In Caracas, a Jewish Community at a Crossroads

February 5, 2013


Facing a moment of significant change and challenges, the Jewish community of Venezuela is being steered through today’s realities by its dedicated leaders, with steadfast support from JDC.

Anabella G. is the Executive Director of Hebraica, the Jewish Community Center in Caracas, Venezuela. Since 2008 she has been the Executive Director of the Latin American Maccabi Confederation and as coordinator of the community’s Venezuela-Israel Committee.

A keystone in the community’s rapid transition, Anabella discusses the trials and surprises she’s encountered in her role.

Tell us a little bit about the makeup of Venezuela’s Jewish community. Where do its roots stem from and what are some of the institutions that make up the community today?

Ninety percent of Venezuela’s Jews live in Caracas. We have a Jewish school for kids ages 4 to 18 and a Jewish Community Center (JCC) called Hebraica located on the same campus. We have a home for the elderly, and a health and social services network operated by the community. In addition, we have a building called Bet Am where many of the traditional institutions function, such as Wizo, B’nei Brith, Keren Kayemet, Yeshivot, Jewish Agency, etc. We also have yeshivot (religious schools).

Our community is about 50% Ashkenazi, who came from Europe (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania), largely in ’39, ’48 and in ‘58; and 50% Sephardi, from places like Morocco, who have been here for over 100 years.

The community is not divided, however. The Ashkenazim and Sephardim co-own the school, the Hebraica JCC, the newspaper, the health services—everything that is part of the cultural make-up of the community or that provides services.

They do religious things (e.g. synagogues, cemetery, hevra kadisha) separately because the traditions are different. All 18 of our synagogues are orthodox, though some are more Haredi than others.

Venezuela seems to be going through an important historical moment. What are some of the recent changes your community has experienced?

Our community has shrunk significantly—60% since the 1980s. Most of the youngsters are going away and most of the people who remain are over age 30. We have many institutions and buildings and must downsize everything to adjust to our changing demographics.

We are working with JDC to adjust to our new reality.

JDC’s current role in Latin America includes providing communities like yours with community-building expertise, training, innovation and networking opportunities. What does that mean on a practical level?

When you have someone from outside who can come in and examine your community’s situation—professionals who’ve gone through something similar in another place, for example—it is very valuable. For instance, in Argentina, following the economic crisis there was a need to downsize the community. JDC’s professionals who helped handle that crisis bring us expertise and can facilitate our decision-making.

We have to make really tough choices. We have empty buildings in the community now that we are trying to sell. We need to relocate services.

JDC is giving us the security and the confidence that we are doing the right thing, which makes it easier to make the decision. JDC is with us through this whole process and helps give us the strength to go ahead.

It’s important to understand we are not talking about individual leaders, but the fate of the whole community, which was created by our ancestors and is deeply loved. It is very painful to have to close this or sell that. It is very difficult.

How do you connect with other Jewish communities in Latin America?

We are well connected because we all speak the same language and are a lot alike. We all share a deep sense of solidarity. For example, following the AMIA bombing in Argentina, we all came and stood together. We do this whenever critical events occur in any of our communities.

We have a large network of professionals across Latin America who are all connected through leadership seminars, shared experiences in Israel, and the like, many of which are facilitated by JDC. We have regional sports activities that bring us together as well. And of course we have the Encuentro conference.

What is the importance for you of an event like the Encuentro—JDC’s regional convener that brings Latin American leaders of Jewish communities together to network and enrich one another?

It’s very important. First, because we have to recognize what we do have. We are isolated here so it is incredibly important that we see that we are not alone—that we are a part of a larger Jewish world.

This last Encuentro in Quito, Ecuador attracted 500 people (100 of them young leaders) from 22 countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean for programming on every possible Jewish issue. It was incredible.

It is very important in helping us share and learn. We have one Hebraica JCC in Caracas, while Buenos Aires has 42. At the Encuentro we take the opportunity to speak with each other and see what other JCCs in Latin America are doing, what we can learn, and how we can advance using others’ innovative ideas and models.

It also enables us to get acquainted with intellectuals who may not reach our country, but who speak for the future of the Jewish people. Their perspective of a global vision of the Jewish people is very enriching for us as professionals.

You personally have a long history of leadership in the Caracas community and an even longer history of participation. What is your Jewish background and story?

I’m a first generation Venezuelan. My mother’s parents escaped from Romania before the war and she was born in Trinidad; my father came from Romania. They met in Caracas.

