We’re Everywhere…

Lily Ellenberg - Ecuador


November 9, 2011

The last thing I expected was bagels. I never imagined the heaven of a brunch of Jewish comfort food. But indeed I had the opportunity, along with two other Jewish fellows, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the Jewish community in Quito.

To get into the synagogue we had to bring copies of our passports and were subjected to the routine (for all gringos) bag check and body-scan. After they established we weren’t dangerous, we were let into the beautiful white building. My congregation in Portland is Reconstructionist, very informal, politically liberal, and the synagogue is a remodeled warehouse. This synagogue is impressive Sephardic architecture (although attended by Ashkenazi Jews as well.) You should know, right off the bat, the majority of Jews in Ecuador are very wealthy. They were the best-dressed crowd I have seen in Ecuador, maybe ever!

In this synagogue, the women sit above separately, so I had to leave Jacob and Mitchell. I felt a bit stranded at first and yet there was plenty to be curious about.  As I entered and took in the fancy clothes, lovely jewelry, and all the classic older Jewish women complete with furs, pearls, lots of makeup and expertly coiffed hair, I couldn’t help but speculate about the chatter of the conversations I could not quite grasp. Was it prayer or fantastic gossip?

In the United States, the security check, separate seating, and great disparity in wealth between me and the congregation would have made me feel pretty uncomfortable. However, being so far from home during the High Holidays, I could not have been happier to be settling into my seat in a synagogue. The service was great; some of the tunes of prayers were different from what I’m used to, but I fumbled along anyway.

After the service, we were driven by Rolf, the president of the community, to the beautiful home of Ruti where we were treated to a fabulous meal. Tall and speaking perfect English, Ruti called us “sweetheart,” a term of endearment I hadn’t heard in a while. As we drove, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a wonderfully long car ride and I got out of the vehicle wanting to read a book by him.

I was fascinated by all the cross-cultural threads of the evening. Rolf, born and raised by two German parents in Ecuador, is a very warm-hearted and interesting man. During college in New York, he met and married a woman from Long Island. I told him my father grew up in Queens, and when we talked about the F train, I was absolutely delighted. Then I learned his wife had started a successful New York style bagel business in Quito. Bagels! Jacob, Mitchell, and I vowed to visit the shop as soon as possible!

Rolf spoke like a true scholar and asked me about Havurah Shalom (my congregation). When I didn’t know the answers, instead of giving up on me, he asked me other, more simple questions. His mannerisms were so familiar to my Jewish upbringing. I apologized for not knowing more and he simply said: “Do not worry, the next time we talk, you will know.” His soothing voice and confidence were so reassuring.

In the sanctuary, the minute I’d been handed the Siddur I had felt completely at ease. Surrounded by Hebrew and other Jewish people, it didn’t matter that my Spanish isn’t great or that I’m still new to Ecuadorian culture. There in the Synagogue I understood all the traditions and knew what to say and when to say it. I have always been proud of my Jewish culture and I was again thankful, for it helped me feel at home in a foreign place.

I couldn’t wait for Yom Kippur!

Lily Ellenberg