Regular readers of this blog will know that I like to seek out places of Jewish interest, wherever I may travel. Be it a synagogue in the wild west of Boise Idaho, or an ancient Jewish grave in a parking lot in Seville Spain, or a Socialist-style kosher meat allocation in Havana Cuba, or a never-ending Shabbat lunch in Helsinki Finland, I’ve been lucky enough to experience first-hand a diverse spectrum of all things Jewish, all around the world.
Although this also means that when it comes to Jewish travel, it nowadays takes quite a lot to truly wow me. Having seen my fair share of synagogues, community institutions and historic Jewish sites over the years, I can be a little bit jaded. But wowed is exactly what I was on a recent visit to Santiago Chile, when I visited, of all things, a humble fire station.
Intrigued? Read on.
First though, some background info to set the scene.
There are relatively well-known (and quite sizeable) South American Jewish communities in Brazil and Argentina. But a few Jews live in faraway Chile, too, tucked away behind the Andes Mountains and clinging to the far-Western flank of the continent.
Like in other parts of Latin America, the first Jews in Chile (arriving from the 1500s on) were secret Jews, or conversos, refugees from Spain pretending to be Catholics as they fled the Spanish inquisition. Although for some, even running to the ends of the earth was not far away enough – the inquisition came to Chile in the 1600s, rooting out many of these secret Jews and seeing to it that they were burned at the stake for their faith.
From about 1850 onward, after the inquisition was abolished, open Jewish migration to Chile began, initially poor rural folks seeking economic opportunity and a better life. Oftentimes these were Jews who had first made their way from Europe to Argentina, and then following the old maxim of “Go West” had crossed the Andes into Chile by mule.
Later, these early Jewish migrants were joined by Jews fleeing persecution in Russia, and later still by Turkish Jews on the move as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. And then in the lead up to and aftermath of World War II a wave of European Jewish refugees arrived in Chile, this time predominantly hailing from Germany and France.
Over time the Chilean Jewish community grew, to a peak of about 30,000 people in the 1960s. This growth trend reversed pretty sharply during the 1970s and 1980s though, at which time about half of Chile’s Jews fled the country to escape the turmoil of the Pinochet regime. (A bit of a pattern here, huh? It seems that so much of the Jewish story is the story of persecution, flight, rebirth in a new home, persecution, and then flight again…).
In any case, today there are about 15,000 Jews living in Chile, mostly concentrated in the capital Santiago. And, as has been the case for me in other parts of Latin America (see my previous posts on visits to Jewish Havana and Jewish Mexico City), the very lovely Paola at Turismo Judaico was able to connect me with a member of the local community – Oscar – to be my guide and show me around for a day.
Our tour began at Santiago’s oldest synagogue, the Bikur Jolim, established in 1928. It was a pretty Spartan looking synagogue – more like a big, run-down hall with peeling paint and few decorations other than blue Star of David stained glass panels at the top of each window. Oscar opened up the ark to show me the synagogue’s pride and joy: gorgeous old Torah scrolls, each over 100 years old, which had been smuggled out of Europe to Chile many years ago.
Oscar mentioned that as a child he had spent a lot of time in the synagogue, recalling with fondness the many holidays and Jewish festivities he had attended there – Sabbath dinners, weddings, bar-mitzvahs, parties. He also told me a bit about his family’s personal story: his father had migrated from Eastern Europe in 1936, first to Brazil and then eventually finding his way to Chile. Like many early Jewish migrants, Oscar’s father’s first job was as a door-to-door salesman, until he had saved enough money to open his own store.
Next Oscar led me into the synagogue’s basement, where a series of small rooms lined a dark, dank corridor. They looked a bit like a row of prison cells. These, Oscar told me, were rooms that back in the day were made available free of charge to new migrants – a place for them to stay until the found their feet in the new country; a case of the Jewish community looking after its own. Outside one of these rooms we stopped to flip through the pages of a yellowing hand-written ledger dated 1928, which meticulously recorded the details of new arrivals to the community, documenting name, place of origin, date of arrival, reason for arrival, and profession.
Oscar told me that the Bikur Jolim synagogue was located in a rundown area of Santiago, being where Chile’s first Jewish migrants had initially settled. He said that it remains a functioning synagogue with daily prayer services, although is nowadays mainly used by “poor Jewish people who still live in the area, subsidized by the wealthier communities in the suburbs.” Like in so many other places around the world, as Santiago’s Jewish community became more established and wealthy, the community’s first synagogues in poorer neighborhoods were abandoned, with newer, more opulent synagogues built in the wealthier, usually outlying suburbs to which community members moved.
