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When the Venezuelan Jews landed at Ben Gurion, they first wanted to eat

    "Circumstances in present-day Venezuela are simply catastrophic" (JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

    Fleeing the chaos and hunger at home, 26 Venezuelan Jews have just arrived in Israel — and dozens more are hoping to follow by the end of the year.

    One of the new arrivals is Michal Levy, a mother-of-three who often found herself scared to leave the house. She said she made the move when she reached the conclusion that “there is no hope for improving conditions in Venezuela”.

    Arriving in Israel is less daunting for her than others, as she is originally Israeli — but she faced the same hardships in Venezuela as everyone else.

    In comments to the organisation that arranges aliyah from the South American country, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), she said: “Every now and then, there is an unpredicted shortage of bread, flour or another staple item. People are kidnapped in the streets for ransom on a regular basis. It’s dangerous to walk outside.”

    Some 100 Venezuelans have made aliyah since last June and a further 100 are expected by the end of this year, said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, head of the IFCJ. His organisation helps Jews move to Israel from various countries, but he said that only from Venezuela have people arrived at Ben Gurion Airport famished.

    When one group of immigrants landed, “the first thing they asked was to go to a restaurant in the airport, to McDonald’s,” he said. “It was heart-wrenching.”

    There are around 4,000 Jews left in Venezuela — though some estimates suggest a higher figure. “The elderly are going to ride this to its conclusion but for the younger ones, especially families, things have become so dire, including hunger and medical needs, that they come to this tipping point”, the rabbi said.

    For many, aliyah is seen as the answer.

    Rabbi Ecksteon said that the strongest elements of the community had already relocated — to the US. “Most of the wealthy ones left a while ago and live in Miami, and they have left the poor and the elderly. Some who left are still sending money to the community but for the most part the community cannot cope.”

    His organisation is helping to provide food, medicines and security patrols, as well as arranging aliyah.

    Emigrating from Venezuela is a complex business. Citizens have to go to a neighbouring state before they can even submit a request for an exit visa and authorities have the power to hold up such requests — though so far applications from Jewish emigres have been smooth. The logistics of travel are complicated, as transport systems are dangerous and many people try not to leave their homes after dark for fear of violence.

    Rabbi Eckstein said that Venezuelans who arrive in Israel receive financial and career support from his organisation. “Circumstances in present-day Venezuela are simply catastrophic,” he commented.

    “We help them immigrate to Israel and start fresh in a beautiful, new, and safe setting.”

     

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