After a steady 25-year decline, Peru Jewish population growing

LIMA, Peru — The country's Jewish community is slowly seeing its numbers increase after years of watching families pack their bags and head abroad in search of a more secure future.

Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein, an Argentine who has served as a rabbi in Peru since 1985, says the community is roughly half the size of its peak in the 1970s, when the Jewish population reached about 5,200.

Despite the small number of Jews, the community is active and shows signs of growth, he says.

Nearly all Jewish families now live in the capital city of Lima, which has drawn world attention amid the Peruvian hostage crisis. Peruvian troops stormed the Japanese ambassador's mansion Tuesday to rescue 71 hostages of the Tupac Amaru, the leftist rebels who took over the residence more than four months ago. All 14 rebels were killed in the raid, as was one hostage.

Peru's Jewish community is divided into three congregations, which are based on different geographical roots.

The largest community, the Israeli Union, which is made up primarily of Jews of Eastern European ancestry, represents about 75 percent of the country's Jewish population.

The other two congregations, which are about equal in size, are comprised of Sephardic Jews and of Jews with Central European or German heritage.

The exodus of Peruvian Jews began in the early 1970s, when the left-wing military government of Gen. Juan Velasco nationalized the media and most of the country's industries.

During Velasco's years in office, many Jewish families disagreed with the sweeping nationalization plan of the administration, says Bronstein.

"At the time, nearly all Jews were business owners, and they saw the nationalization program as a threat to their livelihood," Bronstein says.

Eduardo Vigio, a Peruvian land developer and president of the Third World Commission of the World Jewish Congress, adds that Jews left the country not because of political troubles or anti-Semitism, but because they felt suffocated by the atmosphere created under Velasco, who was in office from 1968 to 1975.

"There was a lot of censorship, and your children couldn't study where or what they wanted to study," Vigio says, "so many people found it easier to move to countries where they could live the lives they chose."

The rate of emigration slowed after Velasco was overthrown in 1975, but it picked up with force in the 1980s because of governmental economic mismanagement and political violence.

"The number of people leaving reached its peak toward the end of the 1980s. Many Jewish families left Peru during Alan Garcia's government (1985-90), because of the economic chaos caused by his programs," says Bronstein.

At the same time, rising levels of terrorism at the hands of the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla movement added to the atmosphere of instability in Peru. Although the Shining Path never openly attacked a Jewish target, terrorism and clashes with government forces in the late 1980s fueled the desire of families who wanted to leave Peru.

More than 30,000 people have reportedly been killed in 15 years of political violence in Peru.

Despite a promise by President Alberto Fujimori to eradicate the Shining Path rebels before the end of his first five-year term, he began his second term last July amid renewed attacks by the Communist guerrillas — though this week's hostage rescue dealt a severe blow to the Tupac Amaru group.

Although the Shining Path still maintains a presence in Peru, it has not undermined the high popularity of Fujimori, who is credited with halting the country's runaway inflation and reinvigorating the country's economy. The dramatic strike at the Japanese ambassador's home should also boost Fujimori's stature.

There are no exact figures as to how many Jews left Peru between 1973 and 1990, but Bronstein says an estimate can be drawn from the number of students enrolled at Lima's Jewish school.

The enrollment at the Leon Pinelo School, where 90 percent of Peru's Jewish families send their children, fell from 1,200 students in the early 1970s to 450 students today.

Even with the recent growth, the composition of the Jewish community today is much different from what it was 20 years ago.

Today the typical Peruvian Jew is middle class and holds a salaried position, Bronstein says.

"In the 1970s, the immense majority of Jews were business owners. There were very few salaried workers in the community," he says.

Gradual improvement in Peru's economic situation is attracting the attention of middle-class Jews in countries such as Argentina, where the economy is stagnant, or in other places where anti-Semitism runs high.

Larissa and Alexander Beloserkovski came to Peru two years ago from Russia after Russian anti-Semitism increased. They do not speak Spanish.

However, since they moved to Peru, the Peruvian Jewish community and Peruvians in general have been very sympathetic, says Larissa Beloserkovski.

"When I go to the market, people say `hello' to me. They don't treat me different because I am a Jew. We are not going to leave," she says.

In addition, Peru's Jewish community is represented at the highest levels of society.

Until he left office in July, Efrain Goldenberg, a Jew, served as the country's prime minister and foreign minister.

Vigio, who has been with the World Jewish Congress for the past 10 years, said that even though Goldenberg's position had nothing to do with his heritage, it is one more example of the changes that have taken place in Peru during the last two decades.

"The traditional power myths in Peru have been broken. Economic and political power are no longer in the hands of a small minority, but have been extended and represent the will of the people," he says.