Venezuela’s close-knit Jewish community still mourns its Surfside victims

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CARACAS, Venezuela (JTA) – The collapse of the Champlain Towers building in Surfside, Florida has been hit a range of communities whose members lived in the diverse Miami-Dade region: immigrants from all over Latin America, retired Jews from the northeast, Jews from Puerto Rico.

The Jewish community in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, is one of them that still feels the most pain months later.

In the aftermath of the collapse, the elderly Christina Beatriz Elvira and Leon Oliwkowicz, both Venezuelan Jews, were among the first victims to recover their remains. Next come the bodies of Luis Sadovnic, Moises “El Chino” Rodán and Andres Levine. The three young men, all in their twenties, were raised in the small Jewish community surrounded by lush El Ávila National Park in the heart of Caracas.

Miami had become an economic springboard and a new home for young Venezuelans, just like for hundreds of other members of the community over the past decade.

Many Latin American Jewish communities are described as “tight-knit,” but Venezuela’s is unique in the region for its close proximity. Everyone here is part of the same extended family – although Venezuelan Jews often use the Hebrew word “kehilla, ”For the community.

Few agreed to talk about the tragedy overnight, or months later. Rather, they focused on providing moral and financial support to family members of the victims.

Venezuelan Surfside victim Leon Oliwkowicz carrying a Torah scroll at a dedication ceremony in Chicago in 2019 (Chabad.org via JTA)

But those who spoke to the Jewish Telegraph Agency pointed out how the deaths of their fellow citizens reverberated across the country.

“The whole community feels this tragedy deep within our being,” said Miguel Truzman, vice-president of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela, known by its Spanish acronym CAIV. “They were boys we saw growing up; the whole community is deeply traumatized and devastated by this tragedy.

The Hebraica Jewish Community Center in the Caracas region – the only social, cultural and religious center in the community, which serves as a country club, sports facilities, elementary school and meeting center – has been established A declaration in July, declaring that the Surfside events “will undoubtedly shape the rest of our lives.”

A view of the Hebraica Social Club swimming pool in the Los Chorros district of Caracas. (Courtesy of Hebraica Caracas / via JTA)

In addition to having shared a common address at the Champlain Towers South condo building, the three young Venezuelans had one other thing in common before moving to the United States: they all attended the Colegio Moral y Luces Herzl-Bialik, a private Jewish high school now housed inside the Hebraica center, in the Los Chorros neighborhood of Caracas.

Founded in 1946 by Ashkenazi emigrants after a rapid growth in the community’s population, the school has since served as a common bond for almost all Venezuelan Jews, regardless of their religious faith or ethnicity. It is one of the centerpieces that contribute to the feeling of unity of the community.

“The Venezuelan Ashkenazim made it possible for the Sephardim to study in school without any problem. If you go to another Latin American country, like Mexico – or even the world – each community, depending on its origin, has its own school, ”said Sami Rozenbaum, journalist and current editor-in-chief of Nuevo Mundo Israelita, or New Israelite World, the community weekly.

A story of belonging, an uncertain future

The majority of Jews remaining in Venezuela are either children or grandchildren of European or Moroccan immigrants. Their ancestors mostly emigrated from the late 1930s to the late 1960s. Newcomers quickly assimilated into traditional Venezuelan society and never felt like outsiders, as the country was at the time. an ethnic and religious melting pot. Anti-Semitism and racism were rarely major concerns for the community, and unlike Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile, the country has a much less significant history of harboring Nazi fugitives.

The Jewish newspaper, founded by Moisés Sananes in 1943 as Mundo Israelita (Israelite World), was the community’s first systematic effort to unite both its Ashkenazi and Sephardic immigrants, before the Bialik school.

“Our community is a point of reference in the world because of its integration. We are fully united. Here there is no distinction between who is of Ashkenazi or Sephardic ancestry. The only distinct components are the synagogues and the religious and cultural traditions of each group, ”Rozenbaum said.

