CARACAS, Venezuela — Six teenagers sit laughing around barely touched platters of hamburgers and fries on a recent Friday afternoon, oblivious to the deli manager’s harried attempts to close out the cash register ahead of the rapidly declining sun.
One of the teens remembers to return a blue-and-white kipah the restaurant keeps on hand in case a customer forgets to bring his own.
“I’m leaving in exactly seven minutes,” the manager says politely but firmly. “Come back anytime after Shabbat.”
At a new mall in Caracas, where Cafe Hillel is among dozens of establishments catering to a primarily Jewish clientele, it’s an extraordinary scene.
The Galerias Sebucan mall, which opened late last year just blocks from a grand new Sephardic synagogue in a well-known Jewish neighborhood, has Jewish owners. Most, if not all, of the shop owners are Jewish. So are many of the patrons.
That has made the mall a place both where the diversity of Jewish Venezuelan culture is on vivid display and where Jews can feel safe in a city plagued by violent crime — and where Jews don’t always feel safe to appear identifiably Jewish.
But Coby Benzaquen, the owner of Cafe Hillel, said a key motivating factor behind opening the kosher deli was the desire to provide a safe, upscale environment for young Jews to hang out.
“The community didn’t have a place where families and young people could go and feel comfortable,” Benzaquen said.
For a community that has seen its numbers dwindle in the face of an economic crisis, rising crime, the stirrings of anti-Semitism and the strident anti-Zionism promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the opening of a mall catering to Jewish Venezuelans would seem to be bad business.
Benzaquen is undeterred by such pessimism.
“You can’t give up your quality of life because of fear,” he said. “The Jew is a fighter. He’s always moving forward.”
Families of all religious stripes pass through the compact, three-story commercial center.
On a given afternoon, young Orthodox families can be seen pushing strollers as they window shop and chase small boys with unshorn locks. Students from the local Jewish school, wearing navy blue sweat suits emblazoned with menorahs, stand around in clusters. Deeply tanned young women sporting Hamsa necklaces scroll through their iPhones and meet for coffee and crepes. This being Venezuela, many of them are scantily clad, showing off their surgical “enhancements.”
The Jewish community has fallen to about 10,000 from a peak of 20,000 just before Chavez came to power in 1999. Many Jews cite rising crime, politics and anti-Semitic rants from government media as reasons for leaving.
Meanwhile, despite historically high oil prices, Venezuela was among the few economies in Latin America to contract last year due to severe power shortages, strict foreign exchange controls and the ever-present threat of expropriation of private holdings by the government.
Benzaquen is the first to admit that opening a kosher establishment in a city that many Jews have abandoned and has become notoriously inhospitable to privately owned businesses is “a gamble.” But he says it’s not just about business.
“This isn’t really a business for us,” Benzaquen said, referring to himself and his partner, Mois Azerraf. “It’s more like a personal whim. We just really felt the need for it.”
Cafe Hillel, which has a huge mural of the Brooklyn Bridge and nearly a dozen flat-screen televisions mounted on the wall, offers American-style food such as burgers and sandwiches. It’s probably also the only place in Caracas where you can order a pastrami sandwich.
Benzaquen says the Galerias Sebucan mall is just one of two in Latin America that allows store owners to observe Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The other is in Buenos Aires, home to South America’s largest Jewish community.
“Imagine being closed on Saturday — that’s the busiest day of the week,” Benzaquen said.
At Cafe Hillel, Adriana Coriat stops in for a bite at the behest of her 17-year-old daughter. The mall, Coriat says, is a welcome addition to the “Jewish bubble” at Club Hebraica, which is home to the community’s school and also serves as a social and athletic club. Many Caracas Jews point to the club as a symbol of their community’s unity.
“It’s how we survive here, in our bubble,” she said. “Crime follows us everywhere.”
For her, the Jewish nature of the mall is less important than its convenient location.
“It’s close to the house and, more than anything, a safe place for kids. They can’t just go out in the streets,” Coriat said. “I drop my daughter off here at the door and I pick her up at the same spot.”
Even more so than in North America, malls are a cornerstone of the social landscape in Caracas. Here, malls also feature upscale bars, lounges and restaurants. The idea is that it’s safer to go out where club goers can bounce between night spots under one roof with secure indoor parking.
According to the government’s own recently released statistics, the official murder rate stands at 48 per 100,000, which is above the Latin American average. Independent observers say the murder rate actually is much higher, at 118 per 100,000, making Caracas among the most violent cities in the world.
With just a few hours left before sunset, Menachem Gancz peruses the Jewish history section of the bookstore at Galerias Sebucan, which prominently features books on Kabbalah, the Zohar and “The Jews.” The 25-year old Orthodox Torah teacher says that outside of the city’s more well-to-do sections, he likely would feel compelled to cover up his kipah.
At this mall, no such precaution is necessary.
“Look around you,” he said. “It’s all Jews.”