Venezuelan rabbi: Jewish community coping with crisis

“So many have also lost everything.”

May 3, 2019 00:24
4 minute read.
Venezuelan Rabbi David Chocron

Venezuelan Rabbi David Chocron . (photo credit: Courtesy)

As oil-rich Venezuela’s political and economic meltdown continues, and the opposition to the country’s socialist dictatorship increases its efforts to oust the regime, Rabbi David Chocron – who heads a synagogue and Jewish school in the capital Caracas – has said that the Jewish community is stable and continues to function despite the many difficulties.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post by phone from Caracas, Chocron said that the Jewish community has nevertheless been hit hard by Venezuela’s economic collapse and the country’s hyperinflation, which has hit the absurd figure of more than one million percent annually.

“The situation has declined very badly politically and economically,” said Chocron, who heads the Or Torah Synagogue and is the principal of the Talmud Torah Sinai School.

“This applies to all citizens of Venezuela, not just the Jews. It has come to every house and every person. There is constantly a feeling that things are coming to an end, and then it turns out that it’s just the beginning of another descent.”

The rabbi said that, like many other citizens, many Jews have lost their businesses and life savings, and noted that there is a significant percentage of people in the Jewish community needing financial assistance to buy food.

“Businesses have collapsed. Many stores have shut. It’s like an epidemic and epidemics don’t distinguish between Jews and non-Jews,” said the rabbi.

“So many Jews have also lost everything.”

He added however that the Jewish community and its institutions continue to operate despite the crisis, that all the schools and synagogues remain open, and that through its various institutions the community has been able to provide the necessary funds to ensure that its members have food.

Many Venezuelans are struggling to afford food and medicine because of the economic crisis in the country. More than three million economic refugees have fled to Spanish-speaking countries including Panama, Mexico and  Colombia. The country’s population, which numbered 32 million in 2017, continues to contract. Along with Latin American refugees, some Jews have also moved to the United States, particularly Miami. Others have settled in Israel, although the up-to-date  numbers are unavailable.

In January 2018, the Latin American Jewish Congress estimated that the Jewish community had shrunk to 7,300 people from 22,000 when President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999.

Chocron said he believed the number is smaller today, and noted there are now fewer than 1,500 children in the country’s Jewish schools.

For those that remain however, Chocron said that the Jewish community’s sense of economic insecurity was little different from that of the general population.

Chocron said that the Venezuelan government is demonstrably hostile to Israel and that anti-Zionist sentiment was felt in the media. Nevertheless, antisemitism is not an issue, he emphasized. Venezuela’s Jews feel safe walking in public wearing a kippa, he said, adding the same cannot be said for Jews in many European cities.

“In Paris, Jews feel afraid to be Jewish. But here in Venezuela we do not feel afraid to be Jewish,” said the rabbi.
“I go to synagogue in Jewish dress without fear, and we have everything we need to fulfil the holy Torah without a problem.”

During Passover, he said, the community distributed matzah, kosher wine and kosher for Passover food to those in need.

But Venezuela’s prolonged instability is corroding its Jewish community, he said.

“This is a dangerous country, one of the most dangerous in the world. There is a lack of information, a lack of communication. People are afraid to go out at night, and even during the day no one just goes out for a stroll,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say we are living in fear, but we are living with great caution,” said Chocron.

“You can’t live in fear. That is not life. But we are very cautious. We don’t go out unnecessarily. When you go somewhere you do so quickly, do what you went there for and return quickly.”

While weddings and bar mitzvas are continuing, and Jews continue to hosted one another, such celebrations are done with caution, the rabbi said.

Venezuela’s remaining Jews are deeply worried for their future, and very much hope that the stability and the prosperity the once petroleum-rich enjoyed in the 2000s will return, he said.

But Chocron insisted the Jewish community in Venezuela is still viable, that its institutions are solid, and that strong communal bonds amongst the country’s Jews have helped them through its current difficulties.

“It is a very special community. We have strong faith and hope that things will change for the good. We have stayed in Venezuela with this hope. We are doing a lot and sacrificing a lot so that the community can continue.

“We know that God guides the world and that we will continue here in the hope that everything will improve.”

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