Miami Beach — (JTA) — When Alejandra Schatzky-Cohen and her husband decided to enroll their children in a Reform Jewish day school in North Miami Beach five years ago, they had more on their minds than the average prospective day school parent.
The family was living in Caracas at the time and the situation for Jews in Venezuela was becoming increasingly precarious. The city’s Hebraica school and Jewish cultural center had been on the receiving end of multiple raids by the national police over the previous few years, anti-Semitic propaganda was becoming commonplace on state-controlled media, and President Hugo Chavez had just expelled Israel’s ambassador.
The streets of Caracas were so dangerous that Schatzky-Cohen’s kids had to be shuttled to and from school in a hired car with bulletproof windows tailed by a second vehicle to thwart attempted kidnappings.
After years of hemming and hawing, they finally took the step that thousands of other Latin American Jews have taken over the past decade and a half: They moved to Miami.
“We moved to a house near school, and now my son can walk on his own to the school and the JCC and back,” Schatzky-Cohen told JTA. “We needed to get out of Venezuela. My kids could not grow up in that environment.” At their new school, Jacobson Sinai Academy, Schatzky-Cohen’s four children have gotten more than just a safe haven: They’ve found a place with both a Latin and Jewish flavor.
An estimated 75 percent of Sinai’s 440 students come from Latin American families, and most are relative newcomers to America.
There are Jews from Mexico City who sought refuge from a deteriorating security situation. There are Venezuelans who left during the nadir of Chavez’s rule, along with more recent arrivals fleeing the violent crime and economic problems that followed his demise. There are Argentines who came a decade ago seeking escape from an economic crisis. Colombians, Peruvians, Panamanians and Cubans have come for reasons ranging from security to family to livelihood.
The Latin influx has helped turn Miami into one of America’s most unusual Jewish communities.
“We’ve had these seismic trends that affect the demography of Miami-Dade Jewry over the decades that I don’t think many Jewish communities have experienced,” said Jacob Solomon, CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.