Interestingly, the Jewish community developed in two different primary ways, or phases, if you will. The first phase occurred in the sixteenth century when Spaniards arrived in South America, and in the area today known as Peru. Included with this group were “Conversos,” meaning people who had recently converted to Christianity.
With these Conversos were a number of people who still secretly practiced Judaism despite their conversion. These individuals were forced to convert due to the Inquisition, but were unwilling to abandon their faith. It is thought that the Inquisition leaders were even aware that these Secret Jews, as they were known, were immigrating to South America, and therefore instituted a quota on the number of Conversos who were permitted to move to this area.
Today, however, there are no known descendents of the original South American Secret Jews living in Peru. The Jewish Community of Peru today comes from a second wave of immigration that occurred many years later in the early 1900s.
The first Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews arrived in Peru around 1910. By the end of the decade, there were approximately 400 Jews living in Lima. Following in the 1920s, immigration continued to the country, especially by Ashkenazi Jews. Many of them settled in outlying cities and began their own businesses. When the number of Sephardi Jews increased, they separated from the Ashkenazim and founded the Sociedad de Beneficiencia Israelita Sefardita (The Sephardic Jewish Welfare Society) in 1920. The Ashkenazim founded the Unión Israelita del Peru in 1923. Peru’s Zionist organization Organización Sionista del PerÃº was established in 1925. By 1930, the German Jews assimilated, and the Jewish population reached a unified total of 1,000 individuals.
The decade that followed brought much prosperity to the Jews of Peru, and many were able to realize the dream of financial security. There were plenty of work opportunities for immigrants. A new wave of immigration from Germany and Austria began in 1933 and the Sociedad de Beneficencia Israelita de 1870 (The Jewish Beneficial Society of 1870) was re-established. The Sephardi synagogue was consecrated in 1933 and the Ashkenazi synagogue was consecrated in 1934. However, In 1938, the Peruvian government completely banned Jewish immigration. At this time, Peru had some 2,500 Jewish residents.
In the 1960s, the Jewish community of Peru hit the peak of its population, while undergoing a period of change. The second generation of Jews, most of whom were born and educated in Peru, assumed roles of leadership. The community continued to prosper, ties with Israel intensified, the number of people making Aliyah increased. More than 80% of Lima’s Jews were connected with the Jewish school that had attracted emissaries (shlihim) who served as teachers and as well as the principal. The Jewish population in the city of Lima reached 5,500.
Following the 1960s, the Jewish population in Peru began to decline, and today it is quite small. In the 1990’s, it hit an all-time low, and began to visibly deteriorate. The number of Jews making Aliyah decreased, while intermarriage increased further, and immigration to the United States intensified. The number of pupils in the Jewish school steadily declined to only 430, and the number of financial contributors to the Jewish community also dwindled. The total Jewish population dropped to only 2,700 people.
Even though the Jewish community dwindled at the end of the 20th century, they are well represented in Peru. Jews own many of the important businesses. Many Jews also serve in the government. One extraordinary case is Efrain Goldenberg Schreiber, who served as finance minister and prime minister in the 1990s. The first lady of Peru, Eliane Karp is Jewish, as is the second vice president, David Waisman.