Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad(Getty)
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Venezuela and Its Fleeing Jewish Population

What elections mean for the remnants of the Jewish community

Adam Chandler
October 03, 2012
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad(Getty)

In a stunning piece written earlier this year, our own Matthew Fishbane chronicled the plight of Venezuela’s Jews, half of whom have fled the country to avoid persecution by President Hugo Chávez.

Against the feeling of external threat, the Jewish community of Caracas has constructed an archipelago of these heavily protected spaces where life as they know it can go on. Fifteen minutes west of the club by car is the original and main island: the grounds of the Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela, known as CAIV, the umbrella organization of the many institutions of contemporary Jewish life in Venezuela. Unlike el club, which is the hub of the residential area where most Jews now live, the CAIV houses mostly administrative groups in a neighborhood that an earlier generation left behind. Fueled by Chávez’s impetuousness, the CAIV’s compound of social halls, a synagogue, and offices in leafy San Bernardino has taken on the air of a besieged bunker, the last fort being held before sounding the general retreat. Twenty-foot metal-spiked walls surround the grounds, and armed guards buzz visitors through bullet-proof glass and a metal detector. Inside, the president and officers seem to cling ever more tenuously to the idea that the community can outflank the profound social and political changes being wrought by Venezuela’s dictatorial president; that they can hunker down and eventually rebuild, or somehow stanch the flow of younger Venezuelan Jews leaving to find more promising economic and social conditions.

I went to the CAIV one day to meet Trudy Spira, a vigorous 79-year-old Holocaust survivor. Spira was there to attend an 80th birthday party for Pynchas Brenner, a long-serving Polish-born, Lima-raised rabbi. We sat in the CAIV president’s windowless office, and on the wall behind her were twin portraits of the liberators Simón Bolívar and David Ben-Gurion. Spira had spent some time on her looks that morning, with her gray hair in a salon coif accented by simple pearl jewelry. Later that day, she said, her twin grandchildren would be graduating from the Jewish community’s private high school, housed in the Hebraica club, to go to university in Caracas and confront a future in which—according to their grandmother’s mitteleurop-edged but still sing-song English, one of a half-dozen languages she spoke—they would have to “play it by the ear.”

With Venezuelan elections coming up this weekend, what’s at stake for the country as well as its remaining Jewish population is difficult to understate. Be sure to read Fishbane’s entire piece here and we’ll keep you posted as the news develops.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.