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“Jews always looked for liberty and here we have this,” said Wilson Tobal, 78, who owns high-end furniture stores here and in Buenos Aires. “More than that, high-class Jews from Brazil and Argentina have more security here, so they can relax, enjoy time with their kids on the streets without fear and celebrate their Judaism at local temples.
“In both Argentina and Brazil there are guards at the temples. Here we celebrate Shabbat ceremonies with open gates and nothing has ever happened.”
The first Chabad emissary arrived in Punta del Este in 1985. The Chasidic outreach group converted a mansion into a hostel, Yaacob House, where Israeli backpackers and local Jews can find accommodations for just $20 per night in a neighborhood where houses typically cost around $2 million.
“We also offer Shabbat services and meals for young people who spend their summer in villages in Punta del Diablo and Jose Ignacio,” said Rabbi Elieser Shemtov, referring to two beach towns further up the coast. “Tourism in Uruguay is expanding eastward and so is Chabad.”
With Argentina’s financial crisis of the late 1990s, many middle-class Jews left for Europe and the United States. Some, however, came here, for more economic and physical security.
One was Yael Cohen, who emigrated with her husband after they were kidnapped and assaulted by thieves. She sold her pharmacy in Buenos Aires and bought another in Punta del Este, where she now resides.
“We saw crimes on TV, and when it happened to us we decided to look for a more quiet life,” Cohen told JTA. “Here we are calm and happy.”
Last year, architect Daniel Weiss became the first president of Cantergril, the country club started by Litman, when he was elected to a two-year term. In late January, in the latest sign of the Jewish imprint here, Argentinian Samuel Liberman announced he was building a $600 million hotel and shopping center – a sum six times as much as the complex being planned by Trump.
The Jewish institutional presence has grown, too, as it has elsewhere in Latin America in recent years. The Comunidad Israelita de Punta del Este, or CIPEMU, was created in 2005 and now counts 800 members. A new school, Nefesh, was launched last year. And a yeshiva is being planned with support from Jewish families from Argentina and Brazil.
“I’m very moved right now,” said Johanna Cohen, an Argentinian who was walking to Friday night services recently with her two daughters, “walking on this costal street going to the temple with all these people who share history and values.”