Latinamerica Press / September 17, 2001
By Larry Luxner
QUITO -- Heading southbound toward Quito along the Pan-American Highway, motorists can't miss Ecuador's most famous landmark: the huge roadside monument, concrete globe and painted yellow line marking latitude 0°0'0" -- where the Northern Hemisphere meets the Southern.
About five miles past the Equator is a far less obvious but infinitely more important landmark, for Jews at least: the lavish new sede or headquarters of the Comunidad Judía del Ecuador (CJE).
Occupying an 18,000-square-meter plot of land, the multimillion-dollar complex -- not visible from the highway -- is tastefully decorated in marble and varnished wood and resembles the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. Inaugurated less than a year ago, it includes a synagogue, Torah study room, tennis courts, mikve, swimming pool, jacuzzi, weightlifting room, cafeteria, sauna, children's activity rooms, administrative offices and a ballroom so big that it could accommodate every Jew in Ecuador with plenty of breathing space left over.
"There are only 700 Jews here," says Enrique Heller, "but if you took a poll and asked people in the street how many Jews live in Ecuador, they'd tell you at least 100,000."
Heller, 38, is president of the CJE and owner of the Texas Chicken, a fast-food chain with 19 outlets throughout the country. Prominent Ecuadoran Jews, he said, include Pedro Kohn, manager of Corporación Financiera Nacional; Pablo Better, former president of the Central Bank, and Harry Klein, Ecuador's new ambassador to Argentina. The Deller family, which bankrolled construction of the synagogue at the new sede, owns Quicentro Shopping, one of Ecuador's largest malls.
"We also had two people from the community who ran for municipal office, Monica Heller and Tommy Schwartzkopf," he said. "They didn't win, but not because they were Jewish. In Argentina, a Jew couldn't run for office. Here, there are possibilities."
The general absence of anti-Semitism in this small Andean country may be related to the fact that Judaism came relatively late to Ecuador -- though in recent times, vestiges of Jewish life have been uncovered in the town of Loja, where a Jewish community may have flourished as early as the 17th century.
"Some Jews evidently came with the Spanish conquerors, but those were marranos [Jews who converted to Christianity but continued to practice Judaism secretly]. The Jewish community in Ecuador today is mainly a product of World War II," says Johnny Czarninski, general manager of Mi Comisariato, a department-store chain headquartered in the bustling port city of Guayaquil.
Interestingly, the community in Guayaquil was established in 1939, long before the one in Quito -- even though today, Quito is home to 620 of the country's 700 Jews. Most of the remainder live in Guayaquil, with a few families scattered in Ambato and Cuenca.
"Almost all the original Jewish refugees here were Ashkenazim -- Germans, Austrians and Polish Jews. They were able to get visas to Ecuador, by whatever means. Some bought them, some came through friends. You can imagine how this climate was for them, with all the fever and diseases. So as soon as they could, they moved to Quito and Cuenca, where the climate is more European."
By 1945, there were over 2,000 Jews in Guayaquil, says Czarninski, who's also the honorary Israeli consul in Guayaquil. "They were very poor. They had a synagogue where they gathered, but it was a rented place. Guayaquil was a town of 300,000 inhabitants, and Quito was even smaller. Of those where were left here, the community continueed to dwindle. People kept moving away, mainly to the United States and Israel. They sent their children away to study, and most did not come back. By 1975, the community in Guayaquil had practically disappeared; only two or three of the original families are still here. The present community is composed of Jews who have come in recent years from Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Israel."
In Mapasingue, a dirt-poor neighborhood of Guayaquil, where the garbage-strewn roads run with raw sewage and locals make their way through the potholes on bicycles, stands the new Comunidad Israelita de Guayaquil.
Stepping into this fortress -- which is guarded by four security officers and surrounded by a nine-foot-high concrete wall topped with broken glass bottles -- is like entering another world. The carefully manicured grass, the sound of birds singing and the freshly painted white building all attest to the pride of Guayaquil's tiny Jewish community, and its relative wealth.
The center, built in 1990, boasts tennis courts and a swimming pool. Inside, a bulletin board is plastered with pictures of the Lubavitch rebbe and snapshots of the most recent Chanukah party, while upstairs are four classrooms and a small bedroom used for hosting visiting rabbis who come for the High Holy Days. The caretaker, Clara Sánchez de Granados, has a separate living quarters within the compound, living here with her husband and teenage son.
As impressive as it is, this center pales in comparison with the sede in Quito. Among other things, the complex --which could easily be mistaken for a luxury hotel -- has the third-largest ballroom in Quito after the Marriott and the members-only Club El Condado. The building is even more impressive at night, when its ancient-looking stone arches are bathed in yellow floodlights.
"We've been able to rekindle Jewish life here," says Czarninski. "Twenty years ago everything had disappeared."
One of the community's oldest members is 93-year-old Gerardo Anker. A retired physician, Anker arrived in 1941 from France, where he was interned in an enemy camp because of his German origin.
"It was very difficult to get visas, and Ecuador was one of the few countries that opened its doors to us," said Anker, who like many in the community still speaks Spanish with a thick German or Yiddish accent. "In all the years I've lived here, we've never encountered any type of anti-Semitism."
Says another Jew, retired liquor importer Alfredo Abrahamson: "When I arrived here in 1938, there were practically no Jews here. The Ecuadoran community was extremely open to immigration. Everybody was completely free, which was a big change from what we had before. Those who stayed really made roots here. It was practically the only country on the continent that was never divided between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. This community always stuck together."
Yet that hasn't helped stem the exodus of Ecuador's Jews to the United States and elsewhere. Today, an estimated 80% of the 500 students at Quito's Colegio Ecuatoriano Hebreo Alberto Einstein aren't Jewish.
Heller, who was director of the school before being elected president of the community earlier this year, says he's looking to hire a rabbi, "preferably one from Latin America who understands the Latin mentality." The community's current spiritual leader is Dr. León Rzonzew, a 35-year-old Colombian Jew of Polish descent.
In the meantime, yet another CJE activist, Dr. Ernesto Lehman, is busy writing a history of Ecuador's Jews. All members are being sent questionnaires to help in compiling information, and the book is expected to be published by early next year.