Hola, Shalom

Isabel Burns - Ecuador


March 18, 2014

The first time I ever realized that being Jewish was rare in some parts of the world was when I visited Mexico at age 13. In the border city of Tijuana, helping to build a house, one of the kids asked me if I was Christian or Catholic. To be fair, I was there with a church group, but even when I tried to explain that I was something else, a third option, the kids didn’t understand. I was surprised–sure, even in the states I didn’t know many Jews, but at least people knew what “Jewish” meant.

That short conversation has stuck with me through the 5 long years since. I thought of it as an example of the gap in knowledge among people in the world, but never as a hint as to how little people know about my religion.  At the time, I didn’t even know very much about my religion. I was raised with understanding of the ways Jews viewed G-d, but I was never directly told if a higher power existed or not. My cultural understanding of Judaism was limited as well. My family celebrated a mix of Jewish and Christian holidays, so most of my experience with Judaism came from small Hanukah and Passover celebrations. It wasn’t until I went to a Jewish summer camp that I found myself more interested in learning about the traditions and history of my religious heritage.

Through that camp and my decision to join a Jewish youth group, I created my own Jewish education. With every activity and event, I learned more about Jewish traditions, and began to love the shared history all of us had. I found myself associating Judaism with a community that was inviting and kind, that believed in lasting connections, and that strove to offer support to everyone when they needed it the most. It taught me how to be confident in myself and my ideas, and how to support others so that they could be the same way. It was an important part of my life in high school, and something I wanted very much to take forward with me.

But as I began packing my bags for Ecuador, my hands stopped at every “Jewish” thing I wanted to bring. Thinking on my experiences in Mexico, and knowing that Ecuador’s population is 95% Catholic, I wasn’t sure how people would respond. Would people even know what it was?  If they did, would I somehow offend someone, accidentally close the door on a friendship I’d never gotten to start? How would people respond to my small Star of David necklace charm?

But I packed it. I took it with me over miles and miles to arrive in the small city of Tena with it in my backpack. I haven’t worn it much, but I keep it to remind myself of the ways Judaism has shaped me. But strangely, in this place where I’m probably the only Jew most people have ever met, the values taught by my religion and the values I see in daily life are similar. When I think of Judaism, I think of community, of bonds that hold tight over time and distance. I remember how much love I’ve felt, even from people I’ve just met, and how it’s made me more loving of others and myself. And Ecuador feels like that, too. My host community is almost entirely comprised of one family, and they’re closer than any family I’ve ever seen. Even relatives who don’t seem that closely related (our neighbors are my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law’s cousins) are treated like siblings. And I came into this family, new and shy and unable to show my personality in Spanish, and have only ever been treated like family myself. I’m called sister or daughter by my family, even by the people I only see once a month. I feel like a member of the Tapuy family, even though we’ve really just met.

Just as my experiences in the Jewish community helped shape me, I find myself a little bit different with every day that goes by in Ecuador. The community that surrounds you is such an important part of everything you do, and a good community will pick you up and make you better. In Ecuador, my community represents love and support, generosity and group mentality. I can feel those values taking root in my personality, just as Jewish values of openness, confidence and community have. For now, I will let them grow, and try to make myself better for it.

Isabel Burns