More than 700 Venezuelan Jews attended the country’s first ever Limmud in Caracas last Sunday.
The one-day celebration of Jewish learning and culture was inspired by similar gatherings in fellow Latin American countries, including Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.
Organisers said turnout — at around one-tenth of the country’s Jews — was twice as high as they had been expecting, which they said highlighted the positive role played by the country’s dwindling Jewish community.
The event included a performance by Laureano Marquez, the Venezuelan comedian.
Over two thirds of Venezuela’s Jewish population have left the country since 1999, when Hugo Chavez came to power. Of a community of approximately 22,000 just before the millennium, there are now fewer than 7,000 left.
The country has an overall population of 29 million.
Under the rule of the late President Chavez, Venezuela was widely recognised as the most antisemitic country in South America. Synagogues and Jewish cultural centres were stormed by armed militias, who desecrated the premises. A friend of Iran and vehement supporter of the Palestinian cause, President Chavez made inflammatory comments about Jews.
Once the richest country in Latin America due to its extensive oil reserves, Venezuela has been brought to the brink of bankruptcy by its current leadership. The bolivar has lost 99.97 per cent of its value against the dollar in five years and much of the population is living in desperate poverty.
Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, has also been accused of antisemitism and being a vocal critic of Israel. A large proportion of those Jewish citizens who have left the country have emigrated to Israel, Miami and Spain, owing to the ongoing political, economic and personal security challenges.
Nevertheless, Limmud organisers said the community is now “more active than ever,” reflected in the high turnout for the event, which carried the tag-line: “explore Judaism your way”.
Participants had the choice of more than 30 sessions on topics as diverse as Israel, tzedakah, Israeli film, cooking, art, Yiddish and more.
“Limmud adds new light and hope to our community,” said Anita Katz, a spokesperson for the organisers.
Founded in Britain in 1980, Limmud aims to enable participants to advance their Jewish journeys. Events now take place in more than 80 communities across 40 countries.
Eli Ovits, chief executive of the global Limmud network, said: “Limmud stands with the Jews and people of Venezuela – working together to strengthen Jewish leadership and create learning opportunities for all.”