As if to demonstrate the point, Oscar then drove us about 40 minutes from the downtown, to a more affluent neighborhood where most of the city’s Jews currently live. Our first stop was a brand-spanking new synagogue, home to a community of largely German Jews. As synagogues go, this one was visually stunning – all wood and light, with a modern, ultra-minimalist design ethic. Kind of what you might expect if IKEA got into the business of creating synagogues.
Then we drove around Santiago’s “Jewish barrio” a bit – past the Bnei Brit center, past the Chabad synagogue, and past Chile’s largest Jewish day-school (1500 kids go there), situated on the corner of Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres Streets.
And finally we stopped for a quick look around at the Circulo Israelito de Santiago, the city’s largest synagogue serving a mixed congregation of over 3,000 people. Again, I was struck by how obviously well-funded the community was – the synagogue was huge, set in a large fenced off area of parkland, with lots of wood and striking, modernist architecture, amazing stained glass windows, art and sculpture installations and decorative water features, and an adjoining community center with a well-stocked library, a kosher restaurant, and also a small museum of Jewish history.
So basically, Oscar had introduced me to a thriving modern-day Jewish community, replete with a bit of history, and some wonderfully uber-chic synagogues as show pieces of modern-day community life. All of which was certainly interesting, but in terms of wow factor – not much. Because, if truth be told, it all felt oddly familiar to me – a lot like what I imagine it might feel like if I took a visitor on a tour of ‘Jewish Sydney’.
So that would have been that for my Jewish Chile exploration, but for our final stop of the day. As we were passing through a nondescript suburban neighborhood on the drive back into central Santiago, Oscar rather unexpectedly pulled off the road into the parking lot of a large, square building. I looked up, and saw there was a prominent Star of David on the front, although oddly, I could also see immediately that this was not another synagogue or community institution. Rather, it was most unmistakably a fire station.
I glanced over at Oscar, and he smiled.
“Welcome to Bomba Israel,” he beamed, “the world’s one and only all-Jewish fire station!”
We trooped inside, where I was introduced to one of the firemen, 25-year old Maurizio, who had been asked to show me around. Maurizio explained that in Chile, there is no professional firefighting force. Rather, each fire station (or ‘bomba’) in the country is comprised as an independent company of volunteers. And many of these volunteer fire companies associate with specific cultural heritages. So, for example, there is an Italian fire company in Santiago, as well as German, French and Croatian companies. Plus, so it seems, also a Jewish one – the Bomba Israel – set up in 1954, and in continuous operation ever since.
Maurizio ushered me past the three bright red fire trucks parked at the ground floor, and then through the firehouse’s meeting hall, gym, kitchen and dining mess, games room, and kids’ club-house. Every door in the place had a mezuzah on it. The walls were covered in Israeli flags, Hebrew posters, and old photos documenting the fire station’s history. Firefighter uniforms hanging neatly on a rack all had Stars of David on the lapels; in the games room a video game console was festooned with the fire station’s Star of David logo; in the mess hall pride of place was given over to a large decorative Hanukiah (a ceremonial candelabra used on the festival of Hanukah), made up of the spouts of nine repurposed fire hoses.
As we walked around Maurizio told me that the fire station was staffed entirely by volunteers, about 70% of whom, like him, were men and women drawn from the local Jewish community. They worked on an unpaid basis, the entire operation being funded by community donations. Volunteer service involved living permanently in the fire station for one month at a time (hence the dining and gym facilities – Maurizio also showed me where they planned to build a pool and outdoor BBQ), with many of the volunteers serving one month on / one month off for years, even decades. Maurizio also explained that being a Jewish fire station, a full Jewish life was on offer inside of it – Shabbat and Jewish holidays were observed in the fire station, as was Israel’s national day, and all food served in the station was kosher.
However, Maurizio was at pains to also explain to me that Bomba Israel was not a novelty; rather, first and foremost it was a working, functioning fire station, dedicated to the business of fighting fires and saving lives. He told me that all volunteers undergo extensive training, and that on an almost daily basis the Bomba Israel trucks respond to calls all over their district, serving anyone in need. Maurizio said that the Bomba Israel fire trucks were among Santiago’s most modern and that the city’s Jewish fire service has developed a reputation for excellence not just in firefighting, but emergency rescue response too. So he and his crew-mates are frequently called on to assist with all manner of disaster relief situations.
Maurizio picked up a fire hat, with a Star of David on its front panel. I thought it was just to show me, but he placed it on my head. I was surprised at how heavy it was. Then, once I was suitably attired, he pointed to the nearby fire pole. “Would you like to try?” he asked.
I smiled deliriously. I mean, all little boys – even Jewish ones – at some point dream of being a fireman. But in Santiago Chile, of all places, that dream had become a Jewish reality. And as I slid down that fire pole, landing with an awkward thud alongside a bright red fire truck with an Israeli flag and Hebrew words emblazoned across its side, I doubt I could have laughed any harder without cracking my face.
