With angular features and shoulders broad enough to match his considerable height, Gabriel Heiber, 19, embodies the youthful energy of his idyllic surroundings at Bucknell University. He speaks quickly with darting gestures, unconsciously borrowed from his time spent in the pool playing water polo for Bucknell’s varsity team.
Heiber’s features, however, belie his youth: his eyes droop, ringed with dark bands from too little sleep, and his jaw is peppered with unshaven scruff. He doesn’t simply look tired; he looks preoccupied with another place, his native Venezuela. Heiber will most likely never return to Venezuela, but with much of his family and friends still there, he must live in two places at the same time: peaceful Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and tumultuous Venezuela.
Heiber wakes up long before his teammates each morning to skim the online international headlines of the New York Times and at least one of Venezuela’s fifteen newspapers, tracking the ever-changing politics of his native country.
“It can be nerve-wracking,” said Heiber, whose father Dario still works in Caracas as a chemical engineer in a government subsidized electrical transformer workshop, “every morning I pray for no news.”
Once a member of Venezuela’s small, but culturally significant Jewish population, Heiber fled Caracas in December of 2002 during a tumultuous time of near daily labor strikes and riots. He moved to Miami and then to Lewisburg.
In the last five years, nearly half of the Jewish population has fled Caracas, according to a Tel Aviv University study. This movement did not occur because of religious intolerance, which originally drove Jewish people from North Africa and Europe to Caracas. Instead, Jewish emigration from Caracas has occurred because Venezuela’s social instability has directly threatened the prosperity and achievements the Jewish community has labored to preserve for nearly a century.
If little known, the history of the Jewish population illustrates the greater social fabric of Venezuelan society. Fleeing anti-Semitism in Northern Africa, the first wave of Jewish immigrants came to Caracas during the early twentieth century. The Jewish population gradually swelled to nearly 25,000 in the 1940’s, bolstered by Eastern European Jews.
The government never overtly welcomed the Jewish immigrants, refusing to subsidize Jewish schools and social programs for the poor as they do for Catholic organizations. The government, however, has never neglected them either: Jewish organizations receive structural subsidies for building repairs like other religious groups registered with the Government and in 2000 the Supreme Court ruled that religious organizations were distinct from “civil society,” a decision that effectively protected the religious minority.
The Jewish population has remained steady in size since the 1950’s. It organized a religious and cultural haven for itself on the eastside Caracas through two groups and their auxiliaries, the Asociacion Israelita de Venezuela and the Union Israelita de Caracas. This insular and largely self-educated community has become predominantly affluent and has bred many influential professionals who over time have become leaders outside of the community as well.
If wealth and education once rooted the Jewish community in Venezuela, they also prepared this group for emigration. Fluent in English, Heiber has found his transition to life in the United States eased by the education standards of a disappearing community he will, most likely, never return to.
His brother, Alejandro, 23, first came to the United States in 1999 to study film at University of Southern California. Heiber, then in middle school, remained in Caracas, dividing his time between his family’s downtown apartment and the Hebraica Jewish Community Center. One of nearly 2,500 students at the elementary, middle and high schools housed within the site, Heiber described Hebraica as “a bubble, but a second home,” where he attended orthodox services and began competing with the affiliated club water polo team at age 12.
In early December of 2002, government opponents began a labor strike, frustrated with increasing unemployment and the inefficiency of the government under the President, Hugo Chavez, who was elected in July 2000. The economy had contracted 8.9% in 2002, according to the 2004 State Department report on Venezuela, buoyed only by revenue from petroleum exports as the third largest OPEC member. This had a serious impact on the urban lower class of Caracas, most of whom held government subsidized positions.
The assets of the elite Jewish population were protected, but the riots surrounded and isolated the Hebraica Jewish Community Center, the physical core of the community. Hebraica had effectively closed down by late December, leaving Heiber stranded halfway through the school year, afraid to otherwise venture into the city.
A week after Hebraica closed indefinitely Heiber and his parents came to the mutual decision that he would go to Miami. They drafted plans for him to attend his first secular school, Miami Beach Senior High, and to live in Florida as a dependent of his mother who applied for, and quickly obtained, a religious workers visa for Beth Torah, a local synagogue.
While the national strike continued until May 2003, when the government and opposition representatives signed an agreement, Gabriel continued his studies unabated in Miami.
Miami bridges Venezuela and the United States in many respects, with a population that is 57% Hispanic and 50.9% foreign born – the highest percent worldwide – according to the United States’ 2000 census. Heiber considered himself an unofficial refugee in a city of immigrants and refugees.
Even with a foreign-born Jewish population of 31,000 in Miami, a greater number than the total Jewish population in Caracas, Heiber felt estranged. He attended weekly Shabbat services only with his mother, disconnected from his community in Venezuela and preoccupied by the persisting political tumult that threatened it.
Heiber chose to attend Bucknell because he knew several of the American water polo players from the 2003 Pan American Maccabi Games, where he competed for Venezuela. Now, in his third month of college, Gabriel awaits the status of his mother’s application for residency as the three-year term of her religious workers visa lifts, focusing his anxieties instead upon water polo and his classes in cell and molecular biology.
In the back of his mind, however, he must inexorably trace his aspirations of citizenship, a family and a medical practice in the United States to forces beyond his control: no residency status for his mother, no sponsorship, no citizenship.
“The reason I want to stay here, the reason my father still works in Venezuela so that I can stay here, also makes it difficult to do so,” explained Heiber. “Nobody needs to look beyond the borders in the United States.”
For Heiber, like much of the Jewish population in Caracas, now estimated by a Tel Aviv University study to be as low as 15,000 people, the cost of emigration has been living two lives. Heiber cannot divest himself from the city where his father still lives, yet his future decidedly lies in the United States.