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?
The Peruvian Jewish community is small, by far the smallest of the communities that we are surveying. By current counts, out of a general population of about 27,000,000, there are fewer than 3,000 Jews, almost all of them in the capital city of Lima. There are traces of remains of other communities in other areas, but most of these consist of intermarried descendants and are not counted in the official community calculation. Stories also surface occasionally of Converso communities in remote jungle areas but, once again, as these rumors remain unsubstantiated, members of such groups are not considered part of the contemporary community.
The Converso core of the early stages of the community is real. This dates back to the sixteenth century arrival of the Spanish in South America, which included the area known today as Peru. Today, historians recognize that many of those who arrived in the early colonial days were secret Jews or people from Jewish families who were trying to leave the horrors of the Inquisition behind them. Networks of secret Judaisers were active in the area and in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, many were uncovered by the local Inquisition, losing their lives or languishing in prisons for years. Most of those who survived are believed to have assimilated and lost any contact with Judaism; but the rumors persist that secret communities remain until the present day.
The roots of the modern community, then, are different, and date back to the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews from Western and Central Europe, including England, the German lands and Alsace. Settling in Lima, they mainly worked as agents of commercial firms. Later in that century, Jews from North Africa arrived who were mainly attracted by the development of a rubber industry, settling in the lands around the Amazon and in the town of Iquitos. In the pre World War.I and inter-war periods, more Jews arrived from Europe (this time, largely from Eastern Europe) and from the lands of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. In the 1930s, a substantial group of German Jews arrived, the second group of immigrants from that region. The population reached a maximum number of around 6,000, but has declined over the last generation due to a mixture of political and economic problems. Recently, as the economy has picked up again and stabilized, some additional Jews have been attracted from Argentina and from other lands.
Let us add a postscript here. Over the last thirty years or so, an interesting and strange phenomenon has developed in Peru: the conversion to Judaism of several hundred Catholic indigenous Peruvians. These modern converts appear to have no pre-modern Jewish roots. The initiative for their contact with Judaism came from a certain charismatic Catholic who started to study Judaism in the late 1960s, and persuaded several hundred Peruvian natives that this was the right direction. A number of years ago, they were formally converted to Judaism by a Beit Din that came especially from Israel. Subsequently, several hundred made aliyah to Israel and another community developed in Peru. The Jews in Lima rejected them and refused contact with them. The story of this group - Bnei Moshe, as they call themselves - is a separate one and we will not consider it in the rest of this survey. It is premature to assess whether this significant story will be woven into the larger Jewish story in Peru, or whether it will remain a curious anecdote with no wider implications.
The composition of the population has changed in the last generation. Thirty years ago, most of the Jews in the community were involved in business and trade. Today many are in salaried jobs in industry or the professions. It is also worth mentioning that, in recent years, more Jews have entered the world of politics: there has even been a Jewish Prime Minister. The community can generally be called middle-class; but it should be noted that, as in most countries in Latin America, this class is increasingly vulnerable and has tended to suffer from recent economic and financial instability.
The Jewish community is an amalgamation of three different sub-groups, each of whom are defined as communities. The strongest and most established, accounting for some 75% of the community, is an Eastern European Ashkenazi stream. In addition, there is a more modern Ashkenazi-German stream, which accounts for about 15% of the community. The third, Sephardi-Mizrachi stream accounts for the remaining 10%. These three streams co-operate in the running of the community, rotating the leadership between them. There are currently three synagogues in the community. Two follow the Orthodox tradition (one Sephardi and one Ashkenazi), while the third is defined as Conservative. Despite the Orthodox ritual of the dominant streams, it is important to emphasize that very few Peruvian Jews are actually observant.
Perhaps the institution that most defines and unites the community is the community school, named after Leon Pinelo, which gives a full school education to some 90% of the Jewish children in the community. It only accepts children from families that are officially defined as Jewish. The school is much smaller than it used to be, enrollment having fallen from over a thousand at the beginning of the 1970s to around some 400 today.
Obviously the facilities of a community of this size are limited. Nevertheless, despite its small numbers, the community appears to have a lively cultural and social life. There is a sports and country club, the Hebraica. Many of the current community leaders have come out of the ranks of the one flourishing youth movement, HaNoar HaTzion, established more than fifty years ago. There are a number of Jewish organizations in Lima, many of whom have connections with Israel. One of the stronger bodies is Bnei Berith. There is also a good Jewish restaurant, although it is not strictly kosher. The community also produces two regular publications.
The Peruvian community has seen a lot of assimilation. Apart from the original Spanish settlers, both the European settlers of the mid-nineteenth century and the North African settlers of thirty or forty years later faded away, leaving very few heirs. Since the early to mid-twentieth century, however, the Jews of Peru have tended to lead a fairly insular life within their own community and around their own institutions.