Anyway, I suppose I could leave this story at that – a sweet fluffy piece about a cool, quirky Jewish experience I had at a cool, quirky fire station in Chile.
But, I won’t, because even as I am writing this, a shit-storm is once again raging in Israel. Hamas, once again, is launching rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip. And Israel, once again, is doing what needs to be done in response. And, once again, I feel the need to say something about it (hey, it’s my blog so I can do and say what I like!).
So let me take this opportunity to tell you briefly about another interesting migrant community I learned about in Chile, and also about how the Bomba Israel came into existence in the first place.
You see, Chile, as it turns out, is home to the world’s largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world. Back in the late 1800s (so well before both the modern political construct of Palestine and the modern nation-state of Israel existed), Arab migrants from the towns of Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour – that is, towns that are today in Israel / Palestine – began arriving in Chile. They were mainly Christian Arabs, and were a mix of economic refugees (folks seeking a better life and greater opportunity in the “Wild West” of Chile), and later political refugees (folks fleeing in fear of potential Russian persecution arising from the Crimean War).
Over the years, more Palestinians arrived in Chile, their stories not at all dissimilar to those of Jewish migrants at the time. Thus one wave of Palestinians arrived in the wake of the collapsing Ottoman Empire and the chaos and disruption occasioned by WWI; and another wave of Palestinian refugees arrived after the 1948 war in which the State of Israel was created.
Like Chile’s Jewish community, the Chilean Palestinian community (sometimes dubbed ‘Chilestilians’) grew over time, although becoming much larger than the Jewish community, such that today there are about 500,000 people of Palestinian descent in Chile. And just like with Chile’s Jewish community, successive generations of Palestinians in Chile became wealthier and more influential, as the grandchildren of laborers and farm-hands climbed the social ladder to become lawyers, doctors, politicians and successful businesspeople.
Present-day relations between Chile’s Jewish and Palestinian communities are fraught. All three of the synagogues I visited in Santiago had big walls, and cameras, and armed security guards: “To protect us from anti-Semitism – there are a lot of Palestinians in Chile who hate us,” according to Oscar. Both Jewish and Palestinian communities in Chile routinely take out newspaper ads excoriating the other; there is considerable political sparring between the two groups; and matches between the local Jewish and Palestinian soccer teams can degenerate into violent free-for-alls. Unsurprising, right?
But, here’s the thing: the first Jews and Palestinians arrived in Chile long before the modern Israeli-Arab conflict took hold. And back then, hidden away together at the far end of the world, relations between Chile’s Jews and Palestinians were initially very good. Better than good, actually, with the two communities often identified by other Chileans as being almost one and the same – “cousins” with similar stories, cultures and histories.
Indeed, according to Oscar, when he was growing up there was a fair amount of intermingling, socializing and even intermarriage between the two communities. Animosity between Chile’s Jewish and Palestinian communities only took root around 30 years ago, at the time of the first Palestinian Intifada, when young Chilean Palestinians began to identify politically with their brethren back in the Middle East.
All of which brings us full circle back to the story of Bomba Israel.
You see, as Oscar and Maurizio explained to me, until the early 1950s there was no Bomba Israel. No, the origin of Santiago’s (and the world’s one and only) all-Jewish volunteer fire service is to be found in what was the Palestinian equivalent at the time – a volunteer firehouse run and manned by the Chilean Palestinian community. And at which for many decades in the first half of last century large numbers of Jews also volunteered – in the absence of a Jewish fire station, serving at the one run by the “cousins” was the next best alternative.
It was only in 1954 that the Jewish community branched out to set up its own firehouse. But even then these two community run fire services – one Jewish and one Palestinian – worked hand-in-hand, frequently collaborating, training and even socializing together. A level of goodwill that progressively died from the 1970s, and which would seem downright bizarre if it still existed today.
I hope you get the point I am making, which is this: no matter how bad things may seem at any given moment, there really are no hard and fast rules in politics, in love, and in life. Once upon a time, in faraway Chile, Jews and Palestinians were happy to be “cousins”, born of a similar background and with remarkably similar migrant stories. Once upon a time, in faraway Chile, Jewish and Palestinian migrants were able to live and work side by side for the common good.
And whilst “cousins” can certainly fall out, and friends can certainly become enemies, the reverse is also certainly true: enemies can, with time, once again become friends. No matter how far-fetched or fanciful that may seem in the heat of the present moment.
So remember Santiago’s Bomba Israel that next time you throw your hands up into the air and say: “see, it is just not possible to live with these people.” Because “these people”, whoever they may be and whatever they may be doing, are people too. And the story, needs and wants of “these people” may not, ultimately, be that different to yours.