The affluent immigrants

Professional and educated, a new wave of South American Jews are settling comfortably in Miami. But their reality is flight from a dangerous situation.

A MURAL in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MURAL in the Miami neighborhood of Little Havana
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Most emigrations are tragic. Ask the Jewish people.
Yet the ongoing Jewish departure from Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico remains a silent, steady emigration that doesn’t grab headlines. Indeed, it’s almost as if these South American Jews – in terms of adjustment, integration and language – are just changing neighborhoods, rather than countries.
“An immigrant, when he has to leave, wants to go where it’s comfortable,” points out Alex Solomiany, a Miami immigration lawyer and native of Puerto Rico. For Latin American Jewish émigrés, the destination is Miami, Florida, “the capital of Latin America,” only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Caracas, Venezuela.
“Miami, to newcomers,” stresses Deborah Hamui, a native of Mexico, “is paradise, the perfect place to be, especially in the last few years when there has been an entertainment, art and cultural renaissance.”
Business-wise, Miami serves as the headquarters of Latin American operations for more than 1,400 multinational corporations, including Cisco, Disney, Exxon, Microsoft, Yahoo, Oracle and Visa International.
Two-thirds of Miami’s 5.5 million residents in its metro area are of Hispanic origin. About 123,000 Jews live in Miami- Dade County, of which one-third are foreign-born and half of those are from Latin America, the fastest-growing ethnic group within the Jewish community.
Nearly everyone, including businesspeople, bankers and workers, speaks Spanish. In the areas of architecture, entertainment, food and sports, a Latin atmosphere pervades this city on beckoning, blue Biscayne Bay.
Moreover, on arrival, the Jewish newcomers find a large Latin American Jewish population, including Cuban and Argentinean Jews, already there and quite well-adjusted, who welcome their brothers and sisters from South America.
In talking to Jews from the continent – mostly residents of municipalities such as North Miami Beach, Aventura and Sky Lake – it is clear that not only did they find friends and relatives from their own country there, but they discover other Jews who they met back home at Pan-American Maccabi Games and B’nai B’rith gatherings.
In addition, not only is the warm weather similar to Caracas or Bogota, Colombia, but new immigrants don’t even have to learn a new language.
“You don’t have to speak English to get around or start a livelihood,” says Bernard of Colombia, who asks that I not use his last name.
Solomiany further explains that for many years before moving, South American Jews vacationed in Miami; of those, a large percentage had second homes there. “They already had a place to live,” notes Tania Seidl of Colombia and Venezuela, a producer of Spanish-language children’s TV programs.
Besides, long before they emigrated to the US, most sent their children to American universities. Actually, a large number of those who studied there became professionals and stayed in the US, while others married American citizens; for those who returned to Venezuela after graduation, Miami would never be a stranger to them.
The Florida city has another advantage for Venezuelan Jews: proximity to their former homeland. Many of the newcomers still maintain businesses and visit relatives there; they hold onto their businesses as long as possible. But even that may end soon, as the situation in Venezuela deteriorates – especially since the country’s main source of revenue derives from its vast oil resources and the price of oil has been savaged recently, leading to a deepening recession and riots.
Still, a member of the Sky Lake Synagogue who asked that I not use his name due to business interests, flying back and forth to Caracas every few weeks, lamented the fact that more than half of Venezuela’s Jewish community has relocated – the bulk of them to Miami, though a number went to Panama, Costa Rica and Israel.
“A REAL change occurred in Venezuela, and it was time to get out,” explains Jack Bandel, an MD and former president of Sky Lake Synagogue. “The government became very left-wing; they took over the media and the situation became very bad,” recounts another member of the synagogue.
The initial uprooting of Venezuelan Jews was not caused by anti-Semitism; its root causes were political instability, economic and personal insecurity, nationalization of industry and economic stagnation. This emigration resembles the exodus of Cuban Jews in the early 1960s, when 90 percent of the Jews fled the island after Fidel Castro took over and announced he would nationalize businesses.
In Venezuela, where the Jewish community has dwindled from about 25,000 to 7,000, the exodus began with the rise to power of Hugo Chavez in 1999. Chavez, say the Venezuelan Jews, “hijacked the country”; his policy was to create a “21st-century socialism,” which continued until 2013 with his death, but is kept alive by his unpopular successor, Nicolás Maduro.
A major cause for Jewish departure was the “personal safety issue,” according to Ariel Bentata, chairman of the advisory board of the North Miami JCC, formerly of Venezuela. “They traded the luxurious life they had to feel they are safe, and that their kids are safe.”
