The small community in La Paz manages to gather a minyan twice a week. (Roberto Stopnicki photo)
Last December, my wife and I travelled to La Paz, Bolivia, to share in the wedding of our niece. This trip was very significant for me as I spent my childhood and youth there in what was a vibrant and active Jewish community.
Although the history of Jews in Bolivia can be traced as far back as the first Spanish conquerors and explorers, the height of Jewish immigration happened just before, during and after the Second World War and the Holocaust. Bolivia, with the involvement of people like Moritz Hochschild, a German Jew and Bolivian mining magnate, accepted a large number of Jews who were saved from or survived the Holocaust.
In the late ’40s between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews resided in Bolivia.
My family arrived in Bolivia in early 1953, as my mother wanted to be close to her surviving sister (she did not know that another sister had also survived, but that is another story) and their family.
Since that time, the population of the Jewish community in La Paz, has declined. People found relatives elsewhere and travelled to be with them, older people died, and younger people travelled to other countries to study and decided not to return.
During my youth, in the mid-’60s, there were about 1,500 Jews in La Paz.
At that time, the community had a large number of institutions and facilities. A Jewish school with grades from kindergarten to high school, the “Colegio Boliviano Israelita; a modern community centre, the “Circulo Israelita”; the J.K.G. (Judischen Kultur Gemeinschaft), a beautiful lodge with a small garden established by the original German Jewish community, where we used to visit, relax, meet other families and enjoy the weekends; a bikur holim for the elder members; a hevrah kadishah; a cemetery, three fully functioning synagogues (there had been up to five synagogues in the community), as well as chapters of WIZO, Maccabi and other international Jewish organizations.
Weddings and bar mitzvahs were common celebrations and invariably, one of your friends was studying for his bar mitzvah in one of the synagogues.
A cable car rides over the city. (Roberto Stopnicki photo)
Today there are around 100 Jews in La Paz and what made this trip especially significant for us was that my niece’s wedding was the first Jewish wedding in the community in 10 years.
Because of this, it was not only a family event but a community one and significant on many levels for me and the more than 40 friends and family who came to La Paz for this celebration.
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I left La Paz after completing high school in 1965 and I was concerned that on this trip, we wouldn’t find much more remaining.
And, indeed, much has changed.
The city has changed. From a large town it has now become a metropolis, with high-rise buildings everywhere, highways and interchanges and a unique cable car mass transit system
It is obvious that with the decrease in the number of Jewish community members, it became unsustainable to maintain their many facilities and institutions. Many were sold.
However, to our wonderful surprise, these 100 Jews have managed to maintain the Jewish culture that I remembered.
A small synagogue has been established in the halls of the J.K.G., one of the remaining institutions. Some of its furniture belongs to the older synagogues that existed. I remembered the green chairs of the synagogue my family belonged to. All Sifrei Torah were brought to this synagogue. It is likely that the one I read from in my bar mitzvah, is there inside the Aron Kodesh.
The small community manages to gather a minyan on Monday and Thursday mornings, to read the Torah. While not as frequent, Kabbalat Shabbat, Shabbat and Motzei Shabbat services are also performed.
While the community does not have an assigned rabbi, the Chabad rabbi who resides with his family in La Paz, will walk the four or five kilometers from his house (in the altitude of 3,600 metres!) to assist with Shabbat and High Holiday services.
We visited the Jewish cemetery. Many of our relatives, including my mother, rest there. Its beautifully cared for grounds and their sombre monument to the six million Holocaust victims, have been designated a national heritage site, for their beauty and to protect them from encroaching land development.
The Holocaust memorial in the cemetery. (Roberto Stopnicki photo)
Unfortunately, one of the older ladies in the community died the day before our niece’s wedding. Her family decided to postpone her burial until the day after the wedding, so that the members of the community will not be saddened before a wedding. That is the spirit of community that I remember from my youth. The woman’s husband, is one of two Holocaust survivors still living in La Paz.
So, our worries were unfounded. While much reduced in size, the Jewish community in La Paz is still active, still vibrant and still striving to provide a Jewish environment for its members, for as long as possible.
And the wedding was marvellous. An emotional huppah, lots of food, those who drink were not thirsty and the music never stopped.