Colombias violence, drugs, instability send the wealthy fleeing

medellin, colombia | It’s 7:15 on a Friday morning at Congregacion Bet-Or in Medellin, a city known more for drug smuggling than praying.

Yet davening is exactly what 12 Jewish men, mostly in their 60s and 70s, are doing here in this Orthodox synagogue tucked away in an upscale residential area next to the Banco Union Colombiano.

During the Amidah, the silent, standing prayer, the sounds filtering into the empty synagogue become apparent: birds chirping, a dog barking from an apartment balcony, early-morning traffic whizzing by on nearby Avenida Poblada.

The few elderly worshippers seem as much a fixture in this building as the potted palms around the pulpit, or the beautiful stained-glass windows representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

Medellin, a city of 3 million inhabitants, boasted 1,000 Jews less than 20 years ago; today the city has only 360.

“The richest ones have already left for Miami or Israel. The rest of us have stayed here,” said Moises Milwer, a retired real estate developer whose father moved here in 1933 from Russia. For years, Milwer has led religious services at Bet-Or; most days, he’s lucky to get the 10 men needed for a minyan.

Things aren’t much better at the Comunidad Hebrea Sefaradi de Bogota, whose members are mostly of Syrian, Turkish and Moroccan origin.

“Two hundred families from our shul have left the country in the last few years because of the situation. This is very sad for the community,” Rabbi Shlomo Meir Elharar said. “Before, on Yom Kippur, we had to add chairs because there wasn’t enough room for everybody.”

The reason for the Jewish exodus is obvious: a rash of kidnappings and murders that has made Colombia, with 41 million people, one of the most violent nations on earth.

Today only 4,200 Jews live in Colombia, about 60 percent of them in Bogota, the capital. The remaining 40 percent live in Cali and Barranquilla, with smaller numbers in Medellin and the island of San Andres.

Abraham Menashe Fefer, president of the Centro Israelita de Bogota, said that at the community’s peak in the 1970s, some 12,000 Jews lived in Colombia.

“Most people have left precisely because of the uncertainty, economic instability and kidnappings,” said Fefer, noting that 10 to 20 Jews were kidnapped by left-wing or right-wing guerrilla groups in the last two decades.

“Opinion within the community is divided,” Fefer said. “Some people think like me; others think we’re crazy for staying here. But I’m very proud to be Colombian, and I’m very proud to be Jewish.”


It’s a sad song for South America’s Jewish communities

Argentine Jews must depend on outside help to survive financially

Brazilians struggling to get by despite economic upturn

Jews fare no better than others amid Uruguay’s pervasive poverty

Scandals shake Peru’s tiny Jewish community

Miami’s newest Hispanic Jews have little to do with comfortably established ‘Jubans’