Alex Ruf traveled here from Ecuador to find the Jewish community she needed

Alex Ruf came from Quito, Ecuador, to Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School so she could be freely Jewish.
Photo by Samantha Cooper

It’s a cold November morning and 17-year-old Alex Ruf is concerned. As she sits down in the conference room at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, she begins to unbundle: coat, hat, scarf and sweater. She’s never experienced weather like this before. Her hometown of Quito, Ecuador, never gets this cold.

“I can’t get up in the morning because of the cold weather,” she says.

When she arrived in August to start her junior year at the Rockville school, it was still short-sleeve weather.

But she’ll take the cold. It’s worth it for the Jewish community she found here. In Ecuador, she was one of 300 Jews, and she struggled to fit in with her non-Jewish peers. They made fun of her deep red hair and her religious practices.

She felt like an outsider.

“I felt like I needed a break. I needed a fresh start,” she says.

“I wanted to get to know more about my Jewish life and I couldn’t do that [in Ecuador]. There’s no Jewish schools. There weren’t many opportunities to learn about or be part of any Jewish community. For a long time, I felt like I couldn’t be freely Jewish.”

So, she began looking for alternatives. Her aunt and grandmother both live in Montgomery County. They heard that Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School was holding an open house, so they went to find out if the school might be a fit for Alex. In Quito, Alex loved the idea.

And her parents, who hadn’t wanted her to go abroad, were happy that she would be staying with family.

Alex loved that she had the chance to start fresh and be freely Jewish, and be able to learn about her religion in depth. In Ecuador, she took Hebrew language classes online. At Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, she learns with other Jewish teenagers.

And she’s able to study Jewish history, which she didn’t have the opportunity to do before.

Most importantly, she now has a group of Jewish friends.

“Everyone’s been really nice and welcoming,” Alex says. The school paired her with another student to show her the ropes. “We’ve become really good friends as well.”

With her new friends, Alex has been exploring Washington. They’ve been to museums. They’ve been kayaking. And once there is a good snowfall, Alex’s friends plan on taking her sledding.

In Quito, Alex and her family celebrated Shabbat and the holidays at home. They kept kosher. It was very isolating.

Now, she celebrates Shabbat at her friends’ houses.

“Everything is so happy now,” she says. “I can celebrate Shabbat and all the Jewish holidays. Everything has been so new and totally different than what I’m used to.”

Alex says she plans to return to Charles E. Smith Jewish day school for her senior year, and graduate there. After that, she is thinking about studying marine biology, possibly in Europe.

But for now, she feels at home in a way she never did in Quito.

“Now I can wear the Star of David on a necklace,” she says. “Everyone’s Jewish here. During Sukkot, we walked down the road and saw all the sukkahs and people dressed up wearing kippot. You go to concerts and you go out, and everyone is Jewish.”

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Twitter: @SamScoopCooper

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