April 24, 2024
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April 24, 2024
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Caicedo Family Journeys From Ecuador, And Church, to New Jersey and Judaism

Hannah Caicedo, of Westfield, New Jersey, has known for a very long time—since she was 7 years old—that “something was off” concerning her Christian upbringing in South America. “It just didn’t make sense,” she said. “People around me were believing, but not really knowing. Committing, but I wondered whether they really knew what they were committing to.”

The rule was to believe and not to ask questions. “That was my red flag. Didn’t they want you to know for a fact, not just believe?” As Caicedo looks back to that moment, she said it defines exactly where her search began. “Staring at a wooden cross, I knew the truth was ‘out there’ and not where I was standing. Not in my wildest dreams would my 7 year old self have imagined the beautiful journey I would embark on, filled with an ocean of questions.”

At the age of 9, Anna (now Hannah) Caicedo moved with her mother and brother from Ecuador to New York, spending hours after school at the library searching for answers. In high school, she came upon the book “The Way: Using the Wisdom of Kabbalah for Spiritual Transformation and Fulfillment’’ by Michael Berg. Devouring the book in a couple of days, she realized it was the first step in her search, and set her sights on the day she would live as a Jew.

In 2010 Caicedo went to court in New York and officially changed her name from Anna to Hannah, taking the Hebrew name of Chana. Twelve years later and “on a beautiful September day in 2020, now with two daughters of my own, that yearning became a reality,” as she and her daughters, Kaylie and Leah, entered into the covenant of Judaism.

“It was the most memorable day of my life, together with my daughters, making it even more special,” she said. “Hashem has been amazing to us, leading us here. We are also blessed to have a mother/grandmother who has always been supportive.”

Although seeing her father only a handful of times during her youth, Caicedo was later fortunate to share time with her paternal family. While raising her daughters, she and her father reconnected and started communicating more. She then learned that he, too, had been searching for something. He is now studying Judaism and they speak almost daily, sharing thoughts on the parsha and Judaism-related topics. He is also very supportive of her decision, and she senses that a similar path might lie ahead for him.

Over time, Caicedo and her girls realized that they longed for a genuinely Jewish education, and discussed it with a friend at the Chabad of Westfield. “The community in Westfield has been nothing but amazing,” Caicedo said. “Chabad has been very welcoming since day one. The rabbi, rebbetzin and congregation are so authentically caring [toward] each other. We love being at Westfield Chabad. They not only run weekly services but also special programs and Sunday school for kids.

“I am very grateful for the people that Hashem has placed in our life along this journey. They have been beautiful, good hearted people, and we will forever be grateful.”

Caicedo had expressed to Georgette Chinitz, a friend from Chabad, the family’s dream for a Jewish education for her daughters. Chinitz put them in touch with Erika Sauerhoff of Hillside, long-time friend and neighbor of Rae Kushner, z”l.

Sauerhoff, knowing that the dream of Rae Kushner was to make Jewish education accessible to everyone who sought it, introduced the family to the appropriate professionals at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (JKHA) and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) in Livingston. The Kushner system embraced the family, advising and assisting Kaylie, the older daughter who is a junior at Westfield High School, to engage in Hebrew tutoring, so that she could look forward to her senior year at RKYHS. Leah, who is a sixth grader, has already started at JKHA, and so two dreams have unfolded into reality: that of the Caicedo family as well as Rae Kushner, z”l.

Caicedo expressed what is special to her about being a Jewish woman. “Living on purpose. Having the primary role and being entrusted by Hashem to perform tasks solely given to the Jewish woman: lighting Shabbat candles, separating challah, taharat hamishpacha, educating our children in Torah and mitzvot, and in doing so, ensuring the continuation of Judaism generation after generation. It is really an amazing privilege.”

Daughter Kaylie discussed what draws her to head off to Israel for her gap year, never having been there before. “I am really looking forward to connecting more to my Judaism. … this would give me an opportunity to connect with people who share my beliefs. I look forward to making lifelong friendships in Israel and having the opportunity to explore and learn more about the land of our fathers and mothers.”

Kaylie continued: “Judaism has allowed me to live a life full of purpose, to see the real goal of life, which is to grow our soul, to realize that all things in this world pass except for those things that we are able to take beyond this physical world. I live with emunah, knowing that Hashem is in control and that this is the way. I am glad my mother raised me in the Jewish way and was persistent to make it official. She has given my sister and me the greatest gift: to be the daughters of Abraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, and for this my soul will be eternally grateful.”

Daughter Leah talked about how she feels about going to school at JKHA, after being in public school for so long. “For a couple of years now I have been looking forward to attending a yeshiva private school. I didn’t really know how much different it would be. It’s definitely different going to Kushner versus public school, with some classes separate for boys and girls. And classes like Chumash, Mishnah and Ivrit, that I did not have in public school, but really do enjoy.

“The socialization is definitely different too; everyone in the grade knows each other. Even if you are not friends or were not introduced by friends, you know everyone. Everyone is very welcoming and kind, and you can easily make friends. In public school you usually are in a friend group and don’t really interact with kids outside of that group. I feel the sisterhood and brotherhood in Kushner.

“In Kushner you have more freedom and interact more with the kids and teachers,” Leah continued. “There is a lot of singing of Jewish songs, which I love. I also have the option of eating lunch at school because everything is kosher! Kushner kids are friendly and helpful and they believe in the same thing I do! At public school, I felt left out in many ways. The teachers are very understanding and teach differently, which I like, and I feel at home.”

“What means the most to me about being at Kushner is that I can learn more about Judaism and have friendships with kids that have the same Jewish beliefs. I can talk to anyone about Jewish topics. I feel like I am in a place where I can be myself and not feel left out, and I am catching up on my Hebrew!”

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