Punta Del Este, Uruguay — Known across South America as a beach oasis for the elite, and more recently as the site of Donald Trump’s first residential development on the continent, the Uruguayan town of Punta del Este has long seduced visitors with its beaches and luxury accommodations.
But in recent years, the town also has emerged as a premier Jewish destination during the South American summer months, from January to March.
Hundreds attend Shabbat services at the city’s Beit Meir Temple. Punta del Este has a Jewish film festival, a sumptuous mansion offering low-cost accommodations to Israeli backpackers and Sabbath elevators in luxury high-rises. Uruguay’s first kosher pizza restaurant opened here in January. And alongside promotional banners flown daily by airplanes above the beach is one sponsored by the local Chabad rabbi displaying the time for lighting Sabbath candles.
“We love coming and meeting old and new Jewish friends, and we also love the beaches,” said Roberta Iavelberg of Sao Paulo, an employee of the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, or CONIB, the community’s main umbrella group.
Situated on Uruguay’s southern coast about two hours east of the capital Montevideo, the city has long drawn visitors for its pleasant weather and sandy white beaches. But for Latin American Jews, many of whom live with constant concerns about personal security, the city’s tranquility and safety are key parts of the city’s appeal.
According to the Global Peace Index 2012, which measures a country’s relative peacefulness, Uruguay ranks higher than Brazil and Argentina, home to the region’s largest Jewish community. With only one road into Punta del Este, it’s somewhat easier to control crime.
“Not in all cities of the region can [Jews] have a life as quiet as here,” said Monica Barrios Hernandez, coordinator of the tourism department. “There is a lot of peace, security. And the Orthodox Jews can dress in their customs both on the beach and to the temple, and nobody ever bothers them here.”
The Jewish presence in Punta del Este has grown dramatically in recent years, but it can be traced to Argentinian businessman Mauricio Litman, who created the Cantegrill Country Club here in 1950, followed a year later by the launch of the Punta del Este International Film Festival, which raised the city’s profile abroad. In 1959, Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir hosted a meeting in Punta del Este for Israeli ambassadors throughout Latin America.