My father was always a leader in the community. He created the psychology department of the Jewish school and was always involved in the Jewish and Zionist Federations. So I learned a lot about Jewishness and community leadership in my home.

I’ve been involved in leadership activities since I was in school, and then started participating at Hebraica. Eventually, I became a director—first of the Israeli dance department, then the social and cultural department, and then the activities department. Since 1993 I’ve been the Executive Director of Hebraica.

From 2008 I’ve also been Director of the Latin American Maccabi Confederation, which is involved with the region’s JCCs and belongs to the Maccabi World Union. In this role, I develop activities for young people with various Latin American Jewish communities.

I was coached by JDC when I took the Executive Director role at the JCC, and from 2009 to 2011 I worked with JDC as a consultant for the Jewish community of Venezuela to strategize on the downsizing of the community.

What do you see as the biggest challenges your community is facing today?

The shrinking of the community and ensuring our sustainability are the biggest challenges.

Additionally, we have to begin thinking about working with the elderly … being a community which is not so young anymore. We have an increase in special needs we have to address, too. But continuing to increase services is hard because people are reticent to invest in these times of economic and political uncertainty.

Without an Israeli embassy, we miss the resources we used to receive, and educational projects are difficult for us.

Importantly, the security systems at all our institutions are very strong—and expensive—and financing them is difficult.

For the first time we are also seeing religious polarization. Our community that used to be 10% very observant is now 30%, with more young people becoming religious and making donations to religious institutions, not to community services. So we need to adapt to that, also.

We are struggling to survive and keep Jews in the community, to reach people who are falling on hard times, and to be successful as a community despite shrinking membership and resources.

Our situation is very different from other places where help is mostly needed with food and material needs. We are struggling with spiritual needs because the leadership needs support, to know we are not alone, to ask what to do in a situation we have no experience with. Spiritually, we need to feel that we are part of a larger people.

You alluded to strengthened security systems now in place. Has there been anti-Semitism in Venezuela historically? What is the current climate for the Jews in Venezuela?

We don’t have anti-Semitism from the people of Venezuela. But as a result of friendly relations between our government and that of Iran, there is an anti-Israel policy. As a result, the media (which is 60% government-owned) is instilling hatred for Israel, and little by little anti-Semitism starts to be noted in a people who are not at all anti-Semitic historically.

This is a very welcoming country historically but it is turning against foreigners—and now they see us as foreigners. Even though I was born here in Venezuela, because I’m Jewish, it seems I’m not considered Venezuelan anymore.

Is this leading to a more tight-knit Jewish community?

The anti-Semitism is not so strong as to elicit a reaction from the community but the general insecurity is having an impact. Now people come to our institutions a lot more frequently. You can see more people attending synagogue, Hebraica, community events, Jewish camps, youth movements, and Jewish activities.

It’s an opportunity for us because people are participating more than ever. We have more work than ever.

So you’re one of the few communities that is not challenged to bring in the young generation?

Exactly. We have a very good school that 80% of the kids in the community attend, and this is where our work with young people starts. It continues from there, though the level of participation is also influenced by the security situation. When everything is OK the young people go out; when they are afraid they come to the institutions more.

But you mentioned that young people are among the biggest groups leaving. Can you say a little more about the people who are departing and those who are staying behind?

The people leaving are those who have the means. Some people keep their businesses but the community cannot continue to rely on their donations any more.

Most people go to the US and Panama; the youngest primarily go to study in Israel. Those who remain fall between the ages of 30 and 65 (70% of our community); more than 40% are over the age of 45.

We are mostly middle class Jews—some 10% are wealthy and some 20% are poor (needing assistance with food, medicine, education, and housing). But now the middle class is shrinking. More and more people need help paying for schooling, attending the JCC, etc. We help them with different services but they need more and more assistance. We have started an emergency fund, but we need to keep it growing.

Why do you think people stay?

Some people have jobs or businesses they cannot close or leave; others have aging family members they cannot take with them if they were to leave.

The situation in the world is also not as appealing to immigrants as it once was. Starting all over and getting jobs or starting businesses in new countries looks really difficult now. US and Europe seem difficult. Israel has the additional challenge of language and the society is totally different.

Many people just don’t have the means to leave. This is why, in a lot of cases, it is the young people that leave their families and emigrate.  

What would you like the larger Jewish community to know about Jewish life and your community in Venezuela?

This is a very well organized community that we cherish very much. We want to continue Jewish life here, but maintaining a community requires a spectrum of ages and a minimum of everything that is becoming more challenging to maintain as the situation keeps worsening. I invite people to come here and visit us and see our beautiful community firsthand.

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