History of the Jews in Colombia
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Marranos fled the Iberian peninsula in search of religious freedom and escaping from persecution during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is estimated that some of them escaped to northern areas of Colombia, which at the time was known as New Granada. Most if not all of these people assimilated into Colombian society, although traces of Sephardic Jewish rituals are to this day, often unknowingly, practiced.
In the 18th century, practicing Spanish and Portuguese Jews came from Jamaica and Curaçao. These Jews started practicing their religion openly at the end of the 18th century, even though it was not officially legal to do so. Once Judaism was made a legal religion after independence, the government granted the Jews a plot of land for a cemetery. Many Jews who came during the 18th and 19th centuries achieved prominent positions in Colombian society but were forced to either abandon or play down their Jewish identity. These included author Jorge Isaacs of English Jewish ancestry, the industrialist James Martin Eder (who adopted the more Christian Santiago Eder when he translated his name to Spanish) originally of the Latvian Jewish community, as well as the De Lima and Lobo families of antillean Sephardim. Coincidentally, all of these persons and their families settled in the Cauca Valley region of Colombia where they continue to be influential members of society in cities such as Cali, although over the generations almost all of their descendants converted to Catholicism.
During the early part of the 20th century, a large number of Sephardic immigrants came from Greece, Turkey, North Africa and Syria. Shortly after, Jewish immigrants began to arrive from Eastern Europe. A wave of Ashkenazi immigrants came after the rise of Hitler in 1933, including more than 7000 German Jews. From 1939 until the end of World War II immigration was put to a halt by anti-immigrant feelings in the country and restriction on immigration from Germany. The Jewish population grew dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, when several institutions such as synagogues, schools and social clubs were established throughout the largest cities in the country.
In the present, most of the Jews in Colombia are concentrated in Bogotá, with about 7,000 members and Barranquilla, with about 6,000 members. There are smaller communities in Cali and Medellín and some Jewish presence in resort cities such as Cartagena, Santa Marta and the island of San Andrés. The size of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic population is about the same. There are nine official synagogues throughout the country. In Bogotá, the Ashkenazi, Sephardic and German Jews each run their own religious and cultural institutions. One organization, Confederación de Asociaciones Judías de Colombia, located in Bogotá, is the central organization that unites all Jews and Jewish institutions in Colombia.
Because of the unstable economy and rising situation of violence and kidnappings suffered in the country during the final decade of the 20th century, many members of Colombia's much appreciated Jewish Community chose to emigrate. Most settled in Miami and other parts of the United States. However, many of Colombia's Jews are coming home thanks in large part to the success that the so-called Democratic Security Policy has had in drastically reducing violence in the rural areas and criminality rates in urban areas as well as in spurring the economy. The situation in Colombia has taken such a turn that many Venezuelan Jews are now seeking refuge in Colombia, among other countries, in order to escape the changing circumstances in Venezuela.
Recently, a group of Colombians have converted to Judaism.
- Ignacio Klich & Jeff Lesser, Arab and Jewish immigrants in Latin America: images and realities, page 76-78
- "Mass converts pose dilemma for Latin American Jews" by Florencia Arbiser, June 18, 2009