It was mid-July. My birthday on August 18th loomed ahead like an impending summer storm. It was going to be a big one– the kind that makes you stop, take stock, count the remaining years, and consider your priorities. I wanted to mark the occasion with something more than a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Something that, from the perspective of the rear-view mirror a decade down the road, would both make me smile and mean something. But what?
Having spent the first two years of my life in Italy, I was infected early on with chronic wanderlust and a fascination with foreign languages and cultures. That, and Ari Ben Canaan, Paul Newman’s character in the classic movie Exodus, are responsible for my having made aliyah to Israel alone at the age of 17 and my eventual lifelong career as a foreign language educator and Hebrew linguist with the U.S. Department of Defense.
Pondering the options, I realized that the experiences I’ve found most enjoyable and satisfying over the years have been those that centered around travel combined with volunteer work and mitzvot (good deeds). Volunteering my services as a Modern Hebrew language instructor with one of Kulanu’s communities seemed a perfect choice! But only a few precious weeks of my summer break remained. If I was going to plan a “meaningful birthday adventure,” I’d need to move quickly.
Kulanu staff members sent out a flurry of emails querying communities on their needs, and within a few days presented me with several exciting options. In the end, I decided on the Sephardic community of Quito, Ecuador as the best match, for both practical and emotional reasons: the airfare was affordable, no visa was required, the community was excited to host me, my Spanish is passable (as long as I’m speaking in the one tense I know), and since many community members are planning aliyah, I felt my skills were truly needed. It also didn’t hurt that the weather in August was projected to be a cool and comfortable 65-75 degrees.
My soon-to-be hosts were Hillel Batioja, a professional “computer guy” chosen in large part because he is one of the few community members whose English is better than my Spanish, and his wife, Haviva, homemaker extraordinaire (the Sephardic equivalent of what we Ashkenazim call a “balabuste”) and stay-at-home mom to the couple’s two adorable young children. Haviva is herself the daughter of Avraham Reyes (a former Christian minister) and his wife, Hannah, patriarchs of one of the large families (all related) who together established La Sinagoga Sefaradita del Ecuador about 7 years ago.
At the helm of “La Comunidad,” as it’s affectionately known, is the warm and dynamic Yosef Franco, whom congregants respectfully address as “Moreh” (Teacher). The Community, which meets on the bottom floor of Moreh Yosef’s large apartment in the Kennedy Sector of Quito, currently numbers about 40 members, predominantly professionals and small business owners. A few were raised Jewish or were aware that they had a Jewish parent or grandparent. Most were brought up in another religion but came to believe that they are descended from Bnei Anousim, Crypto-Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. Still, other members became intellectually and spiritually dissatisfied with Christianity and felt drawn to Judaism.
The entire community (each family at a different time, sometimes months or years apart) underwent what they call a “community conversion” under the supervision of a local Orthodox rabbi, complete with brit milah (circumcision) and immersion in a river, which served as the required ritual bath (mikvah). The majority completed this process about five years ago. Although this conversion is recognized by several Orthodox rabbis in Ecuador (a definite source of pride to the Comunidad), it is reportedly not accepted by the Orthodox Jewish “establishment” outside of South America. This presents a problem, both because community members desperately long to be accepted as full members of Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel) and because many cherish the dream of making aliyah. But attaining conversions that will be universally recognized is difficult.
Some community members, such as Moreh Yosef and his family, have already undergone Orthodox conversion overseas. Most, however, continue in their fervent struggle to find a way to complete the arduous process by either traveling abroad to convert or importing a beit din (the requisite 3-member rabbinic tribunal). For the vast majority, both of these options are prohibitively expensive. In the meantime, community members have been leading fully observant Jewish lives for over five years. The homes I visited were virtually indistinguishable from observant Jewish households in the U.S. The Batioja’s lives, like the lives of the others, are completely and joyfully devoted to Judaism, their beloved Comunidad, and each other.