Kidnapping was high on the list of dangers in all these countries, followed by the payment of ransom, as well as “express kidnapping” – meaning kidnappers take the victim to an ATM to immediately withdraw the money and hand it over, details Seidl. “There is no future for our kids in Venezuela,” she declares.
Rebecca Herman, a pediatric dentist, came with her husband, Harry. She remembers, “The security situation had so deteriorated, we couldn’t take it anymore.
We couldn’t even take our kids to the supermarket; incidents occurred every day.”
The Hermans agree that “they just don’t appreciate law and order” in Venezuela.
“People will kill for a pair of shoes.” Another “bad sign” that things were getting worse occurred when Chavez became friendly with the Arab world, breaking diplomatic relations with Israel and establishing ties with the Palestinian Authority in 2009.
“Eventually, I sold everything I had,” Harry recalls.
FOR COLOMBIAN Jews, the exodus is not so pronounced; in fact, it has slowed down.
Seidl says the country is stable and more secure than in the 1980s – when alongside economic difficulties, kidnappings occurred and narcotics and guerrilla warfare reigned. She did disclose that a number of young Jewish couples are going back to Colombia because it is more stable now, certainly more so than Venezuela; about 2,000 Jews remain in Colombia.
In Mexico, the scene of frequent drug wars, more Jews have recently opted to leave, especially from Monterey in the northern part of the country. Again, security is the problem, more specifically “kidnapping and robbery, you name it,” says Hamui. “Corruption also.”
A dozen years ago, there was a larger emigration and that group has integrated well, notes Hamui; the Mexican Jewish population stands at about 40,000.
Bernard from Colombia, who has been in the US for about 15 years, emphasizes that native-born American Jews are used to Latin Americans arriving there. “The Jewish community is growing,” he says, citing increased attendance in day schools in North Miami Beach, and more kosher restaurants and synagogues.
For instance, if you visit Sky Lake, a 140-family house of worship, you will discover a rejuvenated congregation composed of more than 90% Latin American Jews, most of them from Venezuela. Once the synagogue was “on the threshold of closing its doors,” says Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun, who 15 years ago at the age of 24, fresh out of Israel’s Beit Amiel Institute for training rabbis for the Diaspora, assumed a pulpit in Curacao; he came to Sky Lake several years ago. With the new immigration, the synagogue is expanding its building.
“We strive for a sense of kehilla [community], just as the Jews maintained in Latin America,” he told me. And that includes a congregation which is now very Zionist-oriented.
The Israel-born Yeshurun is “Ashkenazi by training and Sephardic by birth,” as he likes to put it. He speaks Spanish as well as Papiamento, the language of the Caribbean, and describes Venezuelan Jews as a “very close, tight-knit group.” This is part of the reason that in Venezuela, the local CAIV community-governing body was all-encompassing and united, with no friction between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
While for Jews the standard of living may have been higher in their native countries, including the employment of domestics, Bernard says the concept of domestic help was and still is a part of Latin American culture. The nanny helping out is now becoming popular with American Jews, he observes.
While there seems to be no problem with integration into the community, as Bernard states, and while Latin American Jews in Miami are active in their communities, they stick together.
Their social world revolves around their friends from South America and their families, says Yeshurun, adding: “Not so for the young children; they integrate very fast. They are very proficient in English, do not harbor an accent as do their parents and are accepted by their American Jewish-born peers.”
Hamui feels that very recent immigrants from Venezuela have not integrated as fast as earlier arrivals, simply because practically the entire community as it existed there is already in the area. Mexican and Colombian Jews, on the other hand, have integrated quickly because there were fewer of them.
MANY OF the new immigrants are engineers, physicians, journalists and professionals, points out Bandel. Nevertheless, “it’s still hard to get into the US from any country,” states lawyer Solomiany, who has represented clients from South American countries seeking political asylum.
There are different types of visas, he explains, including employment, family and even investment visas. One has to have someone in the US, either a family member or potential employer, send a petition for the person seeking to immigrate.
“As an immigrant, it’s still hard to make a living in the US,” asserts Seidl.
Others maintain that even if you know the language, you still have to possess business skills and know the market you are entering.
Bentata stresses that “integration has been very good among these immigrants into the US. The local community is happy to receive them; they reinvigorate the community. They are active in the synagogues, such as Sky Lake; they come to the JCC and participate in the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.”
Do the newcomers miss their former homes? “We all miss the lifestyle,” declares Bandel, summing up the South American Jewish experience. But he notes that “though some have difficulties economically, they still come here for the great opportunity to redo their lives.” 
Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti and Beyond (Globe Pequot Press); and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America (Pelican Publishing Company).
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