This summer I worked as an economic and political analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador. In my spare time, I traveled all over the country visiting nascent and isolated Jewish communities as the Latin American Coordinator (and board member) for Kulanu. I met, taught, and interviewed Ecuadorian Jews in Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca, Ambato, Banos, Huaquillas, and Santa Rosa. In addition to learning about the needs and aspirations of these Jewish communities, I also focused my interviews on the intersection of politics and religion in Ecuador as part of the research needed for my senior thesis at the University of Pennsylvania.
During my travels, I developed particularly close relationships with two emerging communities. The first was the Shtibel Igualtaria de Guayaquil, whose guiding light is Rabbi Juan Mejia*, a Conservative rabbi who lives and works in Oklahoma, and is a friend and colleague of mine. The second congregation was La Sinagoga Sefaradi del Ecuador, which I accidentally stumbled upon in Quito.
I arrived in Guayaquil in early May and spent the greater part of a week living at the Shtibel Igualtaria, which also happens to be the apartment of David and Monica Defranc, two congregants of the community. Because of his prior visits to Ecuador, Rabbi Mejia put me in touch with several Jewish communities in Ecuador and facilitated my stay at the Defranc house. The Defrancs, along with four other families in the Shtibel, have spent nearly a decade on their journey from Christianity to Judaism.
In their quest to join the Jewish people, Shtibel members have traveled through different denominations and rabbis, some of whom were fakes, until they found Rabbi Mejia a few years. Rabbi Mejia takes this pro-bono job very seriously. From his home in Oklahoma City, he gives them weekly Skype classes on the mishna and other canonical Jewish texts and answers any questions they have about Judaism. He is planning to lead the conversion of this small community with a halachic Conservative Beit Din (Jewish court) in the near future.
As I got to know this community, I became more and more excited about spending time with an observant, egalitarian Conservative community in which halacha (Jewish law) and Torah are taken seriously. For the holiday of Shavuot, I led a tikkun leil Shavuot, (an evening learning program) about how holy means separate in Judaism, a topic of great interest to the community, given their desire to convert to Judaism in a country in which a mere .007% of the population is Jewish. I read the Torah portion in the morning for Shacharit (first service in the morning), taught women how to put on tefillin (phylacteries), and helped lead the congregation’s service, being careful not to transform their local traditions learned and developed over the years. I also worked with Etienne Defranc, the son of the Defrancs, to prepare him for his bar mitzvah, while simultaneously teaching the congregation a few new melodies to make their services more interesting and musical.
After a week in Guayaquil, I arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. A friend had warned me before I went to Ecuador not to enter the Sinagoga Sefaradi del Ecuador in Quito because it was a Messianic community parading as Jewish. However, as soon as I met Yosef Franco, 40, the Moreh (Judaics teacher) of that congregation, it was clear that I had been given inaccurate information. Yosef, who was born in El Salvador, moved to Ecuador several years ago and serves as the community’s spiritual leader. After meeting with him twice for my thesis research, each time for two hours, and enjoying several Shabbatot with him and his family and in their synagogue, I concluded that the rumors were untrue and that the community is sincerely pursuing Orthodox Judaism according to Sephardic (Spanish) tradition. The community, which numbers some 40 people, is awaiting a formal conversion with an Orthodox Beit Din.
Some congregants have been practicing Orthodox Judaism for years. Currently, the one obstacle standing in the way of conversion is the lack of a mikveh (ritual bath) required for conversions and for ritual purity obligations. Additionally, some members struggle to live according to Orthodox Judaism due to their geographic distance from the synagogue. Those congregants who live nearby can walk to services on the Sabbath, but others, whose apartments are located in neighborhoods far afield, must travel by car or bus to reach the synagogue. To deal with this problem, several families are searching for apartments in the Ciudadela Kennedy neighborhood, where the synagogue is located, in order to be able to walk to the synagogue for Sabbath and holiday services.
Until August 2013, the Sinagoga Sefaradi del Ecuador in Quito did not have a Torah scroll for their prayer services. Instead, they used a printed, child-sized Torah in order to symbolically remove it from the Aron Kodesh (ark). However, they read the Torah portion in Hebrew from the Shem Tov Chumash. This fall the community was able to celebrate Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) with a real Torah. Rabbi Manny Vivas, a Cuban-American Orthodox Rabbi, visited the community and brought them a new Sephardic Torah.
