Wednesday, March 11, 2009
As our plane lands in Caracas I think about why we’ve come. Our objective is to express solidarity; to learn facts on the ground; and to speak with community leaders, rabbis, and clergy of other faiths with the goal of helping to map out future policy.
I’m traveling with Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C.; Adam Scheier, senior rabbi of Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal; and Gabe Ledeen, a former U.S. Marine who did two tours of duty in Iraq.
On the ride from the airport to the home of our hosts, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Pynchas Brener and his wife, Henny, we saw abject poverty reflected both in the appalling shantytown neighborhoods and in the people. At one traffic light on the edge of Caracas we were approached by a middle-aged man begging as he held onto an infant. Rabbi Brener later told us beggars often pay parents for the right to carry their children in order to attract more sympathy.
What stood out throughout the trip were the ubiquitous fences and walls in Caracas. Everywhere there were fences and walls. Caracas today is a city of crime. Fences and walls serve to protect those inside.
This is especially true of the Jewish community. Jews not only fear the petty criminal, but being subjected to abuse because they are Jewish and identify with Israel. Today, the Jewish community is a target of a vicious campaign instigated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who compared Israel’s entry into Gaza to Nazi aggression.
In fact, on the cover of the most recent edition of PDVSA, the monthly magazine of the Venezuelan state oil company, there is a picture of a concentration camp with a watchtower and barbed wire. Flying over the camp is an Israeli flag. The caption emblazoned across the picture reads “NUEVA ADMINISTRACION” (“under new management”).
Our first stop is Congregation Tiferet Yisrael, the largest Sephardi synagogue, which was defiled on January 31. It was a raid carefully orchestrated by nineteen assailants, a kind of commando attack. For me, it points to deep complicity on the part of the government. It’s not only that Chavez’s anti-Semitic rhetoric created a climate that inspired these attacks, it was much more. I believe this was virtually state-sponsored terror.
The synagogue is surrounded by high walls. Vans and trucks with countless police are now stationed outside. But I wondered whether the police were the protectors or part of the problem, since several of the nineteen assailants were police officers.
In the lobby of the synagogue we saw photos of the desecration. Silver from the Torah thrown on the floor; Jewish books ripped apart. On the walls were scrawled anti-Semitic slogans – “fuera, muerte a todos” and “Israel malditos, muerte” – “get out, death to you all” and “damned Jews, death to you.”
Next was the Beit Shmuel Synagogue. Surrounded by the same high walls as Tiferet Yisrael, this synagogue was attacked on February 26 when a grenade was hurled over its outer wall. Pockmarks from the fragments thrown off from the explosion were clearly visible inside.
The kollel that meets at Beit Shmuel is Agudah type. After Mincha we broke out in the song “Venahafoch Hu,” which talks of the power of Am Yisrael to overcome and ultimately to bring light to ourselves and to others.
But the moment for me that was the most touching was when we moved from the inside of the small synagogue to the outside yard. I wondered whether the kollelniks would take the risk and come out. They did. We danced with great intensity, exchanging words of greetings and solidarity.
We embraced the students and spoke with the head of the kollel, a young rabbi who had studied in Ner Yisrael in Baltimore. He described how in the middle of the night he heard the blast, and how his little children awoke, frightened, and began to cry. He continues to lead his community in Venezuela with great courage, but wonders how long he’ll be able to stay.
After dinner we met with the Venezuelan equivalent of the Presidents Conference, CAIV, the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela. Our agenda was simple: To have an open discussion on tactics and to share our position that public protest outside of Venezuela, as well as congressional hearings, would serve to protect Venezuelan Jewry. These tactics are the subject of great debate in the United States, with defense agencies claiming the leadership in Venezuela opposes such a public posture.
Some U.S. defense agencies feel congressional hearings could result in a backlash against Venezuelan Jewry. So powerful is this position that it has been adopted by my own congressman, Rep. Eliot Engel, whom I consider not only a dear friend but the strongest supporter of Israel in Congress today. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Rep. Engel is in a position to call for these hearings, but has decided not to do so because Venezuelan Jewry opposes it.
That’s not what we heard. What we heard were voices that said while we can’t demonstrate here, you must help us by raising your voices loud and clear in the U.S. The consensus ran along these lines – we must do what we must do, and you must do what you must do.
As far as congressional hearings are concerned, virtually everyone here believes Chavez is especially vulnerable to criticism. Chavez may not care about the United States, one of the leaders argued, but he wants to be seen as the savior of the world; he’d be very sensitive to accusations he is violating fundamental human rights.
Here I saw and heard how well-meaning people in the American Jewish establishment had misrepresented the views of Venezuelan Jews. The position that Venezuelan Jews oppose congressional hearings is simply false. We closed the meeting holding hands around the table as we sang “Am Yisrael Chai.”
In fact, the Venezuelan community has conducted itself during these difficult times in the spirit of “the people of Israel live.” When Chavez demanded the Jewish community condemn Israel for the Gaza war, it adamantly refused.
“We are Zionists,” the leadership of CAIV proclaimed, “we stand and will always stand with Israel.”
The long day was finally over. I was overwhelmed by two feelings. This is a community under siege, living in deep fear, but in the same breath, it is also a community exhibiting great courage.
Fear is everywhere. I saw it in the eyes of young people, yeshiva students and leadership. All they want is a fundamental freedom: the freedom from fear.
And yet there was courage, too, starting from the top – from Rabbi Brener himself. Here was a community that told President Chavez, we will not be bullied into casting Israel off. Israel is part of our destiny, and being Jewish is part of our very essence.
