Moshen didn’t look like a rabbi, or at least not what I expected a rabbi to be.
No kippa, no large beard, but rather a modern outfit with colorful sneakers and a loud, happy voice that greeted me in the arrival hall of the modest Cúcuta airport.
Cúcuta is a small town just on the border between Colombia and Venezuela and I’d come to enter the latter, using one of the world’s most dangerous border crossings. It wasn’t my first choice, or even my second, but after having been deported from Venezuela around Pesach time just a few weeks earlier, I found myself running out of ways to get back into the country and finish the journalistic work I started almost five months earlier, when this broken nation looked like it might finally begin to mend itself.
In order to get to Caracas, the final destination of this five-leg journey, I have to cross the Simón Bolívar Bridge by foot, along with hundreds of people, most headed in the opposite direction. The walk across the bridge is something I have to do alone, but getting to that point is a team effort, and that is where Moshen comes in.
Moshen is not the rabbi’s real name but one he uses to protect his identity while doing this dangerous and illegal work. Now in his early 50s, the rabbi was born in a small town outside of Medellin. Three years ago when the immigration crisis erupted, he moved his entire family to Cúcuta in order to serve a larger community and a greater cause. My introduction to Moshen came through another rabbi friend of mine who, when he heard I was about to reenter Venezuela after being deported, sent me a picture and a number over WhatsApp. Rabbi Moshen works on the Colombian side of the border, delivering humanitarian aid to the thousands of Venezuelan refugees crossing every week and now he was helping me to cross to the other side. Four million people, more than 10% of the Venezuelan population, have fled the country already and more move across the borders to Colombia and Brazil every day, risking everything to go anywhere else because they have nothing where they are. Among those are almost 25,000 Venezuelan Jews who have found new and for the most part temporary homes in every corner of the world. From his base in Colombia, Rabbi Moshen functions as a hub of information, the maker of connections and deliverer of aid in the form of food, medicine and blankets for Jews and non-Jews alike. Moshen has done this for the past six years and in this time he has built a vast network, connecting Venezuelan Jews across the world.
Even though we don’t know each other, seeing Moshen is a huge relief and the small and boisterous man conveys a promise of security that I’ve learned to do without for the past few months. Perhaps it is as simple as us being family, several times removed, or that we can stand in hostile territory and speak a private language that has kept our people connected and safe through millennia. Whatever it is, it works, and I exhale in his presence, getting in his car without so much as a second thought.
Moshen’s role in this absurd saga is to escort me to the bridge, using the channels and routes he normally uses for the human aid deliveries. Had I gone alone I most likely wouldn’t even make it halfway, given my obvious outsider appearance and the fact that the road to the bridge is plagued with violence and criminality.
It’s only a 20-minute drive but Moshen and I manage to get to know each other, jumping right into the intimacy of old friends or long lost family. We get each other, that seems clear right away, because we both feel drawn to places where most others wouldn’t go and we both think that our Jewishness plays a role in that curious obsession. For Moshen, helping the strangers at the border who are wanderers escaping oppression means he is living the lesson of remembrance and solidarity that our people were taught in Egypt and he tells me that each person he helps and gives aid to brings him closer to his own people, and to God. He explains:
I’m not Orthodox like you know Orthodox rabbis. I’m a Sephardi man with a semicha who is trying to do his best to help. The titles and fancy connotations don’t really matter to me, because when you work in a place like this—with no rules at all—you learn pretty quickly that results matter much more than ceremony.
Once we turn off the main road and hit the gravel leading up to the bridge, I get exactly what he is saying. It’s a tent city: row after row of makeshift shelters, people spread out on the small grass patches in between the broken pavement, some just disheartened and others almost lifeless. Children, some of them tiny toddlers, are running after cars, begging for money and food, while the unforgiving sun is burning their exposed skin. It is absolute chaos, but Moshen remains perfectly calm. Every once in a while he slows down the car to hand out water and biscuits and when he rolls down the window, the children call for him by name. He is known here, and it both warms my heart and breaks it; it means Moshen does God’s work in these desperate quarters but also that these children have been here long enough to know his name.
Some of the people here will move on, to the U.S., Europe or maybe a relative that managed to build a home here in Colombia, but many have nowhere to go. A bus ticket from Caracas to San Antonio del Táchira, the border town on the Venezuelan side, costs a fortune for a Venezuelan living off $6 per month. For a family of four it often means selling everything just to get across the border and then making it no farther, getting stuck in this hellish no man’s land indefinitely. A glance at these homemade tents, set up along one of the most dangerous roads in the region, tells you everything you need to know about the desperation of the migrants for whom they are home. The squalor is better than what they came from, this hell they don’t know is freedom compared to the country they left.
I would like to pray with you, is that OK? I can’t come with you but I want to help prepare the way.
Rabbi Moshen and I are sitting in his car, just below the Simón Bolívar Bridge, and my legs are visibly shaking while we say the travelers prayer. We had met only an hour or two ago and now I felt like I was putting my life in his hands. Tears flood my eyes as I carefully pronounce the words; I feel embarrassed for the burst of emotion in this place where they are better kept contained, but Moshen grabs my hand and squeezes it gently. We wait for the right time, and when a large group of school children flood the bridge Moshen tells me I should hurry and join them.
If you get caught they’re less likely to hurt you if there are children around. Go, now, I’ll be here watching over you.
It is scorching hot on the long, straight road dividing Colombia from Venezuela, and I am desperately trying to look inconspicuous as I reenter the country that deported me just two weeks ago. At this point, I have been traveling for 24 hours straight; Stockholm, Munich, Bogota, Cúcuta, and now, finally, I am standing in no man’s land, praying I will make it all the way. The risk of being turned away is only part of it. This area is run by three entities: Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), the SEBIN intelligence, and the colectivo paramilitary groups. And from the moment you step over the line from Cúcuta to San Antonio del Táchira, you potentially relinquish your future to any one of the three.
It is the longest walk of my life, yet it takes no more than seven minutes. It is incredibly crowded and every other step my little blue cabin bag gets caught in someone’s bag or brushes against the leg of a hurrying stranger and I hold onto it so tightly that I can feel my rings dig into the skin of my hand—a welcome snapback from my overwhelming anxiety. I can hardly breathe as I’m waiting to feel a hand on my shoulder grabbing me toward unknown horrors, but when I finally look up I realize I have entered Venezuela without even noticing. I look back for the first time, almost expecting to be turned into a pillar of salt, and in the distance I see Moshen, waving his red and white baseball cap in my direction. I’m too scared to wave back but I smile and nod, knowing he can’t see me.
Once I get to the secondary car, waiting for me a few blocks away, I text Moshen to let him know that I made it and he texts me back, “Baruch Hashem.” I still have 14 hours left until Caracas, 14 hours along one of the world’s most dangerous roads. I text Moshen back, “Baruch Hashem.”
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Annika Hernroth Rothstein is a Swedish journalist and author who has been reporting from Venezuela for the past 2 months. Her first book, Exile, Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, will be published by Bombardier Books in January 2020.