Because of the distances involved, and the desire to avoid traveling twice on Shabbat, families in the community celebrate Friday night services in their own homes. On Saturday morning the congregation prays together. Given my own geographic proximity to the Franco’s home, I was able to share Friday night services with the family on several occasions. Congregants also meet on Sunday mornings for weekday services. All services take place on the ground floor level of Yosef Franco’s house. It is where he keeps a bima (altar), aron kodesh (ark), a mechitzah (divider to separate women and men during prayer) and about 40 white plastic chairs. Saturday morning services are conducted in Hebrew and last for three hours. The chazan (cantor), Avraham Reyes, a middle-aged former Evangelical pastor, who is self-taught, recites every word out-loud in the traditional Sephardic manner. Although many community members have studied Hebrew with Yosef and the chazan and are able to read basic Hebrew, they tend to rely on the transliteration as it is easier for them to participate in services.
After services, the congregants convert the prayer room into a dining hall for lunch. Traditionally, each family eats together. I was “adopted” by Avraham and his family, who have been practicing Judaism for the last five years. The men then discuss the weekly Torah portion, while the women clean up. This discussion is followed by a more formal two hour shiur (class) given by Yosef Franco for both men and women. After the shiur, there is Mincha (the afternoon service), Seudat Shlishit (the third meal) and the evening prayer, “Arvit” as the Sephardim call it. During one of my visits, I was asked to lead an Ashkenazi havdalah service* which most community members had never experienced.
Sabbath observances appear to be in keeping with Sephardic tradition, as congregants consider themselves Bnei Anousim, (also known as Crypto-Jews**) descendants of those forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition. During all my visits to this community, I felt comfortable and confident that everyone was sincere about their Judaism. I never saw any hint of Messianism. As result, I plan to maintain my relationship with the congregation under the auspices of Kulanu, which has pledged to give a small grant to help the community move forward.
The community plans on building a mikveh (ritual bath) in order to follow the laws of ritual purity and, hopefully, qualify for orthodox conversions. Once the mikveh is completed and deemed kosher, they hope to arrange for an Orthodox Beit Din to travel to Quito to perform the conversion ceremony. This could happen as early as the summer of 2014.
My time in Ecuador ended on an especially positive note. I hosted an amazing Heart to Heart* Shabbaton at my U.S. Embassy apartment. I invited many Jewish friends and families, most of whom are in the process of converting, to join me for Shabbat prayers and dinner. The group that joined me was religiously and economically diverse. Among my guests were Sephardic Orthodox Jews, Ashkenazi Jews from Comunidad Judea del Ecuador, the official Conservative synagogue in Quito, and other friends. We had a uniquely beautiful minyan (ten Jews required for communal prayer) on my terrace, watching the sunset behind the Pichincha Mountains. Our dinner, prepared by myself with help from new friends, included the singing of Shabbat songs in Ladino (the ancient tongue of Sephardic Jews) and Hebrew. Yosef Franco gave a short but sweet dvar torah (explanation of the Torah portion of the week) and we blessed the food with the traditional Ladino Bendigamos (grace after meals).
What I was most proud of that evening was its inclusiveness. It was perhaps the first time an interdenominational Jewish group observed the Shabbat together in Quito. For several years now, the Orthodox Sephardic in-the-process-of conversion Jews and the wealthy established Ashkenazi Conservative Jewish community have had no contact. Sadly, there is very little desire for this situation to change, due to a large gap in social class. This is a problem found in many countries in Central and South America as well as elsewhere.
In retrospect, the summer was an extraordinary experience. Personally, I was able to make some lasting friendships with Ecuadorian Jews and Bnei Anousim. And I was able to identify the needs and aspirations of several emerging Jewish communities in Ecuador that could use the help Kulanu offers. It is my wish for the new year that Kulanu be able to continue expanding its network of reemerging communities in Latin America that are in dire need of guidance and resources and that we continue to help them with Jewish resources and funds. In the daily amidah, we say: “Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise a banner to gather our exiles and gather us together from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who gathers in the dispersed of G-D’s people Israel”.
Every day when I recite these words, I cannot help but think about the tremendous work that has been done to help isolated and emerging Jewish communities all across the world — Ecuador, India, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua — over the last decade. However, from my summers spent in Latin America, I know organizations like Kulanu have only been able to scratch the surface. For every 10 communities that we have aided, there are 10 more that have not reached out to us. Nonetheless, I view it as my obligation as an American Jew whose religious affiliations and practice are so easy, to seek out and help isolated and underprivileged Jewish communities around the world.