In Uruguay, the Jewish population of a posh beach town has doubled during the pandemic

PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay (JTA) — Uruguay’s upscale resort town of Punta del Este ticks a lot of boxes for 18-year-old Argentine Sofia Grosz: gorgeous beaches, vibrant nightlife, a hub for many of her friends from around the world. Jewish school in Buenos Aires.

“Coming here is almost a tradition in our family,” said Grosz, who belongs to the famed Hacoaj Jewish Sports and Community Center in his home and graduated from a Jewish high school last year.

She’s not alone — Punta del Este has long been a haven for tens of thousands of Jews, many of them Argentines, every summer (which ended recently in the southern hemisphere).

In addition to the luxurious seaside attractions – the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Ralph Lauren and Shakira have vacationed here – the town’s laid-back vibe, natural beauty and low crime rate are a selling point for Jews in Latin America for decades. Jewish developers, whose presence dates back to Argentinian businessman Mauricio Litman, who founded the Cantegrill Country Club in 1950, were also heavily involved in the city’s physical growth. The Cantegrill still exists, full of Jews playing golf or cards, and now there are things like a Jewish film festival and a local kosher pizzeria, opened in 2012 by Levi Shemtov, nephew of the famous Washington-based rabbi, DC of the same name.

But for many Jewish families, the town about two hours east of the capital Montevideo is transforming from a summer getaway to a year-round home: Its permanent Jewish population has doubled from about 300 families to 600 since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The trend isn’t stopping anytime soon, said Fabian Schamis, executive director of the local Israelita Community of Punta del Este, or CIPEMU, a Jewish community organization established in 2005 that now has more than 1,500 members at the year who take part in its cultural program and its “Shabbat on the beach” evenings. The influx of Jews during the summer is estimated at around 40,000.

The first fully kosher restaurant in Punta del Este, Uruguay is called Brooklyn. (Juan Melamed/JTA)

Most of the new permanent residents come from Argentina, where the pandemic has raged and where a mix of rising inflation, national currency devaluation and high tax rates have contributed to a recession in recent years.

“Since 2020, we have had a massive influx of people, almost 100% from Argentina,” Schamis told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We are talking about residents, not tourists. The pandemic has also accelerated some dissatisfaction that Argentines had [in their own country] for political, economic, insecurity and other reasons, and they chose to settle here in Punta del Este, where we have an oasis in all these aspects.

The increase in school options has added to the attraction, say local Jews. There is no Jewish day school, but Jewish students are changing the makeup of the rest of the city’s schools, such as the International College (IC) Punta del Este – which opened in 2018 and is owned by Rolando Rozenblum, a current board member of CIPEMU. and former president.

CIPEMU in Punta del Este, Uruguay organizes Shabbat events on the beach. (CIPEMU/via JTA)

The K-12 International School this year had more than 600 students from 28 countries, including the United States. Rozenblum says the student body is about 10% Jewish. CIPEMU says it will do a demographic study this year to get more accurate numbers on the Jewish community.

Rozenblum, a businessman and community leader, is also involved in another notable local institution: the first Trump Tower in South America, which after nearly a decade of setbacks should open in August. Rozenblum has bought an apartment in the tower and is helping its local developers — the Trump Organization did not authorize the use of its name and is not involved in the logistics of the project — to prepare for its opening.

The tower has 160 apartments that cost around $5,000 per square meter and includes an indoor tennis court designed by Jewish Argentinian player Martin Jaite, a former top 10 pro. About 60% of buyers are Argentinians, with the rest coming from Uruguay, Brazil, Europe and the United States.

“The Trump name is still an important global real estate brand,” Rozenblum said. “We need developers to start building this type of high-end building that is also winter-ready, and not just focused on summer amenities. This is the next step.

A view of the first building named after Trump in South America, in Punta del Este. (Courtesy of Trump Tower Punta del Este/via JTA)

Argentines have been flocking to Uruguay for years, whose center-right President Luis Lacalle Pou, in power since March 2020, leads a freer, pro-market government. Uruguay has offered new residents a 10-year ‘tax holiday’ and some tourists simply decided not to go when COVID first locked them down.

“This move is reasonable and follows migration and investment trends towards Uruguay, a country that we see very favorably for Jews to settle there,” said Ariel Stofenmacher, rector of the Latino Rabbinical Seminary. -American, at JTA in December 2020, announcing the expansion of the institution in Uruguay.

Punta del Este now has three synagogues – two are Sephardic Orthodox and one is affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. As an example of how the city brings together a mix of Argentine, Brazilian, and Uruguayan Jews, the prominent Brazilian banking family Safra helped build a temple here, which during the summer is frequented mostly by Argentines.

“Now I can proudly say that if you come from a big Jewish city like Buenos Aires to this small beach town, you can keep your Jewish flame burning,” Rozenblum said.

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