by Alan Levy
It’s Sunday afternoon in Caracas and a newcomer driving into the parking lot of the Hebraica (Jewish Social, Recreational and Cultural) Center may wonder what is the real story when it comes to Jewish life in Venezuela. To begin with, it’s very hard finding a parking spot and you have to walk carefully to avoid bumping into all the strollers, kids and elderly as you cross the common pool and social areas. This image doesn’t fit with the picture that any foreigner has of the Jewish community here, even for those Venezuelans who have fled over the past ten years. But this is the real picture: A community demographically battered by the dire situation facing the country, but collectively determined to stay united and to turn this crisis into an opportunity to not just survive, but to thrive. After a century of Jewish life, we have never seen a political and social situation like the last decade has brought upon us.
Google “Venezuelan Jews” and you are sure to find only content related to anti-Semitism in the country, mainly instigated by the State media and government institutions, who, in concordance with their socialist, revolutionary and anti-imperialist ideology, have embraced an anti-Israel stance at almost every opportunity. In peak moments of tension, such as during the second Lebanon war and the cast-lead Gaza offensive, this ideology ended up manifesting in a national police raid of the Jewish school and two physical attacks against synagogues in Caracas, one of them the emblematic Mariperez Synagogue, in which even the Torah scrolls were vandalized. As a result of efforts between local and international Jewish leadership to mediate with government officials, we have finally reached a very delicate stability, as we have sadly come to an unwritten agreement of accepting the constant anti-Zionism from the State media as long as they don’t attack our local Jewish community. But in my personal opinion, even as harsh as it may sound, it is not anti-Semitism alone that accounts for the 50% reduction in the Jewish population over the past decade of this “socialist revolution.”
The Jewish community has also been saddled with many of the same economic burdens facing the middle and upper classes in general. A soaring crime rate and a decreased quality of life have been major factors in the mass exodus to countries such as the U.S., Colombia, Panama and Israel. Many families recognize that economically, the Venezuelan market is still very attractive and there are many business opportunities just around the corner, but as kidnappings and muggings are literally heard of on a daily basis, and any one is a potential target for a “Secuestro Express” – A two-day kidnapping for a $5,000-$10,000 ransom – parents are intentionally choosing high-school graduation as the moment to send their kids abroad to study and start a life somewhere else, while keeping their businesses local. Many younger families are also choosing to start abroad from scratch. A telling example is that there are currently only 40 children enrolled in the 2nd grade at the Jewish school. When I was in the 2nd grade in the 90s, our class had more than 100 children.
As unlikely as it sounds, all of the factors working against life in Venezuela have led to a thriving Jewish community. Without seeing any statistics, you can see more people attending Temple on Shabbat, Hebraica, community events, Jewish camps, youth movements and shiurim (Jewish classes) to fill their free time. There is even a new Kosher restaurant that recently opened in a new mall, a product of an increase in religious practice amongst the younger generation, which is perhaps caused by the threat we have felt to living Jewishly. Institutionally, the challenge that directors of organizations have faced has been tremendous. The relations with the State from a political level have been managed very cautiously and the internal managing of funds and priorities has really created an enormous pressure upon those who have embraced the task. Particularly, my most recent experience is that I co-started a group of young professionals who gather weekly to share business and work experiences in order to generate networking amongst the few people below age 30 who are launching businesses or to discuss the best alternatives to emigrating.
Here uncertainty remains constant and it remains to be seen whether Venezuelan Jews can begin a life in a country that could change its course in the coming 2012 elections or if we all jump off the ship and establish roots in a new place, just as our grandparents did when they came to this beautiful nation that is Venezuela.
Alan Levy is a newly accredited civil engineer in Caracas who works in development banking, specializing in the environment, energy and sustainable building. He is an active member of his local Jewish community, including Noar Le Noar Maccabi, MASA Israel, ROI Community and other initiatives. Contact him at: [email protected]