Latin American Jewish Immigrants Look for Safety in US

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South America map showing Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela
South America map (LorenzoT81 / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Though the Jewish community has a long history of resettlement in the U.S., in 2019 most new immigrants in our country are not Jewish.

And while Jewish migrants are now uncommon at the Mexican border, where most of the immigration debate is currently centered, they are not unheard of.

Take Diego, for example, a Jewish teenager from Guatemala who immigrated unaccompanied to Philadelphia a few years ago. His case workers at HIAS Pennsylvania said they could not offer in-depth commentary on Diego’s case for legal reasons, but they did cite him as one example of Jews fleeing dangers abroad.

Israela Haor-Friedman
Israela Haor-Friedman (Photo courtesy of Israela Haor-Friedman)

Another example is Israela Haor-Friedman, who fled Venezuela. At one time, that country was home to a Jewish population of around 20,000. Now, just 5,000 Jews remain, mostly in the capital city of Caracas.

Leaving Venezuela was especially difficult for Haor-Friedman. Her parents and her in-laws were Holocaust survivors who found safety in Caracas after liberation.

“They needed to go somewhere,” said Haor-Friedman, whose Hungarian-born mother survived a labor camp and is memorialized at Yad Vashem. “They had nothing. So they went looking at the boats. One said Venezuela.”

Her mother knew a distant uncle had fled to Venezuela before the war, so that’s where she went to start her new life, and that’s where Haor-Friedman grew up. But by the turn of the 21st century, because of governmental and cultural upheaval, the peace the family had known in their adopted country was gone, Haor-Friedman said.

“I keep kosher,” she said, but at the height of the family’s struggle in Venezuela, “you forgot about keeping kosher. We did not have bread or meals.”

In 2002, kidnappers almost captured the then-22-year-old. It was common then for young women to be taken for ransom money.

”Some families had resources for ransom,” she said. “We did not.”

Fearing for their daughter’s safety, Haor-Friedman’s parents “put me in a car, and I went to the States.” Today, Haor-Friedman has three children and lives in Merion, where she belongs to Lower Merion Synagogue.

Philadelphia’s Ronit Treatman, who was born in Israel but grew up in Venezuela, also fled the unrest there.

“If you follow the situation in Venezuela, what is happening today began to happen in the late 1980s. … It was already bad,” said Treatman, the founder of Hands-On Jewish Holidays.

In the mid-’80s, Treatman returned to Israel to serve in the army. The crisis in Venezuela complicated her enlistment.

“I wasn’t able to return to Israel when I was supposed to. There was unrest, so they shut down the airport. The embassy had to call my commander. There were armored vehicles rolling down the boulevard. It was becoming clear we couldn’t remain there anymore.”

Jewish Venezuelen immigrants, Treatman said, tend to be well-educated, which makes their journey a bit easier. “Even if they lost their money, they still have their education,” she said. “They’re employable. They found white-collar jobs.”

Jews who remain in Venezuela continue to struggle. “I know people from the Jewish community who were caught in tragic circumstances,” she said, recalling the death of a friend’s sick relative. “They stayed in Venezuela because their grandmother was hospitalized. She couldn’t leave. Then, they didn’t have the right equipment, the right medicine, and she died from something preventable because they couldn’t provide her with what she needed.”

As of January, 16 Jews had been shot in Venezuela. While not targeted directly, members of the religious community are endangered by the rampant street violence.

HIAS Pennsylvania continues to help Latin American Jewish immigrants like Diego, Haor-Friedman and Treatman, though as Director of Development Daniella Nahmias Scruggs notes, “We’re lucky enough to be in a world right now where Jews aren’t fleeing persecution for the most part.” Quoting HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield, she added, “We used to help immigrants because they were Jewish. Now we help immigrants because we are Jewish.”

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