MARBLEHEAD – For the past 20 years, Ali Freedman’s brother has been holding out hope that things will get better in his native Caracas, Venezuela. Unfortunately, that now seems less likely than ever.
Widespread corruption, economic mismanagement, and falling oil prices have resulted in one of the worst economic crises in the history of the Americas. Most of the population lives with extremely limited access to food, water, electricity, or medicine. According to a U.N. report, 94 percent of Venezuelans now live in poverty, and the average Venezuelan has lost 20 pounds since the crisis began five years ago. Violent crime has skyrocketed, and by some measures Venezuela has the highest rate of violent crime in the world.
Even though 3.4 million of his compatriots have fled the country, Freedman’s brother refuses to leave his home. “He is a physician and he would have to abandon everything he owns,” said Freedman, who believes that as long as her brother has access to food, water, and electricity, even in limited quantities, he will stay.
Freedman, meanwhile, hasn’t been back to her native Venezuela in 27 years, like the roughly 30,000 other Venezuelan Jews who have left the country since Hugo Chavez, a far-left, virulently anti-Israel authoritarian, came into office 20 years ago. Now, it is estimated that only 7,000 Jews remain.
Yet when Freedman was a child in the 1950s and ’60s, Venezuela was home to a large, prosperous Jewish community that consisted largely of European Jews who arrived after World War II, and Sephardic Jews from North Africa who arrived after the Six-Day War. “It was a thriving Jewish community; there may have been 40,000 Jewish people there,” said Freedman. “They had a wonderful Jewish day school where 99 percent of the Jewish kids attended, lots of synagogues, JCCs.” Unlike today, anti-Semitism was not a serious concern.
Freedman’s uncle left Romania for Venezuela in the 1920s looking for adventure, not entirely sure where he was going, and found a job in the tobacco industry. In 1948, Freedman’s uncle brought over relatives that had made it through the war alive. Her father, already in his ’40s, managed to establish himself as a prominent physician and influential member of the community. “Her father was the physician to the Jewish community,” said Freedman’s husband George, a retired psychiatrist and long-time Jewish Journal cartoonist in Marblehead. “Everybody knew her dad – he was a physician, he was a writer, he was in regular communication with rabbis and [famed Yiddish writer] Isaac Bashevis Singer.”
Despite a comfortable childhood free of anti-Semitism, Freedman was anxious to leave Venezuela. Her brother married George Freedman’s cousin while working at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, and Freedman met her future husband when he came down to Venezuela to visit his cousin. They were married within six months, and she and George settled in Marblehead, where they attended Temple Sinai in Marblehead, and sent their three children to the Epstein Hillel School, where Freedman worked in the office.
For many years in Marblehead, Freedman organized a group of Spanish-speaking Jewish women to meet each week in Vinnin Square for Spanish conversation. When things were still relatively calm, Freedman and her family went down to Venezuela for winter break each year. “It’s a beautiful place,” said George. “Caracas is in a valley, so the air is refreshing, tropical – the typical temperature is in the 70s, and there are mountains all around.”
But there was trouble in paradise, to put it mildly. Hugo Chavez formally severed relations with Israel in 2009, and broadcast on national TV that the “genocide state of Israel” was financing his opposition, and then said, “I want to condemn from the bottom of my soul, from the bottom of my guts: damn you State of Israel! Damn you, terrorists and assassins!”
Meanwhile, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah has established a substantial presence in the country. Throughout the presidencies of Chavez and Maduro, anti-Semitic vandalism and violence have increased exponentially. Then the national economy contracted by 20 percent and inflation reached 1.35 million percent.
Venezuelan Jews have fled to Israel (which is far more complicated than it used to be, given that Venezuela and Israel no longer have any diplomatic relations), Florida, New York, and other Latin American countries such as Panama, Peru, and Chile. Organizations like the Jewish Agency, the World Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Congress have all helped remaining Jews leave the country.
Yet Freedman, like her brother, is not completely pessimistic about the future of her country and her community. “The hope is the population,” she said. “They must keep on marching.”