Peru is a strongly Catholic country. This has unquestionably been one of the factors that has led to cohesiveness within the Jewish community, sandwiched as the Jews are between the poor, native, indigenous population and the white, strongly Catholic, governing group. In recent years, however, as community numbers have dropped, the difficulties in maintaining Jewish cultural and social life have become apparent and have translated into a variety of different phenomena. Many young people have gone abroad and remained there. Among those who have stayed, assimilation and intermarriage have taken their toll. The percentage of intermarried couples stands at well over 20%. It should be noted that many of these families raise their children as Jews. As we have seen, taboos against intermarriage are extremely difficult to hold on to when community numbers dip so low that the young people lack sufficient choice of partners.
6. Are there any major historical circumstances that affected the inflow or outflow of Jews to and from the community?
Since the end of Spanish immigration to the community, which connected Jewish settlers in the region with very specific historical circumstances, the reason that has mainly influenced the inflow of Jews to Peru seems to have been the possibility of improving their economic status, rather than dramatic persecution.
On the other hand, four elements have sometimes caused Jews to leave. Firstly, some Jews left when the economic situation in Peru worsened. This was the case with many of the early Ashkenazi immigrants, who left in the last years of the nineteenth century. A similar situation developed in the early 1970s, when a radical government started a program of nationalization that frightened many Jewish traders and business people. The last decades of the twentieth century were generally marked by tremendous economic instability and very high inflation, which also effected Jewish emigration.
A second set of factors that developed in the late-twentieth century was connected with political instability. This resulted from the actions of left wing underground and terrorist groups that declared war on the government. The eighties and early nineties were particularly uncertain and fearful - especially among the middle and upper classes - due to the actions of such groups as the Tupac Amaru (foremost) and the Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path). As kidnappings, robberies and car bombs became commonplace, many decided that this was not a good place in which to stay. It should be mentioned that the underground groups have almost disintegrated since the early 1990s, and now pose little threat to the regime or the middle class residents of the country.
A third, more recent, reason for leaving has already been mentioned: the desire of young Jews to look for fresh horizons and romantic prospects. The fourth reason - connected to the last - has also played a part: as in many South American communities, the connection with Israel has been very strong and over a thousand Jews have left Peru over the years to make aliyah. This number is very large in proportion to the size of the community.
7. Are there welfare problems within the Jewish community? Are there welfare organizations within the community?
We might expect a predominantly middle-class community such as that of Peru to have minimal economic and welfare problems, but this appears not to be the case. In recent years, they have focused more attention on the plight of the poor in the community. We talked previously about a developed community life with many institutions: these include several that are responsible for welfare and social assistance. The community also supports two old age homes for its members. The general economic instability that has characterized the Peruvian economy, like many of the other economies in Latin America, continually places new demands on the welfare mechanism of the Jewish community.
8. What is the feeling of physical security of the Jewish community? Has there been, and is there today, a problem of anti-Semitism?
The problems of physical security that have affected the community are generally less connected with their Jewishness than with their image as symbols of capitalism in the eyes of the leftist underground movements. As a result of abductions and threats by the leftists, many Jews - along with many others in the middle and upper-middle classes.- have taken precautions to guard their families and their property.
The economic climate of Peru stabilized in the early 1990s. At that time, it seemed that the community’s main problem was simply surviving in such small numbers. There has been less economic stability in the past few years, however, and the old questions are being asked once again. Nevertheless, it still seems that survival within a small community remains the main problem. In this, the Peruvian Jewish community is by no means unique: many other small communities face identical problems. Such communities usually ask the young two key, related questions. The first relates to their willingness to remain in the country; the second relates to their willingness or ability to stay in the community if they decide to remain in the country. Both questions are relevant to the Jews of Peru.
One specific challenge lies in maintaining the financial infrastructure of a completely private, all-Jewish school like the Leon Pinelo - in many ways the community’s most central institution. The number of applicants is dropping rapidly, partly because many of the wealthier members of the community, whose support is essential in keeping the school open, are increasingly turning to American schools in Lima for their children’s education.
It should be added that, despite the cohesiveness of the Jewish community, as expressed especially in the percentage of children who still attend the community school, the modern world raises all sorts of identity questions that are likely to pose problems for the community in the future. These questions are of specific to Peru, of course, but their effects on so small a community are likely to be particularly harmful.
10. What are the demographic trends within the community? Can anything be said about the future of the community?
This is connected with the previous question. Given the history of the Peruvian community, it is certainly possible that Jews may be drawn to the country in the near future if the economy re-stabilizes, especially from such places as Argentina. It is difficult to predict the long-term future of this community, however, since the perpetual question of critical mass hangs over it, regardless of whether it gains extra members.
One thing to watch is whether the previously-mentioned ex-Catholic Incas, who converted to Judaism and now form a completely separate group within Peru, will be accepted as part of the Jewish community. At the moment, this seems unlikely.
Asociacion Judia del Peru