CARACAS, capital of
; population, 4,000,000; estimated Jewish population, 15,700 (2003).
There are few references to the arrival of Jews in Caracas during the colonial period, although the presence of some
was recorded in 1642. This capital was considered by Jews as an unattractive destination, due to fear of the long hand of the Inquisition and the prohibition against residence for those who did not profess the Catholic faith. After 1819, when the government of New Granada gave the Nación Hebrea (Jews of Iberian origin) the right to settle in the country, granting them religious liberty and proclaiming the abolition of the Inquisition, the first groups of Jews, Sephardim of Dutch origin, started to arrive and to settle in Caracas. The support given by these Jews to Simón Bolívar is well known. In 1827 Elías Mocatta, a prominent businessman of English nationality who had resided in Caracas since 1825, was appointed by the foreign colonies as their representative to welcome the Liberator in his visit to the city. Distinguished personalities during this period were Samuel Hoheb, who published Menasseh ben Israel's Esperanza de Israel, and Angel Jacobo Jesurun, who translated and published the Tratado de Moral y Religión of S. Cahen and Memorias de un Médico of A. Dumas.
A new wave of Sephardim coming from North Morocco commenced towards the end of the 19th century. Within a few decades they established the first of the Jewish commercial companies that later prospered and became pioneers in various industries. The Moroccan Jews founded the Sociedad Benéfica Israelita (1907), inaugurated the Jewish cemetery (1916), and gathered for prayers in private houses. Greatly devoted to religious tradition, the small group residing in Caracas founded in 1930 the Asociación Israelita de Venezuela (AIV), whose first objective was to build a synagogue. Since then, this institution has united, represented, and provided services to all the Sephardi community of Venezuela. In 1939, the AIV inagurated the El Conde synagogue, but the building had to be demolished in 1963 to make way for an avenue and was replaced by the present Great Sephardi Synagogue, Tiferet Israel.
In this period the following Jewish periodicals were founded in Caracas: Macabeo (1922), Israel (1933), Prensa Judía (1944), Paz (1946), and the weeklies El Mundo Israelita (1943) and Unión (1968).
In the second decade of the 20th century, under the dictatorship of General Juan Vicente Gómez and the Venezuelan oil boom, Sephardi Jews from Greece, Turkey, Palestine, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria arrived in Caracas, along with Jews from Yemen, Persia, Syria, and Lebanon. At the same time the first Ashkenazi Jews from Romania, Poland, and Austria settled in Caracas. In 1931, they founded the Sociedad Israelita Aschkenazit and later the Centro Social y Cultural Israel, which merged in 1950 to establish the Unión Israelita de Caracas (UIC), representing the majority of the Ashkenazi community. In 1961, the UIC laid the cornerstone of its synagogue and social center, acquiring its own cemetery. In 1984, a congregation of Lubavitch Chabad was established in Caracas; it came to possess an impressive synagogue. In more recent years small groups of people from the same communities of origin have founded their own synagogues, maintaining their affiliation with the two mother organizations, the Sephardi AIV and the Ashkenazi UIC.
During WWII, Venezuela did not have an open door policy towards the Jews who were able to escape from Europe. Nevertheless, the Law of Immigration and Colonization of 1936 provided a way, under certain conditions, for emigrants to enter the country. The country was moving towards democracy. A Jewish Committee for Refugees was established in Caracas, and thanks to its intercession, in 1939, the president of the republic, General Eleazar López Contreras, was able to bring to a happy conclusion the tragic voyage of the ship Koenigstein: its 165 Jewish passengers from Austria were permitted to disembark. In the 1940s, new groups of refugees from Eastern and Central Europe were admitted, and in 1946, the Comité Venezolano pro-Palestina was established under the slogan "Palestine belongs to the Jews and it has to be turned over to the Jews."
In the 1950s and 1960s, Venezuelan Jewry was strengthened by the arrival of relatives of those already established in the city, attracted by the prosperity and liberty characterizing the country, as well as by new immigrants leaving Arab countries after the creation of the State of Israel or emigrating from Central and Eastern Europe.
Sephardim and Ashkenazim, deeply identifying with the new State of Israel, began their own process of integration in social life as well in new family bonds. All the Jewish communities of Caracas were represented in the Confederación de Asociaciones Israelitas (CAIV). A fundamental role in this process of integration was played by the creation, in 1950, of the Moral y Luces Herzl-Bialik School by the Unión Israelita de Caracas. After 20 years of successful operation, the school moved to a modern building where over 1,500 children receive their primary and secondary Jewish and general education, and where Sephardim and Ashkenazim share economic, administrative, and academic responsibilities. At the same time, schools of religious orientation have been functioning since the 1970s. In addition to the Congregation of Chabad Lubavitch founded 1984, other small groups of Jews of the same origin later founded their own synagogues, which remain affiliated with the AIV and the UIC mother organizations.
With the consolidation of the social and economic position of the immigrant generation, their children, who were born in Venezuela, gradually began to replace the mercantile activities of their parents with employment in the liberal professions. Doctors, engineers, lawyers, and economists graduated from the universities and began to occupy prominent national positions. Thanks to their contribution to society, science, politics, finance, and the arts, the names of distinguished personalities of the community are common currency in the streets of Caracas. The Sofía Imber Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the most important museums in South America, advertises the name of its founder.
Numerous communal organizations conduct intensive activities in culture, sports, and social assistance. The B'nai B'rith, the Yolanda Katz Health Center, the Instituto Cultural Venezolano Israelí, the Instituto Superior de Estudios Judaicos, the Federación Sionista and its affiliated groups, the Hebraica Social, Cultural and Sports Center, the Centro de Estudios Sefardíes, and the Morris E. Curiel Museo Sefardí are but a few of the institutions that are prominent on the national as well as the community level. The weekly Nuevo Mundo Israelita and the quarterly Maguen are prestigious organs of information and of the cultural expression of the community.