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Venezuelan Jews Fleeing Instability Find Sunny Security in South Florida

September 15, 2005
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On the edge of the Florida Everglades, in an upscale suburb known for its golf courses, towering coconut palms and shady bicycle paths, Vivian Goshen has found her land of milk and honey. For a Jew fleeing economic and political chaos, Weston isn’t such a bad place to be.

The Venezuela-born Goshen, her Israeli husband and their three children live in a sprawling, five-bedroom home purchased six months ago for $740,000. With South Florida real-estate prices spiraling out of control, their property already is worth close to $1 million.

But it still doesn’t come close to Colinas de los Ruices, the upscale Caracas neighborhood that the family left behind.

“When you want to start something new, you have to break with the past,” Goshen said in Spanish over a glass of passionfruit juice. “There, we had two maids and traveled four times a year. We lived in a big house, but the kids couldn’t go out at night. Everything was behind bars. Here we have less, but we enjoy security and quality of life. The children are happier. We will never go back.”

The Goshens are part of an increasing flow of wealthy and not-so-wealthy Latin American Jews who are “making aliyah” to Broward County, Fla.

A 1997 study found that Broward had around 270,000 Jews, of which only 5,300, or about 2.2 percent, considered themselves Latino or Hispanic. In contrast, there are nearly 10,000 Hispanic Jews currently living in Miami-Dade County, just to the south.

But the Broward study appeared just before the Argentine economy imploded, hitting thousands of middle-class Jewish families and leading to massive emigration. It also was a year before the populist leader Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela, sparking an exodus of wealthy Venezuelan Jews that continues to this day.

In fact, so many Venezuelans have settled in Weston that some have nicknamed the recently incorporated municipality “Westonzuela.”

One of those newcomers is Anita Lapco. Earlier this year she was hired as the full-time coordinator of Latin American affairs at the United Jewish Community of Broward County.

“My job is to reach out to Latin Jews living in Broward, informing them about what the federation does and the agencies it supports and making them feel part of the Jewish community,” said Lapco, who spent 16 years as principal of the Jewish school in Caracas and later served as director-general of ORT in Venezuela.

Lapco’s office is cluttered with photographs of her grandchildren, posters of Israel and bilingual fliers for events such as a Fiesta Latina at the Hebraica/Soref Jewish Community Center in nearby Plantation, featuring a DJ, Israeli dancing, salsa music and kosher food.

In fact, a recent Purim party at the JCC attracted over 300 people, most of them Jews of Latin origin.

Lapco told JTA that unlike Miami-Dade, Broward has no synagogues catering specifically to Latin American Jews, though Spanish-speaking Jews tend to join Chabad congregations in Hollywood, Plantation and Weston.

They also tend to have very little in common culturally with the thousands of elderly Jews from the New York area who live at Kings Point, Wynmoor and other huge condominium developments found throughout Broward County.

“Most of the shuls here are Reform or Conservative and very different from the style of Judaism we practice in Latin countries,” Lapco said. “Also, in Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico, we do communal bat-mitzvah ceremonies. A few ladies have told me they’d like to have this in Broward too.”

Latin American Jews generally have little trouble blending into the Spanish-speaking culture prevalent not only in Greater Miami but increasingly in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and other Broward cities. Yet they leave behind jobs, traditions and familiar faces.

Goshen arrived in Florida on Christmas Eve 2002. Six days later, she told her husband that she didn’t want to go back to Venezuela.

“We came here on vacation, not intending to stay. But we couldn’t return because there was a strike, and one of our neighbors was a leading opposition figure,” she told JTA. “It’s a shame what’s happened in Venezuela. If I didn’t have teenagers, I wouldn’t have left.”

The Goshens, who speak Spanish and Hebrew at home, first rented an apartment in Hallandale, eventually settling in nearby Weston Hills.

“Weston has the best schools in Broward County, and I didn’t have the money to put my kids in private schools,” she said, explaining that her children had always attended private Jewish schools back in Venezuela.

Like Goshen, Lapco said she and her husband, Leon, a doctor, left Venezuela last year because the situation under Chavez was becoming too unstable.

“It’s a very rich country with very poor people,” she said. “It’s hard to plan a business if you don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next. They have foreign-exchange controls and insecurity in the judicial system. There’s a feeling you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

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