Sitting outside a Starbucks coffee shop in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., a small city north of Miami Beach, Paul Hariton recalled the dramatic night in 2002 when he and his wife decided to leave their native Venezuela.
Leftist leader Hugo Chavez had just returned to power after a failed coup, and the Haritons feared the political fallout.
“We thought he was gone already,” said Hariton, 56. “We came back from a big opposition demonstration in the city center where several people were shot, including one member of the community. A girl was shot in the head. She survived.”
The next day the Haritons were in Florida. Eleven years later they’re still there.
“For my kids, it was a great move,” Hariton said. “My oldest son is going to medical school. My daughter just graduated and is working at the bank. And my youngest son is 17 and is applying for university.”
Over the past decade, thousands of Venezuelan Jews have followed suit, driven abroad by rising crime rates and the growing anti-Semitism many attribute to Chavez’s harsh criticism of Israel and cozy alliance with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. About 25,000 Jews lived in Venezuela in the 1990s — a number that has shrunk to 9,000 today, according to CAIV, the umbrella group for Venezuelan Jewry.
“I can’t tell you if 10 years from now we’ll be half of what we are, but the trend at the moment is a decreasing one, which is very worrying for the community,” said Efraim Lapscher, CAIV’s vice president.
Many Jews in Venezuela are determined to stay. They have businesses, a sense of cultural belonging and an impressive array of Jewish institutions painstakingly built over decades. Yet uncertainty after the death of Chavez last month may send more overseas to join their friends and family living abroad, many of them in Florida.
Just three hours by plane from the Venezuelan capital Caracas, the Miami region has similar weather, Spanish is widely spoken and is home to a large Jewish community, making it a favorite among Venezuelan Jews looking for a fresh start.
Many of the newcomers have joined the Michael-Ann Russel Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Hebraica, the sprawling Jewish compound in Caracas. Though it lacks the Hebraica’s dramatic surroundings — notably its location at the foot of the lush Avila mountain — the tennis courts, pool, well-kept buildings and easygoing lifestyle are much the same.
“There is a lot more use of facilities, not just for sports,” said Ariel Bentata, a Venezuelan Jew and the JCC’s president. “It’s more of a gathering place now, and that’s a big change. This is something that Venezuelan Jews have brought from the Hebraica.”
Indeed, Caraqueno transplants are likely to bump into many familiar faces in these parts. Rabbi Pynchas Brener was chief rabbi of the main Ashkenazi synagogue of Caracas for 44 years until he retired here two years ago as he neared 80.
“I could have stayed on for another three years; I was offered that opportunity,” Brener said. “But I didn’t want to at this stage of the game, basically because of the tremendous personal insecurity [in Caracas]. And I have eight of my nine grandchildren living here. So that’s why I came.”
Florida may be the destination of choice for Venezuelan Jews, most of whom live in Caracas, but it is by no means the only one. Smaller communities of Venezuelan Jewish expats exist in Panama, Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala — Spanish-speaking countries with small but robust Jewish populations.
Others have resettled in Israel. According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, 1,290 Venezuelans have moved to the Jewish state since 1999, numbers that do not include the Venezuelan Jews who already were Israeli citizens before they moved. A Jewish official said the number of Jews in the latter category is “sizable.”
Some Venezuelan Jews have gone on to significant successes in their adopted countries.
Venezuelan filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz is working on a movie starring Rober De Niro and Gael Garcia Bernal. Michel Kreisel was a member of the special effects team that won an Academy Award for “Life of Pi.” Moses Naim, Venezuela’s former minister of development, is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and a respected columnist for Spain’s El Pais.
“Generally, more idealistic people or those with relatives came here,” said Maor Melul, 37, a computer engineer who moved to Israel from Caracas in January. “The people who have a lot of money go to Miami. And generally those who go to Panama and Costa Rica are waiting to go back to Venezuela if things improve.”
Melul fell in love with Tel Aviv over a previous extended stay. Most of his friends in Israel are from Brazil, Venezuela’s neighbor to the south, but if people mistake him for a Brazilian, he is quick to correct them.
“In my room I have an indigenous clay doll with the colors of the flag of Venezuela and the stars,” he said. “On my dining table I have a Venezuelan flag. And of course there’s the Venezuelan soccer team. I wore its T-shirt when I made aliyah. After you leave, you start showing your colors, showing you are Venezuelan.”
For the most part, Melul feels detached from the place he had called home for decades. Most of his family and friends either died or emigrated. Only occasionally does he feel nostalgic, like when he goes through old photo albums.
“I look at pictures of coconuts and the water and how I’d love to be there right now,” he said. “But I can’t.”
Hariton believes most Venezuelan Jews would not go back, even if things improved. They are settled in their new homes, he said, and think only sparingly of their country of birth.
“I miss what I had, which is not there anymore,” Hariton said. “The community we had and country we had is not there anymore.”