Venezuelan Jews fleeing turmoil get ‘lifeline’ in Israel, encounter new challenges
As the political and economic situation in Venezuela becomes increasingly unstable, Jews are fleeing the South American nation, with many choosing to immigrate to Israel.
Conditions in Venezuela began deteriorating in 2013 following the death of the country’s former president, Hugo Chavez, and the ascension of his chosen successor Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver.
During the past four years, inflation has skyrocketed under Maduro’s rule, leading to shortages in food and basic supplies such as medicine and toilet paper. Venezuelans stand in long lines—sometimes for 12 hours—just to obtain bare essentials.
“There is no value to life right now in Venezuela,” Adele Tarrab, a Venezuelan Jew who moved to Israel with her family in 2015, told JNS.org. “I’ve actually seen people get killed for bread.”
Venezuela was once home to a thriving Jewish community, one of the largest in South America, with around 25,000 members in 1999. The crumbling economy caused many of the country’s Jews to flee, with the vast majority heading to Miami, Mexico and Panama. Some 9,000 Jews are believed to still reside in Venezuela.
“We love Venezuela,” Tarrab said. “It’s a beautiful country. We still have family there, but they want to leave.”
In late July, a group of 26 new Venezuelan immigrants arrived in Israel, with the Israeli government and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) facilitating their aliyah.
The Fellowship says it is the only organization on the ground in Venezuela assisting the Jewish community with aliyah. During the past year and half, the organization has brought 153 Venezuelan Jews to Israel, and has helped the immigrants obtain thousands of dollars in support to get on their feet.
“In the past four years we’ve seen a deterioration in the situation of the people of Venezuela,” The Fellowship’s founder and president, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, told JNS.org. “Many of the olim (immigrants) that we have brought to Israel have not been able, literally, to put bread on the table.”
In addition to facilitating aliyah, The Fellowship aids elderly and less affluent Jews who remain in Venezuela, as the majority of wealthy members of the country’s Jewish community “already left for Miami” before the situation deteriorated, Eckstein said.
According to Eckstein, amid the lack of law and order in Venezuela, Jews are increasingly targeted for kidnappings by criminal gangs who hold them for ransom.
“Since the Jewish community has this image of being more affluent due to stereotypes about Jews having money, kidnappings of Jewish community members are more common,” he said.
Tarrab also noted the effects of anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and money in Venezuela.
“It’s like a jail. You don’t leave your house because it’s very dangerous to go out,” she said, adding that the current trends in Venezuelan anti-Semitism began under Chavez’s rule.
Tarrab recalled a 2009 incident in which 15 armed attackers “broke into the main synagogue in Caracas” on a Friday night “and urinated on the Torah scrolls. It was shocking.” The assailants scrawled anti-Semitic graffiti on the synagogue’s walls and prevented the community from holding Friday night services.
She also detailed an incident in which government forces confiscated the central gold market in Caracas, where many of her family members, including her father Maurice, owned jewelry stores for more than 30 years.
“Chavez knew that many of the stores were owned by the Jewish community. It was shocking and very sad,” Tarrab said.
Venezuela’s Jewish leaders don’t want to present the current economic situation as a crisis, “but it really is,” Eckstein said.
“[The Fellowship] provides [Venezuelan Jews] with a lifeline to come to Israel…and helps every step of the way…most of them are coming literally with the ‘shirts on their backs,’ no luggage,” he said.
Despite the “lifeline” of moving to Israel, Tarrab said the South American immigrants face many new challenges in the Jewish state. They are often “frustrated by the lack of help” from the Israeli government and encounter intense bureaucracy, which “makes it hard” for “people who are trying to work in an honest way to have a better life,” she said.
“The government should make the process smoother,” said Tarrab. “We are not used to the mentality in Israel. In Venezuela, everyone is very laid back…Israelis are very tough and direct.”
For its part, Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Absorption this month announced an increase in aid to Venezuelan immigrants. Total state benefits now amount to $9,700 for couples; $8,200 for single-parent families; $5,100 for singles; $3,000 for children up to age 4; $2,200 for children ages 4-18; and $2,600 for immigrants ages 18-21.
Soon after arriving in Israel, Tarrab and her family settled in the coastal city of Netanya and opened a restaurant, “Rustikana,” that serves home-style Venezuelan food. The family regularly imports fresh kosher meat from South American countries such as Argentina to provide authentic flavors.
The restaurant has become a local sensation and is often packed with Israelis who crave a taste of authentic South American cuisine. Although the restaurant is a very different business from the jewelry stores that the Tarrab family operated for decades in Caracas, the venture is fueled by a similar work ethic.
“My family and I came to Israel with ‘con las ganas,’ the willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed,” said Tarrab.
“You cannot come to Israel with the same mentality we had in Venezuela…every day is challenging,” she said. “Every day I have to fight, I am always on the defensive. It’s tiring, but I love Israel…I feel safe here, and I feel like this is my country.”