Rabbi Daniel A. Roberts and Cantor Sarah Sager got a taste of Ecuador’s small but thriving Jewish community during a recent trip to that South American country.
“To visit with the Jewish community there was incredible,” said Roberts, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu El in Orange.
Roberts and Sager, longtime cantor at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, were part of a group of 18 – all Jewish clergy and their spouses – that took part in the familiarization trip Jan. 9 to Jan. 18 offered by Ayelet Tours, based in Albany, N.Y. Roberts traveled with his wife, Elaine, while Sager was the lone cantor in the group.
They spent three days in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador with a Jewish population of about 600, and five days in the Galapagos Islands.
“Going to that area has been a dream of mine, especially for a photographer such as myself,” said Roberts, an Orange resident. “When you go to the Galapagos Islands, you walk among the birds and the wildlife there, and it’s unbelievable; they’re not frightened of us in any way.”
Sager, of Shaker Heights, departed Jan. 5 and met the group four days later after visiting Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu, all in Peru.
“I had heard of Machu Picchu as a mysterious, wonderful, spiritual place, and had read a book about (Charles) Darwin some years ago, and the significance of Galapagos had always remained in my memory,” she said. “Here was an opportunity to visit both of those places, so it was sort of irresistible.”
Darwin made a scientific study of the Galapagos Islands in the 1830s that is said to have played an important role in his theory of evolution published in 1859. Roberts described the islands as “very primitive.”
“These are oceanographic islands, all uninhabited,” he said. “Naturalists walk you through and tell you what all the birds are and how the earth came into being. It’s a lot of hiking over rugged terrain, all volcanic, and it was tough for Elaine and myself. It’s not a trip for sissies.”
In Quito, Roberts and Sager toured the Albert Einstein School, which serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The private school was founded by members of the Jewish community, but the overwhelming majority of its students are not Jewish, Roberts said.
“It’s such a fine school, everyone wants to send their kids there,” he said. “It was a terrific experience to see the school with its beautiful classrooms, science labs and fabulous library.”
Roberts and Sager were also impressed with Quito’s Jewish Community Center, which houses a Conservative synagogue. They attended a Friday night service at Comunidad Judia del Ecuador.
“The service was in Hebrew and Spanish, and the melodies of some of the prayers were different,” Roberts said. “That was certainly a highlight (of the trip).”
Sager described the school, community center and synagogue as “all very lovely.”
“Some of the melodies (of the prayers) were familiar, but most were not,” she said. “I always love to hear the music of other places.”
After the service, the group enjoyed a Shabbat meal at the synagogue.
“It’s a very tight-knit community, and they look after each other and take care of each other,” Roberts said. “It was really wonderful.”
Sager said throughout the trip, a Hebrew phrase kept going through her mind: “Mah rabu maasecha, Adonai, kulam b’chochma asita,” which means “How manifold are your works, Oh Lord; in wisdom you have made them all.”
“One felt very close to nature and to creation and to the wonder of creation and the variety of this world,” she said.
Roberts, who served 30 years as senior rabbi at Temple Emanu El and has been rabbi emeritus since 2002, said while it was “a fabulous trip we will long remember,” he’s not sure if he would return to Ecuador.
“Our favorite trip is to Israel,” he said. “I’ve traveled there 40-some times, including 18 or 19 times with my wife, and it’s very spiritual and meaningful. That’s not to say I wasn’t spiritually moved in this trip, but one time is sufficient.”
Sager, in her 34th year as cantor at Fairmount Temple, said she would like to go back. She plans to speak to the congregation about her trip, but she’s not sure when.
“I’m hoping to lead a trip with a temple group there in the near future,” she said.