|Love and care for Judaism evident in Venezuelan community|
|Written by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, Temple Israel|
|Thursday, September 01 2011 11:00|
It is a small world after all ...
I am writing this column sitting in the veranda of my hotel in San Cristobal, Tachira State, Venezuela. This town of about 400,000 people is perched in the Andes. Even though it has had Jews for almost a century, I felt like we were able to create a unique moment in Jewish history recently. I will tell you why.
Jews began to come to this agricultural area of Venezuela near the Colombian border in the 1920s. Most, if not all of them, were from Bessarabia, an area between modern Romania and Ukraine. Curiously the majority were from one town, Nova Sulita or Nova, where my wife’s grandparents came from! I had the opportunity of visiting Nova Sulita and reciting Kaddish at the local cemetery last year during my sabbatical.
At a meeting arranged with the few remnants of the local Jewish community in San Cristobal, I was thrilled to meet my wife’s landsmen (the people from the same shtetl) and they were really excited to hear about a place their ancestors came from but that no one had ever returned to visit. We arranged a visit to the local Jewish cemetery to recite Kaddish. There I was able to verify that about half of the 25 graves indeed listed the deceaseds’ place of birth as Nova Sulita, its old Romanian name.
In its heyday, San Cristobal had as many as 60 Jewish households; that population has drastically declined due to intermarriage and immigration both to Caracas or Israel. Today very few Jewish families remain. They used to hold religious services at the home of Israel Cusnir, who died three years ago. Yet, even today a special room remains in his widow’s home where an ark holds a Sefer Torah and other Jewish ritual objects. The Torah is quite a curious piece because the scroll is an Ashkenazi one but it is encased in gorgeous silver Sephardic tik, so it is read standing rather than laying on the reading table. For many years they would hire a chazzan for the High Holidays from the United States, but that has also stopped. Dr. Ingrid Cusnir, Israel’s daughter, acts as the local Jewish leader because she seems to either be related to or to know everyone that has any Jewish connections in town. She is an extremely dedicated woman, who unfortunately faces huge difficulties, mostly coming from the official rabbinate in Caracas. They reportedly appear to be determined to take away the community’s Torah, even though it was acquired by the local Jewish families a long time ago.
I was visiting San Cristobal to finalize the conversion process of 28 people that have been studying with me for quite a long time over the net. Some of them were descendants of Jewish families while others were formally devout Christians who realized that Judaism appealed to their souls, hearts and brains.
It was a very intense visit. Over a four-day period I lectured, counseled, converted, married four couples and even met with another group of about 30 people that wish to convert in the future. I had no moment alone, every meal was offered by a family that went out of their way to host and pamper me. Every moment that I was quiet someone came to ask deep and meaningful Jewish questions, some that even stumped me!
No evening was over before 1 a.m. because they were eager for knowledge and asked questions about Jewish life, history and tradition. Their love and care for Judaism was evident in their devotion, curiosity and joy in everything Jewish. I absent-mindedly commented on a certain kind of Venezuelan chocolate that happens to be my favorite. Upon my departure, it seemed like every one of the people I met with brought me some bars of that chocolate, almost 40 in total!
The nicest thing about my stay in San Cristobal was that some members of the old Jewish families came to the formal conversion ceremony and brought their treasured Torah to be used as part of the ceremony. It was a nice sign of support and collaboration between both groups that augurs a bright Jewish future in San Cristobal.
I am grateful to Mike and Karen Herman who helped subsidize the teaching and travel involved in making this a reality.