Venezuelan Jews no longer feel safe

Astroll through Aventura Mall over the weekend ended up depressing me after I ran into an old friend’s parents who told me about the misfortunes and dilemmas Jews currently face in Venezuela.

Miami is the exile capital for Venezuelan Jews, just as it has been for Cuban Jews, or “Jewbans.” I predict the time will come when we’ll be called “Venejews.” There are similarities between both groups.

As it happened in Cuba under Fidel Castro, the number of Jews in Venezuela has dramatically decreased since Hugo Chávez came to power. The Hebrew community has been the object of invectives from the president himself and the government media. Which prompts me to ask: What will be the fate of the vibrant Jewish community in the land that gave refuge to my ancestors and served as a model to the Jewish diaspora?

“The fact is, many members of the Jewish community have left Venezuela,” said Abraham Levy Benshimol, president of Venezuela’s Confederation of Israeli Associations. “The more people we lose, the more difficult it becomes to maintain our institutions.”

Such an exodus carries two inevitable consequences. Among the expatriates are leaders who were vital for the community to function and develop. But now that so many have emigrated, donations to Jewish social service groups have decreased and it becomes harder for institutions to aid those members most in need — precisely the ones who lack the resources to emigrate.

The number of Jews in Venezuela varies. The Jerusalem Post reports that, according to conservative estimates, the Venezuelan community is currently down to 9,000 members from a peak of 30,000. However, a census conducted by Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola concluded in the early ’90s that the community did not reach 20,000.

I was able to confirm with principals of private Jewish schools that from kindergarten to high school the number of students has dropped 50 percent in a decade.

One of the major concerns for Jews is precisely their children’s education. Last week, the Chávez government passed an obscure education bill granting the government “…excessive power over the curriculums of private schools.” And that is in addition to the indoctrinating material titled Socialism in the 21st Century, which is mandatory.

The law also contemplates the role of communal councils in the schools’ management and supervision, giving unqualified people in the education sector the power to influence the system.

There also are persistent rumors that the government will restrict the teaching of religion and foreign languages such as Hebrew, which are vital to guarantee the continuity of Jewish life anywhere in the diaspora.

‘No future’ for children

Such uncertainty has intensified Venezuela’s Jewish emigration in the last six months, which in turn is reflected in the Hebrew schools in Miami, where there has been a significant increase in Venezuelan students, Chaim Botwinick, president/CEO of the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education, an agency of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, told me. The agency has also received calls from Venezuelan families inquiring about educational options here.

“There’s no future in Venezuela for my children,” said a mother of three young children ages 9, 6 and 2 who lives in Caracas and is now visiting Miami. “Since the synagogue incident in January, we Jews don’t feel safe in Venezuela,” she said, referring to the defacement of Tiferet Israel Synagogue.

Like her, the majority of Jews in Venezuela fear retaliation if they publicly oppose the government.

Pynchas Brener, the principal rabbi of the Caracas Israeli Union, told me that the community prefers to go unnoticed in these difficult times.

“The community must react strongly against any anti-Semitic abuse, regardless of where it comes from,” Brener said. “Silence only encourages those who wish to discredit us.”

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