youth organizations and Zionist youth movements in Montevideo, each with a full program of activities. In general, the strong, innately Zionist character of the community needs to be emphasized . As in several other South American communities, this is reflected in the community’s cultural and social life.
Unlike Peru, for example - a strongly Catholic country whose dominant religion is believed to have helped crystallize the identity of the Jewish community and keep it from assimilation - the general atmosphere in Uruguay is one of liberal anti-clericalism. The separation of religion and state is central to both the country’s constitution and its political and social culture. The Uruguayans are proud of their tradition of tolerance, their general acceptance of minorities, and their attitude toward Jews specifically.
It is almost inevitable that such an atmosphere will encourage assimilation. It is perhaps telling that the percentage of Jewish children who attend Jewish schools, traditionally some twenty per cent, is far lower than that of the Peruvian community in Lima. Here, too, the younger generation is tending increasingly in the direction of assimilation.
6. Are there any major historical circumstances that affected the inflow or outflow of Jews to and from the community?
It is only to a certain extent that the Uruguayan community developed as a result of specific historical events:. The Germans in the 1930s and the Hungarians in the mid-1950s immigrated because of particular political circumstances. However, as said, many immigrants believed that the country held good financial prospects, while others settled there on the way to or from her larger neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, to whom Uruguay has always played the role of younger sibling.
Jews left Uruguay for two main reasons, one of them domestic. Many left as a result of economic troubles in the 1960s and following years. Numerous others emigrated during the twelve years of military rule that began in 1973, partly in response to threats of governmental overthrow by the Tupamaros underground movement. For some, the mix of economic uncertainty with political repression - and particularly the repression of leftist and liberal opinion - was clearly a sign for them to leave.
The other factor is the attraction of Israel. The staunchly Zionist character of the community has resulted in steady stream of aliyah to Israel over the years. According to estimates, some 10,000 Jews have made aliyah since 1948, representing by far the largest proportion of olim from any Western community.
Between them, these two factors have caused a huge decline in the community from an estimated 50,000 a generation ago to its current numbers.
7. Are there welfare problems within the Jewish community? Are there welfare organizations within the community?
For many years, Uruguay has been a stable, wealthy country that has offered a good living and good social conditions to the vast majority of its population. The Jews have been very much a part of this: a stable, middle-class element within the strong middle-class population of the country as a whole. Social and economic problems within the community have thus tended to be smaller than in most other countries, although it should be noted that all the different sub-communities within the Jewish population have developed their own social and welfare institutions to deal with the needs of their members.
8. What is the feeling of physical security of the Jewish community? Has there been, and is there today, a problem of anti-Semitism?
Uruguay prides itself on its liberal and tolerant outlook, which the general history of the Jewish community appears to bear out. Nevertheless there have been periods of tension and difficulty between the Jews and the wider population. Three are worthy of mention. At the beginning of 1919 the government instituted a widespread investigation into the threat of radicalism. As many Jews were connected with radical activities or espoused radical opinions, almost the entire community came under suspicion. This led to strong anti-Jewish sentiments in the country. Some 80% of the Jews were investigated, and many were arrested and expelled.
The 1930s saw strong outbreaks of anti-alien and anti-Jewish feeling developing, parallel to the rise of such feelings in many other parts of the world. There was an attempt to force the Jews into a marginalized position within society and to push them out of their economic positions. The Jews were forced onto the defensive, something that helped the development of community-wide institutions to maintain the Jews’ position in the general population and represent their interests. Another period of anti-Jewish feeling was noticeable in the early 1960s, catalyzed by the kidnapping of Adolf Eichman in neighboring Argentina. At that time, local neo-Nazi groups fomented unrest. The government takes strong measures against any minor incidents that occasionally occur.
Generally speaking, the local community seems strong and relatively untroubled by many of the problems that beset many other communities in the Jewish world.
However, there is no question that the very liberalism of Uruguayan society threatens the future of the Jewish community as a Jewish community. Assimilation and intermarriage are both part of this reality because the Jewish community is well integrated into the general society.
10. What are the demographic trends within the community? Can anything be said about the future of the community?
The demographic trends in the community are negative. For the reasons already mentioned, the community is in danger of assimilation. Presumably, also, the traditionally strong Zionism of the community, which has caused so many to make aliyah, has not been entirely exhausted. All in all, there are crucial question marks hanging over the future of the community. There is always the possibility of large-scale immigration from Argentinian Jews dealing with economic crisis and social unrest, but this remains to be seen.
Comite Central Israelita del Uruguay