* * * * *
Thursday, March 12
As we davened this morning at the Ma’or Hatorah school, and then offered some words of support, letting the students know that they are not alone, I began to realize that Venezuelan Jewry was not some kind of “hole in the wall” community to be pitied. The synagogues we visited are large, reaching thousands of people, and the Ma’or Hatorah school reaches about one hundred haredi families.
Rabbi Brener arranged for us to see Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino at his home in Alta Florida. The cardinal is also the archbishop of Caracas. He greeted us warmly, but as soon as we sat down, he excused himself, explaining that he was carrying his cell phone. Fearing our conversation would be overheard through it, he went to place the phone in another room.
The cardinal told us that a year ago a grenade was thrown at the residence of the Papal Nuncio. He also told us that Chavez had personally attacked him in the most vile way in the media. And he told us that immediately after the synagogue attacks, he had reached out to Rabbi Brener and the Jewish community to express his solidarity.
I expressed appreciation to the cardinal for all he did. Putting forth the idea that an attack against any house of worship is an attack against every house of worship, I asked the cardinal to consider taking the defense of the Jewish community to another level. Specifically, that he call for a special Sunday to be set aside on which every church in Venezuela would speak out on behalf of the Jewish community. Moreover, I suggested the cardinal reach out to the pope himself, asking that he raise a voice for Venezuelan Jewry.
God has a peculiar sense of humor. For years I had been a great critic of the church, ranging from Pope John Paul’s embrace of Kurt Waldheim to the presence of a convent at Auschwitz. But here I sat with my colleagues opposite Cardinal Urosa in the spirit of brotherhood.
As I told the cardinal, we may be of distinct religions with distinct beliefs, yet we have faith as a common denominator; the commitment to speak from a particularly spiritual bent. No tyrant, no dictator can stifle voices of moral conscience if we would but have the courage to speak truth to power. I parted from the cardinal – an avid baseball fan – by embracing him and asking him to step up to the plate.
Our last stop was the magnificent Hebraica/Community School. The entire complex is surrounded by high walls.
Hebraica is the equivalent of an American JCC or Y, the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. Only Jews can be members. Seventy-five percent of the community is affiliated with Hebraica. Across the road within the same complex is the Community School. The school attracts students of all backgrounds.
We first met with the lay-head of Hebraica. His account of what’s been happening at Hebraica was heartbreaking and frightening. A few years after Chavez came to power, a government policy of intimidation against the Jewish community began. In November 2004, government anti-terrorist agents came into the school precisely when the students were arriving. These security agents were ostensibly looking for arms hidden in the school. Of course, none were found.
The leadership of the school had come running, concerned that the government agents would plant explosives and then place blame on the Jews. They therefore attempted to follow the agents throughout the search. The day chosen for that raid coincided with Chavez’s visit to Iran. As the lay-head of Hebraica pointed out, it was as if Chavez was giving a gift to Ahmadinejad, telling him, in effect, I agree with you and your position on Israel, and on Jews – to wit, look what we’re doing in Caracas.
The lay-head told us that government agents again invaded Hebraica in December 2007. This time, as the agents left, one turned to this lay leader and said, “Be careful, next time we’ll be sure to find something.”
Pulling out the card that identifies him as the head of Hebraica, he told me he’d brought the card for me to see. But his security had advised him not to carry it. “With kidnappings rampant,” he said, “if a kidnapper will see I’m Jewish, a leader in the community, he will demand more ransom and perhaps even kill me.”
At the communal school, the leadership told us enrollment in the past 10 years has dropped from 2,300 to 1,200 students. It’s part of a significant exodus of thousands of Jews – to Israel, yes, but mostly to Miami.
The school’s leaders explained to us that Jewish students don’t walk to school or ride on buses. Instead, they are taken everywhere by their parents – shuttled by private car from home to school to friends and back.
In my talk to the older students, I shared with them the emotions of rallies held on their behalf in New York. With Rabbi Brener as translator, I shared the term hadar Yisrael – Jewish pride.
Precisely when Chavez and others in the world would have Jews walk around bent over, weak, embarrassed to be Jewish, is the time to walk tall with hadar, with Jewish pride.
The time had come to leave. I turned to Rabbi Brener, who reminds me in certain ways of my father (I can offer no greater compliment) and asked him for a blessing. He placed his hands on my head and offered one. We embraced and parted.
On the way to the airport, my mind wandered as the faces of Venezuelan Jews, my brothers and sisters, leaders and students, older and younger, flashed before me. Each was no longer a number, but a person we had come to know.
I thought of the fear they live with and I thought of their courage. And finally I thought of our responsibility. The thirty hours we spent in Venezuela gave me a glimpse of what it is to live in a dictatorship led by a bully. Our imperative is to speak out for our brethren.
Not only is Chavez a threat to Jews, but with Hizbullah and Hamas pouring into Venezuela to help secure the country, Venezuela could (God forbid) become, as one Venezuelan Jewish leader told me, a springboard for the next 9/11 attack against the United States.
Yes, we have a responsibility to speak out loudly and clearly in front of Venezuelan embassies and consulates throughout the world, and in the halls of Congress. We have a responsibility to insist on congressional hearings and to insist that Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama speak out for Venezuelan Jewry forthrightly and clearly. We have a responsibility to send a simple message to Chavez: We hold you accountable, and the voice of moral conscience will follow you everywhere.
As our plane took off, I thought of what was for me the most powerful moment of our trip. It took place as we were looking out at the large athletic fields of the Hebraica JCC. There in the distance flew the Venezuelan flag, and aside it, the Israeli flag.
“They’ve tried to split us from Israel,” the head of Hebraica told us, “but never, never will we give in to that demand. That flag will remain flying there forever.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss is national president of AMCHA – the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. His Torah column, “Shabbat Forshpeis,” appears weekly in The Jewish Press.