Me outside of iconic fashion store Browns in the mid 80s with my boss, Sidney Burstein, gazing out of the window.
I didn’t know any Jews until I moved to London and started working in the fashion business at the age of 22. For a good part of the 1980s I was employed as a manager/buyer of iconic store Browns by owner Joan Burstein CBE – affectionately known as Mrs B – of whom I was very fond indeed (she’s still actively involved in the business today, aged 86).
Many of Browns’ clients lived in the Jewish hub of North West London – particularly in the gilded neighbourhoods of St. John’s Wood and Hampstead – and formed a rarefied subset of British Jewry. I was impressed by their dynamism, commitment to the arts and charity, and their loyalty to Israel. They seemed like a special kind of minority to me; Jewish first and British second. A few became friends; even close friends.
But what about British Jewry in general? How well have they assimilated? According to Paul Vallely, in an article he wrote for the Independent newspaper in 2006, “there are about 350,000 Jews in the UK – around two-thirds in London, with around 40,000 in Manchester and significant communities in Leeds, Glasgow, Brighton, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Gateshead and Southend. That spreads the community pretty thin.” He quotes the Jewish peer Lord Janner as saying, “Not less than 30 per cent [marry outside the faith] and that’s really serious.” The implication is that some of their number have integrated and assimilated just a little too well for his liking.
I recently got thinking about Jews in Ecuador. Do they even exist in this predominantly Catholic country? And if so, how assimilated are they? Where do they live?
Lisa Franks of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs says that “there have been Jews in Ecuador since the Spanish conquest in the 1500s but these early Sephardic families almost completely assimilated or disappeared; by 1904 there were only four Jewish families in the entire country. A new wave of immigration to all American countries began as the Nazis rose in power in the 1930s.
The Jewish population in Ecuador peaked at 4,000 in 1950, most of whom lived in Quito and other urban centers. They were legally restricted to agriculture or industrial occupations but most worked as merchants or professionals who soon became successful…”
Currently, the Jewish community is much smaller. The “Comunidad Judía del Ecuador”, a congregation and community organization in Quito, estimates their active membership at 500 – 600, mostly middle- and upper-class, 25 to 60 years old. Eighty percent speak English. Perhaps there are a 1000 Jews in total in Ecuador. (1)
So are Ecuadorian Jews a reflection of the broader society and how well have they assimilated? After spending a year in Ecuador Lisa Franks believes “that while Jews in Quito have a strong identity and wield economic power, they are fairly assimilated culturally speaking. They speak Spanish, do not keep kosher, and many have non-Jewish Ecuadorian spouses [I suppose they really have no choice]. At the same time, their command of English and business prowess has allowed them to ‘dominate’ sectors of the Ecuadorian economy. While many well-off Ecuadorians live in large apartments in nice neighborhoods, the Jewish homes [she has] visited…are clearly even more wealthy; for example…they have two or three maids instead of one, and the dining rooms comfortably seat thirty people. One man runs his own radio show, another family has a wide-spread bakery chain, others are professors or high-level bureaucrats, and many have their own business.”
Although Lisa Franks claims that Ecuadorian Jews do not keep kosher The Comunidad Judía del Ecuador (Jewish Community of Ecuador) has an on-site kosher kitchen and cafeteria. It not only offers home delivery, but also provides kosher food for some of the cruise ships that sail to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. It also has squash and tennis courts, a large indoor swimming pool, a youth center and its own soccer field. The complex also boasts one of the largest ballrooms in Quito, which is used for bar mitzvahs, weddings and other social events. And a synagogue of course.
Rolf Stern, who is just completing a six-year term as president of the Jewish Community, has launched an outreach effort designed to attract foreign Jews to migrate to Ecuador. He believes that it’s a great place to live and bring up kids and that the relationships between Jews and the Ecuadorian government and the population at-large are excellent. “Jews are generally admired for being hard-working and are considered to be successful people. There is no anti-Semitism in Ecuador, at least not in the last 30 years.” (2)
Jewish Community Center of Ecuador
Jewish Community Centre of Ecuador Swimming Pool
To conclude, Ariel Lackenbacher, 20, who attends Quito’s synagogue, says he feels a strong Jewish connection in a cultural, not a religious way. He feels Judaism, its traditions, made them the individuals they are now. “Every Jewish person in Quito has their own life and their own friends. [They go to different schools, as Jews live all over the city.] But, finally, we are a united community.” (3)
On a personal note I just wish I could find somewhere that sold lox and bagels!
1. “Few in number, strong in faith” by Norma Davidoff Shulman, Richard H. Shulman, The Jerusalem Post. http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-Features/Few-in-number-strong-in-faith
2. “Jews in Quito prosper near the “middle of the world” by Dan Fellner, The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. http://global-travel-info.com/quito-ecuador-jewish-community.html/
3. “Few in number, strong in faith” by Norma Davidoff Shulman, Richard H. Shulman, The Jerusalem Post. http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-Features/Few-in-number-strong-in-faith