El Salvador: A Trip Beyond My Comfort Zone
November 16, 2022
by Balbino Cotarelo Núñez for JewishLink
It’s hard not to read “Lech Lecha” as an invitation to Avraham Avinu—and each of us—to go beyond our comfort zones. In this spirit, I’m recapping my recent trip to spend time with the unsung kehillah in El Salvador, and invite you to consider one day putting it on your itinerary, too.
I spent much of my youth in the hills of Asturias in Spain, so I know a thing or two about beautiful countryside. El Salvador has all that and more: cliffs, caves, volcanoes, exceptional waterfalls, lakes, incredible sunsets and world-class beaches.
Selfishly, I want readers to believe the worst of the sensationalized reports that you used to hear on the news about gang violence. These reports discourage tourists so hotel prices remain low (under $30/night in most places), and those who do end up going get to enjoy the country at rock-bottom prices. In truth, locals told me that the new government has done an exceptional job of reducing violence across the couple of neighborhoods in the capital that were gang-controlled. They’d probably still avoid these neighborhoods where possible, just as I wouldn’t want to spend the night in areas with double their homicide rates like downtown Baltimore or certain parts of New York.
As a semicha student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (and as a native Spanish speaker!) I was invited to be a rabbinical presence and lead the community over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Jews in this community are too poor to support a full-time rabbi in the country but frequently have visiting rabbis (and an increasing volume of tourists!) who stop there on their way to other Latin American countries like Panama, Guatemala, Argentina or Mexico. But what they lack in financial resources, they more than make up for in their generosity of spirit and hachnasat orchim. Before Rosh Hashanah finished, I’d already accepted their invitation to extend my trip over Sukkot. This gave me more time to visit the few families that live further from the two main communities. One of these is in San Salvador, where the Orthodox beit knesset serves the Jews spread far and wide across the city; the other is concentrated around the country’s other Sefardi shul in the countryside of Armenia.