Although the community was officially established in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until 1939 that the country’s first synagogue, El Conde Synagogue, was built. The temple, however, will not last long, as the government of the day approved a series of urban restructuring projects in 1954, forcing it to be demolished. In 1963, the Sephardic community of Caracas inaugurated the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, the city’s largest to date.

Students of the Jewish school Colegio Moral y Luces Herzl-Bialik in Caracas, Venezuela. (Nuevo Mundo Israelita / via JTA)

In recent years, the community has seen many of its members leave, as a stagnation socio-economic and humanitarian crisis continues to cause a large-scale exodus from the oil-rich country. From a population peak of 25,000 in the early 1990s, the Venezuelan Jewish community has fallen to less than 6,000 members, a decrease of 70%.

The country’s hyperinflation, endemic violence, hunger and deepening poverty have forced many people to form a new diaspora. Almost all of these Venezuelan Jewish immigrants settled in the United States, Israel, Mexico and Panama.

Those who remain are predominantly Orthodox and live in Caracas, sometimes dependent on each other for their survival. With so few left, almost everyone in the community knows each other by name. Most of them see themselves as staunch Zionists.

The regime of populist brand Hugo Chavez has tried for years to implant anti-Israel sentiment into the political fabric of the predominantly Catholic nation, and has sought to forge closer ties with Iran and the Palestinian leadership. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, and his supporters continued this legacy, but to a lesser extent.

According to US Department of State 2020 Report on international religious freedom on Venezuela, “criticism of Israel in media controlled or affiliated with Maduro continued to carry anti-Semitic overtones, sometimes disguised as anti-Zionist messages.” Recent examples include the trivialization of the Holocaust, as evidenced by Maduro’s comparison of US sanctions against Venezuela to the persecution of Jews by the Nazis, and the promotion conspiracy theories linking Israel and Jews to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Illustration: Protesters burn an Israeli flag during a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in Caracas on Thursday, January 8, 2009. To expel the Israeli ambassador. (AP Photo / Fernando Llano)

Despite this, the government’s rhetoric has not caught on with the Venezuelan population as a whole, which remains notably free from anti-Semitism.

“Venezuelans are not anti-Semites. For example, if they see someone wearing a kippah on their head and don’t know what it is, they will ask you. The unknown does not cause them estrangement but respect, ”said Isaac Cohen, chief rabbi of the Israelite Association of Venezuela (AIV), an umbrella organization representing Jews of Sephardic origin.

“The reason I have been here for 43 years is that I neither feel nor experience anti-Semitism. Although, of course, in Europe there is cultural anti-Semitism, but here there is no anti-Semitic culture, ”Cohen said.

Why some stay

Venezuelan Jews give two answers as to why they stay – both religious and economic reasons.

“It’s hard to start over and reinvent yourself from scratch,” said a community member who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, fearing retaliation from the government. “Senior members stay because their home is here. They know that the same comfort and the same life that they have in Venezuela would be difficult to obtain elsewhere, especially if one has to learn another language, such as English.

And even in the midst of all the unrest, practicing Jews still thrive in Venezuela. They can practice their traditions openly and maintain a stable relationship with government authorities, who provide state-sponsored security in front of synagogues. Special food permits allow the import and manufacture of kosher products.

“Venezuela is a great country. We stay here because of the hospitality and generosity of its people, ”Cohen said. “In Venezuela, freedom of worship and anything the community is willing to pursue is supported. So why move to another country? We decide to emigrate because there is anti-Semitism, or because commercially, it does not work; I am not a businessman. My job is to maintain and preserve religion in the country.

Truzman agreed, saying the fact that everyone went to the same school binds them together for life.

“Like me, there are thousands who stayed. Why? Well, because it is our homeland, our country. We strive to cope with all adverse circumstances. We are staying so that there is a presence of the Jewish community in Venezuela, ”he said.

“We have spent a lifetime together. “


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