The first Jews arrived in Colombia during the period of Spanish colonization in the 16th and 17th centuries. Primarily “New Christians,” Jews forced to convert to Catholicism who practiced Judaism in secret, they sought a new life free of religious persecution. Most, if not all, of the Jews who arrived during this period assimilated into Colombian society, although there are descendants of some of these early Jews who continue to practice certain Jewish traditions which have morphed into family rituals. During the 18th century, Spanish and Portuguese Jews began to arrive from Jamaica and Curacao, where they had flourished under English and Dutch rule. By the end of the century these Jews had begun to practice their religion openly even though this was still technically illegal. After Colombia gained its independence in 1810, Judaism was recognized as a legal religion.
By 1929 there were less than 200 Jews in Bogotá when a group of Polish and Romanian Jews founded the Israelite Center of Bogotá. The small size of the community did not deter them, however, and the following year they established a burial society, a school and other communal institutions. By the beginning of the 1940s, German-Jewish immigrants to Colombia founded their own communal organization, the Israelite Montefiore Association, and in 1950 Jews mostly from Aleppo, Syria but also from Egypt, Turkey and Greece founded the Sephardic Hebrew Community of Bogota.
During the early 1990s the Jewish population of Colombia stood at over 6000-6500. Over the course of the next decade a deteriorating economy and personal safety and a wave of kidnappings across the country led to a significant Jewish exodus. Most of those who left settled in Miami, Costa Rica and Israel. However, improvements in domestic security and a good economic situation have helped to stabilize the community and the situation has improved to the extent that many Jews from Venezuela are now seeking refuge in Colombia.