Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Jews of Ecuador

While Ecuador does not have a large Jewish population, (there are fewer than 400 active members of the community), its history mirrors that of many South American and Central American Jewish communities.

The first Jews who lived in the region now know as Ecuador arrived with the Spanish and Portuguese settlers. These Jews, however, kept their identities secret, living as conversos in fear of the Inquisition. Many of them settled in remote villages, far away from prying eyes.

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were only four families in the country who publicly identified as Jews. This increased to 14 families by 1917. By 1950, however, there were close to 4,000 Jews, as European Jews fleeing rising anti-Semitism started arriving in large numbers in the 1930s. Ecuador was one of the last South American countries to close its doors to immigrants.

Eventually, however, Ecuador determined that it could not accept any more foreigners. It was particularly problematic to the government that many of the Jewish refugees arrived on visas specific for agricultural occupation but ended up as merchants, businessmen and industrialists. To be fair, many did try to fulfill their agricultural obligation but failed in their endeavors. In the early 1950s, when the Jewish population of Ecuador was at its largest, the Ecuadorian government passed a law requiring all foreigners to prove that they were working in the occupation listed on their visas.

While the community is small, and struggles with high rates of assimilation and intermarriage, their community infrastructure remains strong. The majority of Jews live in the city of Quito and are connected to the Asociacion de Beneficencia Israelita. Most of their children attend the Colegro Experimental Alberto Einstein, a college preparatory school that includes Hebrew and Jewish studies. The school is so well regarded that many upper class, non-Jewish Ecuadorians choose to attend as well.

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