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Bolivia's first Jewish communities began to emerge during the colonial period. Spanish Conversos were the first to immigrate, finding work in Bolivia's silver mines. Conversos were Spanish or Portuguese Jews who publicly converted to Christianity to escape death during the Inquisition while continuing to practice their Judaism in secret.

Some Jews worked in the silver mines of Potosi, others were among the pioneers who founded the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in 1557. Indeed, certain customs still maintained by old families in that region - for example lighting candles on Friday night and sitting on the ground in mourning when a close relative dies - suggest possible Jewish ancestry. The only extant documents from the period are those of the Inquisition, which was established in Peru in 1570, and whose appearance signalled the incipient demise of the Marrano community.

Modern Jewish settlement in Bolivia began in the early stages of the twentieth century. In 1905, a group of Russian Jews settled in Bolivia and were followed by another group from Argentina, and later by several Sephardic families from Turkey and the Near East. The Jewish community nonetheless remained minuscule in comparison to those of other countries in the region. It was estimated that in 1917 that only 20 to 25 Jews lived in the country, and by 1933, at the beginning of the Nazi era in Germany, there were only 30 Jewish families. In 1939, Bolivia's liberal immigration policy was modified, as was the case in other Latin American countries. The first substantial wave of Jewish immigration came in the early 1930s and continued until an estimated 7,000 immigrants lived in the Bolivia by the end of 1942.

Approximately 2,200 Jews emigrated from Bolivia by the end of the 1940s. Between January 1939 and December 1942, $160,000 was disbursed for relief by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and by the Sociedad de Proteccion de los Inmigrantes Israelitas, as these years in the Jewish community were marked by difficult economic conditions. In the 1950s and 1960s there was another mass exodus by Jews from Bolivia due to political upheaval and Jewish education was one of the prime victims.

After World War II, a small wave of Polish Jews originally fleeing to the Far East arrived in Bolivia. The majority of that group remained in La Paz. By the fall of 1939, when immigration reached its peak, organized Jewish communities gained greater stability in Bolivia. The first organization to be founded was the Circulo Israelita (1935) by East European Jews, followed by the German Comunidad Israelita. Under the auspices of the Comite Central Judio de Bolivia, various communal services were established including the Hevra Kaddisha, the Cementerio Israelita, Bikkur Holim, WIZO, and Macabi. The community in La Paz started and maintained the Colegio Israelita, a comprehensive school with kindergarten, primary, and secondary grades. The school attracted many non-Jewish students and today, although the institution retains its Jewish character, only five of the 300 students attending are Jewish.

Jewish Education in La Paz, Bolivia

One of the most underdeveloped nations in Latin America, Bolivia is currently experiencing severe economic, social and political disarray. Various reports indicate that the country's tiny Jewish community has suffered along with its general population.

In response to Bolivia's current situation, protests have erupted around the country. Right-wing extremist groups have taken to blaming foreigners for national problems. Jews have felt these xenophobic sentiments and have made their presence scarce in La Paz. Some Bolivian Jews have already chosen to immigrate to Israel and the United States, and the community fears that political unrest will lead to more emigration.

The community's Jewish agency known as the Circulo Israelita (CI) is now charged with administering informal education to La Paz's Jewish children.

In December 2007, Michael Ettedgui, of Yaldeinu visited the Circulo Israelita in La Paz, and gained an intimate understanding of the community's necessities. In response to their requests, Yaldeinu has instituted a number of projects earmarked for direct educational aid to the CI and Jewish children of Bolivia.




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