Few in number, strong in faith

Though there are only 1,000 Jews in Ecuador, others are increasingly ‘returning’ to the religion.

Ecuador Jews 311 (photo credit: Moti Deren)
Ecuador Jews 311
(photo credit: Moti Deren)
An extraordinary thing is happening in Ecuador: Jews, lost for centuries, are finding their way back to the faith – but some say they are not Jews.
There may be only 1,000 Jews in all of Ecuador, but what a fascinating few! In Quito, capital of this South American country of 14 million, an imposing synagogue, Communidad de Judia de Ecuador, has a mostly Ashkenazi congregation. Others embrace Chabad. Then there are Sephardim, recapturing Judaism after centuries as Catholics.
Most intriguing are recent “returnees” to Judaism. Formerly known as Marranos, and now called conversos in Spanish and anusim in Hebrew (meaning descendants of forcibly converted Sephardim), these “secret Jews” are no longer secret.
Israeli author Yaron Avitov, now living in Ecuador, has made two documentaries about conversos there. In The Lost Tribe of the Sephardic Jews, Avitov investigated 25 to 30 old customs that turn out to be Jewish in origin. These include circumcision, giving bikurim (the first fruit from a tree) and lighting candles on Friday nights. People have kept menoras and Bibles in Hebrew as family possessions, “sometimes with consciousness and sometimes without,” says Avitov. “They’ve had sacred traditions for centuries.”
Many told him, “We know we have these Jewish roots; we are proud of this; this is not a shame for us.”
He feels compassion for those rekindling their Judaism.
“They’ve had a double life until now,” he explains. “They are between two religions and two cultures, and they’re between two lands, two countries... all the time, they are divided inside. They have a lot of identity problems... The Catholics think they are Jewish, and the Jews see them as Catholic.”
Avitov claims that the rabbis of Israel don’t want to accept them.
“Part of them can be pretenders and don’t know enough about Judaism. But part of them are better Jews than most of the Jews” officially recognized as such, he says.
Chava Burgos, a law student, says “Burgos” is a Sephardic name, but she believes her practicing Judaism angers Catholic friends. However, she lacks documents to prove she is Jewish. She would have to go elsewhere in South America or to Israel for a true conversion – and in Ecuador, she maintains, there is no institution to help her get to Israel.
“It has been really hard to contact people who can help with aliya, because the Jewish community believes we are just Ecuadoreans and not Jews,” she says. “I think I’m in love with Israel because I think the truth about all the world is in Israel, and I believe God’s presence is right there... and it makes the country different from the others.”
Burgos is in the congregation of a man who calls himself Capitan Jose Franco, but whose members call him “rabbi.” He leads his 60 members in prayers and Hebrew lessons each week at his home. Franco, who supports himself through his furniture store, is not ordained as a rabbi in any established Jewish branch – he says that Sephardim do not divide themselves into Orthodox, Conservative or other sects.
Franco, 36, remembers keeping many Jewish holidays. “My father always said, ‘We’re not Jewish; we’re B’nai Israel. We don’t know our own tribe. We don’t know if we’re descendants.’” Franco believes a person is a Jew because that person lives according to the Torah. He describes himself and his followers as “b’nei anusim,” the sons of converts.
“Our special work is not with Jews that were born in a Jewish home; we work with those that were born Jews without knowing it,” he says.
His website, SEMY.com, calls his synagogue both Emunat Yisrael and Emunat Yahshua (Jesus), which can be construed as Messianic. While Franco’s congregation is not on the website list of worldwide Messianic congregations, the rabbi under whom he studied in the US, Caleb Alcala, is on the list.
Franco writes that “if I do not explain the Jewish practices of Jesus, that Jesus was a Jew, lived and died as a Jew, they [his congregation] won’t listen to me anymore.”
He states, “You have probably heard of the association Jews for Jesus; they teach Jews to become Christians. Our work is the opposite of it. We teach Christians that were unaware of their Jewish heritage to return to Judaism.”
“Here in Ecuador, there about 300 to 400 Messianic Jews,” says Moti Deren, who attends services at the Communidad and at Chabad. “As they are coming back as Messianic, rabbis don’t like it.”
He explains that they “are not mainstream, but have a strong affinity with Judaism and Israel. [They] probably have this as a common ground with other mainstream Jews.”
Jews of Catholic origin are often viewed with suspicion. Quito’s Chabad rabbi, Tomer Rotem, who hails from Ramat Gan, says, “Here in Latin America, you have a big mixed salad made from Christianity and Judaism. You can see a kippa, tzitzit and peyot, all Jewish symbols, but they believe in Judaism and Christianity.”
He believes that many congregants mix Jewish concepts with Christian concepts.
“Some are confused, so we teach them,” he says.
Juan Mejia is southwest regional coordinator of Bechol Lashon, which is devoted to the growth and diversity of Jews around the world. He assesses Franco’s congregation as Messianic, judging by its website.
“This is not a good thing,” says Mejia. “A lot are confused and are not willing to give up Christianity.”
Mejia states that 30% of the first settlers in Latin America were Jews fleeing the Inquisition.
Religious authorities will have to sort this controversy out, but it indicates the fervent desire for faith and the appreciation of Israel here.
The main established synagogue, Communidad de Judia de Ecuador, has thick stone walls, resembling those of the Western Wall. Below its rust-colored domes is a tight-knit community of mostly Germans and Eastern Europeans who arrived around the time of the Holocaust.
Rabbi Alexander Mylinski describes them as “a large family, with its problems, but we know to resolve problems between us.”
Congregation president Rolf Stern explains, “This has been one community since the ’30s, and this community expends a great deal of effort to stay as one community.”
Although the Communidad remains a Conservative congregation, Stern says it reaches out to the Orthodox in Quito. Stern describes the members as mostly middle- and upper-class, 25 to 60 years old. Eighty percent speak English.
The congregation has 600 members, according to Pedro Steiner, president of external relations. One congregant described the impressive synagogue complex as too big for its dwindling numbers. People intermarry (the community’s shaliah, or local emissary, says they really have no choice); others leave for the United States or Israel.
Steiner contends that although their numbers had been diminishing, many have now come back from abroad and “even more do not leave. Furthermore, there have been several young families that have come to live in Quito.”
Congregants say they have always been supportive of Israel. One explains that “most people here don’t care about internal politics in Israel. A small mistake could mean the end of Israel, so there’s no space for mistakes. So whatever Israeli politics are, we must support them, right or wrong.”
Shaliah Idon Gold from Holon is an informal jokester with a purpose: He engages teenagers and young adults, keeping them close to the cultural and historical aspects of Judaism. Every Friday night, he updates the congregation with news from Israel.
The community’s architecture echoes its role: One wing is religious; the other is cultural and educational. Here is a shul with a large indoor swimming pool, tennis courts and a verdant soccer field, all to keep people close by and affiliated.
Ariel Lackenbacher, 20, says he feels a strong Jewish connection in a cultural, not a religious way. He feels Judaism, its traditions, made them the individuals they are now.
“Every Jewish person in Quito has their own life and their own friends,” he says. “[They go to different schools, as Jews live all over the city.] But, finally, we are a united community.”
Few would dispute, though, that over the centuries, lapsed Jews have had a way of mysteriously – some might say miraculously – getting back to Judaism. That phenomenon continues in Ecuador.