Of Note -- Jewish Communities in Distress, Jewish Values in Action

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Sat, Nov 25, 2006 at 15:02 pm

I have just recently returned from a trip with Jerry Teller, Allan Rodolitz, Marc Silberberg, and Mark Hetfield to Venezuela and Ecuador. The mission was packed with important meetings with Jewish community leaders, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials, NGO colleagues, and government officials. While we will present a full report on what we learned at the next meeting of the Board, I wanted to provide a few quick observations that I came away with on the compelling role that HIAS is playing in this region.

In Venezuela, we had the opportunity to see a vibrant Jewish community of 15,000 under siege from state sponsored and instigated antisemitism. The Jews of Venezuela have created a model community with a large school filled with enthusiastic students; vibrant political, cultural, recreational and religious institutions; and unified Ashkenazi/Sephardi structures. They are passionate Zionists and are fully engaged in the Jewish world.

Despite the vitality of the community, this is a community living in fear. In the months since the war between Israel and Hezbollah, the community has faced a massive flood of antisemitic propaganda from the government of President Hugo Chavez. Not only is this government an enemy of the United States and an active ally of Cuba, Iran, and Syria, but the propaganda machine has directly targeted local Jewish leaders, in some cases by name. While in some situations an argument can be made that there is a difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, this line has clearly been crossed by the Venezuelan authorities. With extensive poverty and instability in the country, the Jewish community looks towards the December 3rd presidential election with grave concern that -- notwithstanding the outcome (expected to be a Chavez victory) -- a spark could ignite serious violence against Venezuelan Jews.

At the request of the Venezuelan community’s leadership, HIAS has agreed to advise them on the legal and procedural issues they might face as they think through their options if conditions continue to worsen. At this point few want to leave Venezuela, and most retain at least a shred of hope that something will change for the better. Notwithstanding these hopes, all of the leaders and community members we met seemed to be contemplating a future outside of the country. Based on initial discussions it appears that many have all the necessary documents to travel temporarily or permanently to Israel, the United States or elsewhere. Others – particularly the poor – may be stranded if the worst-case scenario plays out. Even those in better financial and legal circumstances will need HIAS’ guidance to work through the difficult and painful decisions they will likely face in the months ahead. It was clear that, guided by the principle Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh b’ Zeh (all Jews are responsible one for the other), HIAS would be there for the community, and that they were not going to face their problems alone.

In Ecuador we found a Jewish community that faces a grave threat, not from the government, but from the demographic reality of being a community of just 250 families. HIAS has helped the community recruit a new Jewish school director from Uruguay, and will continue to advise the community as it tries to both encourage the immigration of new Jewish families and retain its current membership. Sadly this will be a tremendous uphill struggle. But again, HIAS will share our expertise and assist the community as it seeks to survive.

In contrast to the somewhat melancholy experience with the Jewish community of Ecuador, our delegation’s site visit to HIAS’ programs in Ecuador filled me with great pride. We often speak about our Tikkun Olam agenda, but in Ecuador we saw these fundamental Jewish values in action. Under the skillful leadership of Enrique Burbinski, Ana Berezin and Sabrina Lustgarten, the HIAS team is helping the most traumatized victims of the brutal civil war in Colombia, and giving them hope that they may actually have a future. Whether it is through direct psychological counseling to provide the refugees with the strength needed to face memories of war, murder, and displacement; art therapy to help children come to terms with horrors that no person should have to face; literacy training to offer a new sense of self-worth and improved options for life; legal orientation to help the refugees integrate into Ecuadorian society; advice for those lucky enough to be chosen to emigrate to Argentina, Sweden or elsewhere; or even something as simple as being there as a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold in times of despair, HIAS’ staff touch lives on a daily basis.

Through our partnership with the UNHCR, the Ecuadorian government, local organizations and institutions such as the Catholic Church, and other international organizations like the Norwegian Refugee Council, HIAS is representing Judaism’s imperative to transform the world, welcome the stranger and the redeem the captive. We are fulfilling the injunction that to save one life is to save the entire world. Through this mitzvah work we are also demonstrating a passionate and compassionate example of Judaism’s universal values to the Colombian refugees, international organizations, Ecuadorian population and Ecuadorian government -- an important conclusion confirmed for us in a meeting with Daniel Saban, Israel’s Ambassador to Ecuador. One surprising additional outcome of our work in Ecuador is the enthusiasm for Jewish mitzvah work shown by our largely youthful, Ecuadorian and Catholic staff. These young people are certain to become important contributors to their country and region, and will go forward into positions of leadership having had a positive experience with Jews and Judaism.

On a mission where we had the chance to meet so many new friends and colleagues, we also had a chance to reunite with an old friend, John Fredriksson. John is a colleague of many years who worked with us in the DC-based refugee coalition, and met with the HIAS Board on several occasions during the DC Missions. John is currently serving as UNHCR Representative for Venezuela and Peru, based in Caracas. After completing our meetings with the Venezuelan Jewish community, we were fortunate to travel with John to Maricaibo and Machiques, Venezuela where we learned first hand about the difficult conditions faced by Colombian refugees who had fled to Venezuela. The stories were tragic and the needs were great. HIAS is examining if any workable opportunities exist to recreate HIAS Ecuador programs in the Venezuelan context.

Many thanks go to Enrique, Ana and Sabrina in Latin America and Mark, Eric, and Marisa in the U.S. for setting up such a successful mission, as well as to Jerry, Allan and Marc for their enthusiastic participation in this important HIAS event.

I look forward to discussing the mission in more detail at the upcoming meeting. As always, I welcome comments on this Of Note at HIAS, and suggestions for topics that you would like to see covered in future letters.


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