Jews likely first settled in Venezuela in the 17th century. Today, the Jewish population of Venezuela is approximately 9,500.
- Earliest Jewish Presence
- 19th Century & Liberation
- 20th Century & Beyond
- Jewish Organizations
- Politics & Anti-Semitism
Earliest Jewish Presence
The history of Venezuelan
Jewry most likely began in the middle of
the 17th century, when some records suggest
that groups of marranos lived
in Caracas and Maracaibo. Although many scholars
say there is no evidence yet discovered to
prove that a Jewish community existed in
Venezuela as early as the 17th century, Venezuelan
popular belief claims that groups of marranos
went from Caracas to the city of Tucacas
in 1693, and vanished without leaving behind
any records. However, due to Venezuela's
geographic proximity to countries that
did have organized Jewish communities,
such as the Dutch colony of Curaçao,
it can be assumed that Jews from Curaçao
traveled to Venezuela to trade. After
the disappearance of Jews from Tucacas,
Jews did not begin to settle permanently
in Venezuela again until the middle of
the 19th century.
19th Century & Liberation
At the turn of the 19th
century, Venezuela and Columbia were fighting against their Spanish colonizers
in wars of independence. Simon Bolivar,
considered Venezuela's liberator, found
refuge and material support for his army
in the homes of Jews from Curaçao.
Jews such as Mordejai Ricardo and brothers
Ricardo and Abraham Meza offered hospitality
to Bolivar as he fought against the Spanish,
thus establishing brotherly relations between
Jews and the newly independent Venezuelan
republic. Several Jews even fought in the
ranks of Bolivar's army during the war. The
ties between Jews in the Dutch island colonies
and Venezuela increased more dramatically
between 1819-1821 after its new constitution
called for religious freedom. In 1820, the
first Jewish family settled in the town of
Core, which has a Jewish cemetery with tombstones
dating back to 1832. Other Jewish communities
began springing up in Caracas and Puerto
Cabello in the 1840s. In 1844, groups of
Jews from Morocco came to the town of Barcelona and, in 1875,
they were granted permission to establish
a Jewish cemetery.
In 1827, a group of Jews
emigrated from the tiny island of Curacao
to the nearby mainland port city of Coro,
Venezuela. Twenty-eight years later, violent
rioting drove the entire Jewish population –
168 individuals – back to Curacao.
at El Conde
Toward the end of the 19th
century, the Venezuelan Jewish community
was in dire need of a permanent place of
prayer. Assimilation proved to be a large
problem for the fledgling community. The
Portuguese Jewish immigrants who came to
Venezuela by way of Curaçao had a
loose-knit communal life, and religious
tolerance and acceptance of Jews was not
continuous throughout the country. These
three factors contributed to the growing
assimilation of the community and, by the
end of the 19th century, the Dutch portion
of Venezuelan Jewry had all but disappeared.
Small Jewish communities could be found
in towns such as Port Hair, Villa de Cura,
Carupano, Chico River, Maracaibo, and Barquisimeto.
It was not until the arrival of
North African and eastern European Jews in
the 1920s and 1930s, however, that the Jewish
community began to fully develop.
20th Century & Beyond
According to a national
census taken at the end of the 19th century,
247 Jews lived in Venezuela as citizens
in 1891. In 1907, the Israelite Beneficial
Society, which became the Israelite Society
of Venezuela in 1919, was created as an organization
to bring all the Jews who were scattered
through various cities and towns throughout
the country together. Jewish prayer and holiday
services took place in small houses in Caracas
and towns like Teques and Guaira. By 1917,
the number of Jewish citizens rose to 475,
and to 882 in 1926. Jewish immigration
from Eastern and Central Europe increased
after 1934, but, by then, Venezuela had imposed
specific restrictions on Jewish immigration,
which remained in effect until after the
By 1943, nearly 600 German Jews had entered
the country, with several hundred more
becoming citizens after World War
1950, the community had grown to around
6,000 people, even in the face of immigration
restrictions. With the fall of dictator
Perez Jimenez in 1958, more than 1,000
Jews immigrated to Venezuela from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Salonica, Turkey,
and even from Israel.
An unknown number of Jews also immigrated
from other Latin American countries,
which raised the size of the community
to more than 15,000 Jews by the 1970s.
Glass Window at Jabad Lubavitch
In the mid-1990s there were approximately 25,000 Jewish residents of Venezuela but today the number is closer to 9,000.
