Chile’s Jews Part of the Larger Community in Santiago
When a fire alarm sounds in the south-central section of Santiago, it’s answered by a unique company of firefighters — Bomba Israel. In keeping with the Chilean custom, this is an all-volunteer bomba (fire brigade), and each of the company’s firefighters is Jewish. Their emblem is the Star of David and their trucks proudly fly the flag of Israel alongside that of Chile.
Established in 1954 in what was once a largely Jewish section of Santiago, Bomba Israel was created by the Jewish community “to thank the country that welcomed them,” said firefighter Robert Segal, 23, the son of a German-born Jewish mother and a Jewish Chilean father.
Despite the country’s very large and vocal Palestinian community and a history of dictatorships on the left, as well as on the right, Chile has been quite hospitable to Jewish immigrants. The Chilean Jewish community consists of more than 20,000 people, with the majority living in Santiago, the country’s capital.
Today’s Chilean Jewish community is well integrated and relatively prosperous. Many Jews are prominent professionals, academics and civil servants, including an ambassador to Russia and three Cabinet members. And the backgrounds of the diverse Bomba Israel crew include everything from businessmen and lawyers to manual workers.
Segal, a student, is among the diverse crew at the station located in what is now a blue-collar neighborhood. “The role we play in the image of the Jewish community is very important,” he said. “Many people can’t believe that Jews do this kind of work; they think we’re all rich and powerful and don’t want to dirty our hands.”
Segal said that except for the fact that all of its members are Jewish, Bomba Israel is a regular fire company. It owns two pieces of equipment, one of which is a state-of-the-art rescue truck that is used for automobile accidents more often than fires.
In addition to its regular members, Bomba Israel also supports a youth brigade of 20 cadets ages 12 to 17. Like the senior members, they receive extensive training in firefighting, rescue operations, first aid and CPR. When they reach age 18 they can qualify for full membership in the company.
While many visitors to Chile are attracted to its spectacular scenery rather than its cities, Jewish travelers can add a stimulating dimension to a visit by connecting with Santiago’s welcoming Jewish community.
Santiago has about a dozen synagogues, including a palatial Chabad House in the fashionable La Dehesa section, an Aish HaTorah shul and Beit Emunah, a relatively new chavurah in the upscale Las Condes neighborhood. There is a sizeable Sephardic community with its own synagogue, as well as a Progressive (Reform) temple, Or Shalom, and two conservative congregations, Maguen David and B’nei Israel.
B’nei Israel is often referred to as “the German synagogue” because it was founded by refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria, and its membership is still made up largely of their descendants. Services are conducted in Hebrew and Spanish and there is a great emphasis on music and communal singing.
The new Chabad House is a remarkable Jewish development in Santiago. Located in an upscale suburb, the building’s façade is a vastly expanded replica of 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of Chabad Lubavitch in Brooklyn. The interior of the building is not complete, but Rabbi Menashe Perman is proud to show off the luxurious mikvah and the enormous social hall. While the sanctuary is still not finished, the rabbi reported that some 400 worshippers attended High Holiday services.
Construction for the Chabad House began in 2002. The building was designed by Jorge Haichelis, a local Jewish architect and Chabad member, and the project was largely underwritten by David and Sarah Feuerstein. David Feuerstein, 81, is a Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz survivor, and serves as president of the Chabad of Chile and director of the International Committee of Yad Vashem.
The Chabad compound also includes a separate building that is used for the daily minyan, as well as the preschool play group and women’s group, both organized by rebbetzin Chaya Perman. The extensive youth activities are under the direction of Rabbi Yishai Libersohn, a Mexico City native and the Permans’ son-in-law.
Although the vast majority of Chilean Jews are secular, they have developed a rich network of educational and social organizations. Among them are B’nai B’rith, Maccabi sports clubs, as well as two Jewish day schools. The Chilean Jewish community has close ties with Israel and many of its young people visit Israel during their last year of high school.