by Heidi Schultz.
A small but extraordinary Jewish cultural renaissance is taking place in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The port city of Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest urban area. Among its over two million inhabitants, there is a small but growing congregation of Jews who attend services at Templo Bet Jadesh (Beth Chadesh Temple). Most of the attendees who have affiliated with the synagogue are not the sons and daughters of Jewish Ecuadorians, but rather are new converts to Judaism. Yet many of them do not feel themselves to be newly converted. Instead, they see themselves as returning to their own religious tradition, lost hundreds of years ago when the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in the eventful year of 1492.
The Reform congregation at Bet Jadesh uses a progressive siddur (prayer book) translated by Rabbi Juan Mejía of the Be’chol Lashon organization. Sephardic Jews in Spain spoke Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew, analogous to Yiddish. This siddur contains some nods to Sephardic culture, such as the prayer, Non Como Muestor Dio, sung in Ladino (Ayn Kehlohaynu in Hebrew; “There is None Like Our God” in English). Other prayers included are El Halel Hagadol (or Psalm 136), and Shirit Hayam, or the Song of Moses (Canto de Moshé) from Exodus 14-15, also traditionally sung by Sephardic Jews.
Bet Jadesh was founded by Rabbi Terry Bookman of Temple Am in Pinecrest, Florida, and Carl Hauer-Simmonds, a Jewish immigrant to Ecuador, in order to serve the needs of Guayaquil’s small but growing Jewish population. Online pastoral support to the temple is provided by Rabbi Nancy Wiener of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at Hebrew Union College in New York City.
Although not ordained as a rabbi, Hauer-Simmonds currently supervises the program at Bet Jadesh, as well as at a Conservative temple in another part of Guayaquil. Bet Jadesh was founded about eight years ago with 12 members but has since grown to over 144 officially converted members. In addition to organizing services, Hauer-Simmonds maintains a small lending library of printed and electronic literature about Jewish history in Ecuador.
“There are no Sephardic Jews any more in Ecuador … The Sephardic immigrants lost their identity in the second generation of immigration to the New World,” says Hauer-Simmonds. Yet, he explains that the members of the temple “want to go back to their roots. They feel they are Jews, people touched by HaShem (the Unnamable Divine Being).”
Hauer-Simmond’s words are echoed in the experience of member Yadira Betsabé Ruiz Mora, who joined Bet Jadesh in 2012. Ruiz Mora is one of the temple’s hasam titzbar, people who lead the reading and chanting from the siddur. “I am Jewish,” she says, “The Torah fascinates me. In addition, I consider myself to be a Sephardic Jew based on my last name. I am studying my own roots and investigating my origin.” Ruiz Mora’s perception is based on more than wishful thinking. She says, “Many things were hidden in my family. My great-grandmother, for example, would clean the house every Friday. If she did not, the Virgin would not bless the home. She also had to cook meat in one type of pot and cheese in a separate pot,” alluding to kosher practices in the kitchen. She affirms that women feel that they have an important role in the Bet Jadesh congregation. “It’s important for everyone to participate.”
Luis German Macias Ortega recently converted to Judaism after attending services at Bet Jadesh. “There is an old legend in our family,” he says. “Three brothers left Spain after the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews. They decided to split up and try their fortunes. One went to Mexico, one went to Cartagena in Colombia, and one came to Ecuador. I am the descendant of the last brother.”
As a child, Macias Ortega learned a few letters of the Hebrew alphabet by studying illustrations in his grandfather’s copy of the “Book of Enoch.” Later, he immersed himself in the study of Kabbalah at a Gnostic temple in Medellín, Colombia. Macias Ortega continues his study of Kabbalah to this day. He has taught himself the entire Hebrew alphabet, as well as the 72 names of God. However, like most members of Bet Jadesh, he doesn’t speak or read Hebrew fluently.
Macias Ortega’s family survival story makes sense historically. Due to its geopolitical location, Ecuador was a refuge for descendants of the Sephardic Jews fleeing Europe. Sandwiched between two powerful headquarters of the Catholic Church’s Inquisition, one in Lima, Peru and the other in Cartagena, Colombia, the south of Ecuador offered a relatively remote and unpopulated territory beyond the reach of the organized forces of state and church in the Americas. According to scholar Prof. Ricardo Ordoñez Chiriboga, PhD., many converted Jews and crypto-Jews settled in the area surrounding Loja, Ecuador, retaining distorted customs from their Sephardic traditions. Prof. Ordoñez and others estimate that as much as 1/3 of Ecuador’s current population is descended, at least in part, from this small population of Sephardic refugees.
Hauer-Simmonds expects the Jewish congregation of Bet Jadesh to continue growing. He notes that although some of the growth is based on fashion and caché, “there is great interest in Judaism here in Ecuador.” This interest is certainly expressed by the dedicated members who attend Bet Jadesh services, organize holiday celebrations, and study Hebrew on their own at home. As Ruiz Mora says, “For me, Judaism is a discipline for preparing for Shabbat (the holy day). Its intellectual aspect allows us to understand ourselves, that and our study of Hebrew. It’s a way to satisfy ignorance with wisdom.”
Editor’s note: In Ladino, the Spanish word Nuester becomes Muester, meaning “our” as in “our God.”