I left Boston on August 10th and arrived in Quito on the night of August 11th. Hillel and Haviva met me at the airport, and my adventure began with an hour’s drive to their home, which was conveniently situated about a 30-minute walk from La Comunidad. From the moment I arrived, everyone treated me like a beloved member of the family. They told me repeatedly how much my visit meant to them. I was instantly given the cherished title “La Morah”, the (female) teacher.
The following day I learned my first new Spanish word, temblor (earthquake) when what felt like much more than a 5.1 quake shook our 4th-floor apartment. It was a word that was to come in handy over the next two weeks as small and not-so-small temblores were a frequent occurrence. After a day or so adjusting to the altitude (literally!) and regaining my equilibrium, I set up shop and began teaching!
I had about 18 students who attended faithfully, excited to have an opportunity to learn Hebrew from a real morah! (Prior to my arrival, they had taught themselves as much as possible from books and Internet sites.) The students ranged in age from 7-year-old Yitzchak to his abuelita (grandma), Leah, a lovely lady in her 50’s. Their skill levels were also quite varied. Some students had no knowledge whatsoever; some could decode haltingly; some could read and write well; one or two could say a sentence or two. The most advanced students had the equivalent of a few months of college Hebrew. I was very glad that I’d packed teaching materials appropriate for all levels!
I decided that the best way to address the educational needs of such a diverse group would be to structure the classes as a reading/writing lab followed by an “ulpan-style” conversational class, with students attending either or both as their needs and desires dictated. Originally, there were to be separate sections for adults and children, but both classes quickly evolved into intergenerational learning, a model that proved to be extremely successful.
We decided on four hours a day, Monday through Thursday afternoons/evenings, as the optimal schedule. I offered to teach on Sundays too, but my hosts and the other families wouldn’t hear of it! Sunday was a day off and they wanted to spend it showing me the sights.
I spent my mornings exploring the bustling and beautiful city of Quito, very often with one or two students or community members as my volunteer guides. As exciting as the city was, I couldn’t wait to get back to La Comunidad each afternoon to teach. I’ve taught hundreds of students over the years, but never have I had students so motivated, so focused, so eager to learn, and so appreciative. What a novelty to be greeted and taken leave of each afternoon and evening with a cheerful and respectful “Shalom, Morah!” and a kiss on the cheek from children and adult women alike!
By the time my all-too-short, three-and-a-half-week visit had come to an end, all those students who had attended regularly were reading fluently. Some, including little Yitzchak and his brothers, who had begun the classes knowing next to nothing, completed my reading/writing program (which typically takes a year and a half to complete in an American afternoon Hebrew school) in an astonishing five sessions! The conversational class, too, was very productive and just plain fun.
On the final day of class, the members of La Comunidad surprised me with a party, complete with a video, a beautiful framed certificate, personal gifts, and heartfelt speeches from each of my students. Thankfully, they also supplied kleenex.
The best gift though was the opportunity to give of myself in a way that truly made a difference. I will always treasure the beautiful memories of my birthday trip to Quito and the close new friendships that I believe will last a lifetime.
As I write these words, it is a few hours before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur. Tonight, when I hear the ancient, heart-rending Kol Nidre chant that begins the holiday service, there will doubtless be the usual prayers in my heart: health, happiness, personal peace, and world peace! But this year there will be an additional prayer: “Por favor, Hashem- bendice a mis nuevos amigos (Please, Hashem, bless my new friends) who live in the middle of the globe! Gather them in speedily, together with all the scattered exiles of our People, and help them realize their dream of becoming fully accepted members of Am Yisrael! And please, dear G-d, if it isn’t too much trouble – – help me learn the Spanish subjunctive in time for my next trip.
*Ellyn (“Elana”) Gerson has won numerous awards for her innovative work with U.S. military linguists at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. She is currently the Hebrew Language Educator at Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, Massachusetts.