Even under Chavez, Jews well off
CARACAS, Venezuela (JTA) — The question of whether Jews have a future in Venezuela seemed far from the minds of the 900 or so people at a recent wedding in a Caracas suburb.
On Saturday night, a day before a crucial referendum on Venezuela’s constitution, Jews at the Union Israelita de Caracas synagogue in suburban San Bernardino were singing, dancing, eating and drinking with abandon.
In a country where whiskey is easier to find than fresh milk, bottles of chardonnay and champagne flowed freely, and women decked out in diamonds chatted among the kosher treats in the shul’s enormous banquet hall.
Despite their perilous political situation and the fact that roughly half of Venezuela’s Jews have emigrated over the last eight years, most of the Jews that have stayed live quite well.
Many of Venezuela’s estimated 12,000 Jews enjoy luxuries most Jews elsewhere only can dream about: large sprawling houses with panoramic mountain views, full-time live-in maids, second homes in South Florida, expensive cars.
While many have taken flight under the regime of President Hugo Chavez, who has nationalized major industries, embraced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahemedinejad and allowed expressions of anti-Semitism on state-controlled media, some Jewish businessmen have benefited from Chavez’s rule.
One Jewish businessman who asked not to be named said that some Jews, like other business-savvy Venezuelans, have profited from the rampant inflation that has dramatically eroded the value of Venezuela’s national currency, the bolivar.
“Business is very good for people who import because they get dollars at government-subsidized rates, and they can then sell at a very good profit,” he said.
The U.S. dollar is worth only 2,150 bolivares at the official rate, but it can fetch more than 6,000 bolivares on the illegal but largely tolerated black market.
“In my case, the government can control and pressure you, and make your life miserable,” the businessman said.
The Chavez government has made no secret of its distaste for “capitalists,” which includes many members of the Jewish community.
Despite the resentment, “we still think this is the best place to live,” said Rodolfo Osers, a civil engineer who administers ORT programs in Venezuela.
“Chavez and his ideas are not enough to make us leave at this moment,” Osers told JTA. “But we have to be prepared. Ten years ago, if someone asked you to work in the United States or Spain, you would have said no. But now, if any company or headhunter asks if you want a good job in the States, you won’t even think about it. You’ll accept.”
Fifteen synagogues, all Orthodox, serve the Jews of Caracas, home to nearly the entire Jewish population of Venezuela.
The Jewish community is divided equally between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, with both groups enjoying relative prosperity in an oil-exporting country where 95 percent of the population endures grinding poverty.
Not all Jews in Venezuela are wealthy, however. Some community leaders say that up to 25 percent of the community receive some form of welfare assistance, though others dispute that figure.
“There are definitely poor Jews in Venezuela,” said Rabbi Chaim Raitport, a Brooklyn-born Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who has lived in Caracas for the past 14 years. “In fact, the Ashkenazi community’s biggest expense is buying medicine, hospitals, doctors and burials for poor people who can’t afford it, and scholarships for children whose families can’t pay the tuition.”
Osers said every Jewish community has poor people: There has to be someone to whom to give tzedakah.
“I wouldn’t say there are poor Jews in the sense that they’re impoverished because we’d be ashamed if we saw a Jew living that way,” Osers told JTA. “But many Jews do need some financial help in order to live the same way that wealthy families live.”