Touring Santiago’s ‘Little Israel’

A Jewish-Themed Voyage to Chile’s Capital

Culture of Tolerance: From kosher wineries to sprawling synagogues, Santiago, Chile is rife with Jewish history.
Wikicommons
Culture of Tolerance: From kosher wineries to sprawling synagogues, Santiago, Chile is rife with Jewish history.

By Michael Luongo

Published May 10, 2011, issue of May 20, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

“They say 20,000, and I say where?” tour guide Claudia Kravetz says of Chile’s Jewish population as we drive through the intersection of Las Condes and La Dehesa streets in Santiago’s Lo Barnechea neighborhood. With its wide, palm-tree-lined boulevards, reminiscent of Los Angeles, the area is nicknamed Little Israel for its concentration of synagogues.

The actual Jewish population here is roughly 15,000, says Kravetz, a lawyer by trade, who gives Jewish-themed tours of Santiago for Travel Jewish (www.traveljewish.com.) The extra 5,000 are Christian Evangelicals (akin to Jews for Jesus) who call themselves Jews. Of the 15,000, about 12,000 live in Santiago; the remainder mostly in Viña del Mar and Valparaiso, neighboring towns an hour and a half away from Santiago on the Pacific coast.

The area’s Jewish history stretches back to the Spanish conquest, when converso Rodrigo de Ordoñez arrived in Chile with Diego de Almagro, who discovered the country in 1535. “Conversos,” Spanish Jews who adopted Christianity after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, “thought they could live freely here, but this was not true,” Kravetz explains. The Spanish Inquisition followed them.

It was only in the late 1800s and early 1900s that a real community was established. Without synagogues. though, observance took place in private homes until 1916, when hundreds of Turkish and Russian Jewish families in Valparaiso formed the Sociedad Israelita Max Nordau. Comunidad Israelita de Valparaiso—Viña del Mar, (www.civv.cl.)

The synagogue moved to Viña del Mar in the 1930s, around the same time German Jews began arriving. Downtown Santiago and the centrally located Ñuñoa neighborhood also became important Jewish centers at this time.

“The peak of community was in the 1960s,” Kravetz says, noting that immediately thereafter occurred “a very dark period for 20 years,” mostly because of assimilation and immigration to Israel. “Many people only got together for the High Holidays,” she says. Santiago also suburbanized eastward around that time, toward Las Condes and Lo Barnechea. Today, the community continues to thrive and is building new centers for Jewish life.

Kravetz’s tour includes a visit to Estadio Israelita Maccabi (www.eim.cl,) a 4,000-member Jewish community center with a strong emphasis on sports. The center was once home to Or Shalom Temple, which closed in 2007, and the grounds now hold a Shoah monument donated by Polish-born Holocaust survivor David Feuerstein, similar to the one he gave Yad Vashem, inscribed with his Auschwitz number: 160023.

Although street barriers block the Estadio and other sites we visit, Kravetz assures me that “it’s pretty safe,” for Jews in Santiago. Neo-Nazism does exist, however, as covered in a 2008 PBS “Frontline” episode that documented the rise of 30 neo-Nazi cells with about 1,000 members in total. Kravetz even recounted being mentioned on a death threat list on one now-defunct website when she was president of the Jewish Youth of Chile from 2005 to 2007. “I never felt scared,” she says.

Kravetz reminds me that Chile’s current president, Sebastian Piñera, was the first Chilean president to visit Israel, and the Minister of the Interior, Rodrigo Hinzpeter, is Jewish. There is also a community security office, Oficina de Seguridad Comunitaria, that monitors Jewish safety.

Our next stop is the brand new Comunidad Israelita de Santiago (www.cis.cl.) The 800-seat Conservative synagogue opened in 2010, replacing the Great Synagogue downtown, in a ceremony presided over by Piñera. With grounds that contain 18 copper columns and nine Israeli olive trees, it is the largest synagogue building in South America and has one of the largest active congregations. For the High Holidays, when up to 4,000 people come, services move to a hotel.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Eduardo Waingortin, who came to Chile from Argentina in 1988, says that Chilean culture is one of tolerance. “There is a favorable climate, and Jews are moving here now from Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, places that are less stable” economically and politically. For these reasons, he feels the community will grow, though, he says, “assimilation is easy in an open society, so we have to work harder so people don’t assimilate.”

Next, we visit Chabad House — spelled “Jabad” here — to meet with Brooklyn native Chaya Perman, Chabad’s co-director and the wife of its rabbi, Menashe Perman. Perman tells us that “15 families, big families,” make up the congregation, and that the sanctuary seats 500. She talks proudly of Santiago’s growing Jewish community: “It’s not a matter of religious or not. People are becoming closer to their roots.”

Perman notes that many of Santiago’s middle-aged Jews are not very observant, because, she surmises, “I think in South America, people were afraid at first after World War II.” But now, she finds grandparents teaching grandchildren, something the Chabad House is playing a role in. “If you’re Jewish you’re welcome at Chabad, even if you’re not observant,” Perman says, adding, “Our goal is to unite the Jewish people.” With that, Perman mentions a Chabad House in Pucon, about 500 miles south, that is popular with Israeli backpackers and other Jewish tourists. (www.jabadchile.com)

After feasting on kosher burgers (there wasn’t any wine, but Kravetz mentions the Chilean kosher winery, Alfasi), I left the Chabad House, and shortly thereafter, Santiago. Unfortuna-tely, I missed a tour highlight, Bomba Israel (www.bombaisrael.cl,) the Jewish firehouse established in Ñuñoa in 1954. Jews have largely relocated, but the firehouse remains, supported by donations from the greater Jewish community, and still contains a fire truck with Hebrew writing. “It gives the Jewish community a good name, and it’s a way of thanking the Chileans for welcoming our grandparents,” Kravetz offers.

It’ll be something to see on my next visit, after a trip to Alfasi to taste the wine, of course.

Michael Luongo is the author of the “Frommer’s Buenos Aires” guide and many other travel books.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.