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Ecuador Virtual Jewish History Tour

[By: Jacqueline Shields]

Some historians argue that Jews first settled in Ecuador during the Colonial Period, however the community's number was small (or non-existent) until after World War II. Today, the Jewish population of Ecuador is approximately 600.

- Immigration & Adjustment
- Prominent Ecuadorian Jews
- Modern Jewish Community

Immigration & Adjustment

Most historians assert that Jews were among the Spanish settlers of Ecuador in colonial times. Certain family names among established Ecuadorian families attest to their Sephardi ancestry; however, prior to World War II there was very little Jewish immigration to Ecuador. In 1904 there were only four Jewish families in the country, and a survey in 1917 indicated the presence of 14 Jews. After 1924, when the United States established its immigration quota system, a handful more arrived in Ecuador. Yet, only in the wake of the rise of Nazism and the ensuing Holocaust in Europe did the Jewish mass immigration to Ecuador began. During the years 1933-43 about 2,700 Jews arrived, and by 1945 there were 3,000 new Jewish immigrants, 85% of whom were refugees from Europe.

In the early years of World War II, Ecuador still admitted a certain amount of immigrants, and in 1939, when several South American countries refused to accept the 165 Jewish refugees from Germany aboard the ship "Koenigstein," Ecuador granted them entry permits. Nevertheless, the country eventually gave way to a policy of selectivity. Jewish immigration to Ecuador were supposed to be employed in the agricultural realm, but the authorities soon surmised that the immigrants were actually merchants, industrialists, and businessmen, and were not farming. As a result, in 1938 legislation was passed compelling any Jew not engaged in agriculture or industry to leave the country. In addition, entry rights were limited to those Jews who possessed a minimum of $400, which they would have to invest in an industrial project.

In 1935 the Comite pour l'Etude de l'Industrie de l'Immigration dans la Republique de l'Equateur was established in Paris by the organization, the Freeland League of Jewish Colonization, with the purpose of creating a settlement program in Ecuador. An agreement was reached with the Ecuadorian government to transfer 500,000 acres of land to the Committee's jurisdiction for a period of 30 years to be settled by immigrants regardless of race, religion, or nationality. Several concessions were also promised, such as tax exemption for three years, citizenship after one year, customs exemption, and free transportation by train from the port to the interior of the country. The president signed the agreement several months later on the condition that a detailed program be presented by May 1937 and that the Committee invest $8,000 and settle at least 100 families. Some Jewish organizations, however, found the land proposed for the plan unacceptable, claiming that it was too far from population centers and that the climate was too severe. The result of these objections was the total abandonment of the project.

Following this attempt, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and HICEM attempted to establish chicken farms for the immigrants in other areas of Ecuador, and 60 families were settled, but conditions precluded any success in the venture, which ultimately failed. Most of the immigrants were businessmen and professionals who preferred to carry on their professions. Interestingly, many discovered that the native balsa wood was excellent for furniture craft and began production. Later, these immigrants introduced iron and steel furniture to the Ecuadorian market, previously unknown to the country. They also developed retail stores and opened hotels. The success of the immigrants, however, caused tension among the Syrian and Cuban community who had previously controlled those fields of business. This pressure led to an anti-Jewish sentiment for awhile, but nothing more substantial.

At its peak, in 1950, the Jewish population of Ecuador was estimated at 4,000 persons, the majority living in Quito, several hundred in Guayaquil, and several scores in Ambato, Riobamba, and Cuenca. In 1952, a law was passed requiring every foreigner to supply proof that he was engaged in the occupation stipulated in his entry visa. The World Jewish Congress tried to help those Jews who were practicing business, but were only supposed to be in the agricultural sector; however, attempts at agricultural settlement were unsuccessful.

Prominent Ecuadorian Jews

Ecuadorian Jews have achieved prominence in various fields including academics, industry, and science. Benno Weiser (Benjamin Varon), who was an active Ecuadorian journalism, later entered the Israel diplomatic service and served in various Latin American countries. His brother, Max Weiser, was the first Israel consul in Ecuador.

In the industrial field, where Jews played an especially important role, the names Rothschild and Seligmann stand out in the area of the development of metal industries, and the pharmaceutical industry is indebted to Carlos Alberti Ottolenghi and Alberto Di Capua. Paul Engel, an endocrinologist and pathologist, was a co-founder of the Endocrine Society of Ecuador.

Modern Jewish Community

The Jewish community of Ecuador is predominantly of German origin, but the younger generation is Spanish-speaking. The Ecuadorian Jewish community is a homogeneous group, a fact which has facilitated great communal organization. The Asociacion de Beneficencia Israelita, founded in 1938, is the central body for religious and cultural affairs. Other organizations in the country are the Zionist Federation, B'nai B'rith, Wizo, and Maccabi. A bilingual Spanish-German bulletin, Informaciones, is published by the community. Interestingly, intermarriage is not as great of a problem in Ecuador as elsewhere since Jews form a separate middle-stratum between the upper, traditionally Catholic classes, and the lower classes of the indigenous population.

There is a Jewish school in Quito, the Colegio Experimental Alberto Einstein, established in 1973, which serves both Jewish and non-Jewish students from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. All Jewish holidays are celebrated by the school, and Hebrew and other Jewish studies are taught there. The school has an excellent reputation and superb pre-college preparatory program. The Jewish community of Quito has its own building, a home for the aged, and a synagogue that holds services on the Sabbath and holidays.

Ecuador has traditionally maintained friendly relations with Israel, and has frequently supported Israel in the United Nations. The Ecuadorian Embassy is in Tel Aviv . In the late 1960's, a network of technical cooperation and assistance was developed between the two countries, especially in the fields of agriculture, and water development. Since 1948, 137 Ecuadorian Jews have emigrated to Israel.

Sources: Beker, Dr. Avi. (ed.) Jewish Communities of the World. Lerner Publication Co. 1998.
"Ecuador," Encyclopedia Judaica
Chanukkah photo courtesy Colegio Experimental Alberto Einstein
Chimborazo, Ecuador photo courtesy Dabit100