Venezuelan Jewry is split equally
between Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
All but one of the country's 15 synagogues
The majority of Venezuela's Jews are members
of the middle and upper classes.
The oldest surviving Jewish
organization in Venezuela is the Asociacion
Israelita de Venezuela, which was founded
in the 1920s by Sephardic Jews of mostly
North African origin. Located in Caracas,
this organization services around 800 families
and maintains a synagogue with two rabbis.
Caracas also has a significant Ashkenazi
population. Organizations include
the Union Israelita, Shomrei Shabbat, and
the ultra-Orthodox Rabinato de Venezuela.
Also located in the capital is a Hasidic congregation called Jabad Lubavitch de Venezuela.
at Jabad Lubavitch
The community also has several active Zionist organizations, the majority of them based in
Caracas. The Federacion de Asociaciones Israelitas de
Venezuela, which is associated with the World
Jewish Congress, is the umbrella organization for
the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities, as well as
the various Zionist groups. In addition to Zionist organizations
such as the Jewish
National Fund and Keren
Hayesod, Venezuela also hosts WIZO,
Maccabi events, and Zionst
In 1947, the Colegio Moral
y Luces, Herzl-Bialik integrated school was established. Student
enrollment numbers around 2,000, and the
school has classes from kindergarten to
high school. Both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi
communities take active roles in the institution's
affairs, and its reputation for outstanding
academic standards has attracted non-Jewish
students as well, who comprise around 7-10
percent of the school's student population.
Politics & Anti-Semitism
At times, there have been
outbursts of anti-Semitism in Venezuela, as well as government policies
that specially discriminated against Jews.
In the first half of the 20th century, the
government placed restrictions on Jewish
immigration to the country, which remained
in place until the end of the 1950s. Few
Jews even today engage in politics and are
mostly absent from public administration
and service. Recently, Venezuela's president,
Hugo Chavez, made some disparaging remarks
that were understood to be anti-Semitic by
some in the the international community.
Venezuelan Jewry, however, apparently not
wanting to draw negative publicity to themselves
for security reasons, said those remarks
were not anti-Semitic and taken out of context.
Chavez had said that while
the world offers riches to all, “minorities
such as the descendants of those who crucified Christ”
have become “the owners of the riches
of the world.” The president of the
Confederation of Jewish Associations of
Venezuela, Fred Pressner, said, “We
believe the president was not talking about
Jews and that the Jewish world must learn
to work together.”
Venezuelan Jews continue
to maintain strong ties with Israel.
Many volunteers from the country went to
Israel during the Six-Day
War. On November 29, 1947, at the United
Nations, Venezuela voted in favor of
the establishment of a Jewish state, and
the diplomatic ties between the countries
have been close since that time.
In June 2008, the first vice-president of the Venezuelan Confederation of Israeli Associations (CAIV) David Bittán denounced a government-led campaign of attempting to link the Jewish community with launching a failed coup back in 2002. “There is a campaign coming from the official sector that accuses and blames directly some members of our Jewish community as the leading characters of the April coup,” said Bittán during the opening of the seminar “Jewish in the Spanish-Speaking Americas,” hosted in Madrid by Casa América and Casa Sefarad. “Over the past few years, we have bumped into a stumbling block in the development of the Jewish community due to attacks coming directly from the state media or where the state is somewhat involved. We have been the victim of two police raids in search for arms and subversive materials in our schools,” recalled Bittán and labeled as “difficult” the situation undergone by the Jewish community since President Hugo Chávez took office.
In 2013, the Jewish community of Caracas dedicated the city's new main Sephardic synagogue called Tiferet Israel Este. The new synagogue is located in the Las Palos Grandes neighborhood and Isaac Cohen is the chief Sephardic rabbi.
Jews were hit especially hard by economic hardships and food shortages following a state-of-emergency declaration by the Venezuelan government in May 2016, caused by economic mismanagement combined with falling oil prices. Ex-Patriot Venezuelan Jews living in Israel and around the world sent food, medicine, clothing, and other items through organizations like Yajad, the main humanitarian group assisting the Venezuelan Jewish Community.
Israelita de Venezuela
Jewish Telegraphic Agency (March 18, 2013);
Jabad Lubavitch de Venezuela;
eluniversal.com (June 2, 2008);
Speyer, Lea. “ In Dire Straits — Lacking Food, Medicine — Venezuelan Jews Receive Clandestine Aid From Relatives in Israel,” Algemeiner, (August 19, 2016).
Photo Credit: Palacio de las Academias, Carlos Tonos