A View From Cuba Rabbi Nesson February 2015
It may be hard to believe, with the snow and cold still surrounding us, that Purim is just a few days away. One of the many ideas found in the Megillah is the answer to the question- who is a Jewish hero. Esther and Mordecai, and indeed all the people, each take on an heroic role at one time or another in the story.
Thirty five members of our congregation and community have just returned from an amazing if all too short mission to Cuba. Led by Ellen and Rabbi Nesson, this mission, among many other things, gave us the opportunity to meet four people, each there own right a Jewish hero. In this article I will share just a few thoughts about each.
To understand them, we need to know that there is no Rabbi in Cuba, and there has not been for many years. But since the 1990’s there has been a rejuvenation of the Jewish Community, in a country where there is no anti-semitism and where there is enormous pride in the Jewish community. Let me also add here that this rejeuvination is also connected to our Conservative movement.
Today there are only about 1,300 Jews remaining in Cuba. The Jews left en masse after ‘the revolution’ But the Jews did not leave due to anti-semitism, but rather to the end of real opportunity. Land, property and businesses were confiscated for the society that this revolution thought it would create. Before the revolution there were 15,000 Jews in Havana alone, with 5 congregations.
In the 1990’s a rejeuvention began in Cuba due to a new attitude toward religion. It was here the Conservative movement stepped in, centered on the work of the Jewish community from the Seminario in Argentina. Many Cubans began to study Judaism in order to convert, and this was overseen by Rabbi Shumuel Szteinhendler from Argentina. He travelled back and forth to Cuba more than 90 times, and brought a bet din, a Jewish court with him to conduct group conversion ceremonies along with group bnai mitzvah and group weddings. For close to two generations, the Jews of Cuba lived with no real connection to Jewish life, yet somehow they maintained their identity. So we should be proud of the work of our movement in Cuba.
And now let me return to the 4 special people we met on our travels
In the small city of Cienfuegos, three and a half hours drive northeast of Havana, we met Rebecca Langus and her son David. It is her apartment, a space smaller than our conference room in the synagogue, that serves as the center of Jewish life for the 18 or so Jews, from 5 or 6 families, still in that city. As we climbed the steep staircase of her apartment, the first things we notice is the Jewish star in the tile of the bottom step, the Jewish star on the door of her apartment, and a book case of each side of the main room filled with Jewish books, including prayer books, chumashim, and ‘how to’ Jewish books on holidays
When Rebecca speaks of her own journey back to Judaism, of the history of the Jews in her area, of the pride in her children who celebrated their bar mitzvahs, of the love that she and her family have for Israel, she does so with a purity of soul, with an easy smile, and such love that we can not help but be moved by her dedication and love of the Jewish people. She is holding the Jewish people together in this small town.
On our way out, we presented her with some gifts, including soccer balls and baseballs and baseball gloves for the children, some clothes and some medicines. And then I ask the group to take note that in her apartment are 8 menorahs, more menorahs than there are Jewish families in this community.
In Santa Clara, home of a brand new synagogue, we meet a whirlwind of energy in the person of David Tacher. David is so filled with energy and passion that anyone would follow him where ever goes. He tells of his story, his Sephardic heritage as a descendant of the many Jews who made their way to Cuba from Turkey, and the story of the brand new synagogue, and of his community, a small community of 20 – 30 individuals. We take out the Torah, and I point out that cover on that torah is the symbol of the Jewish Theological Seminary. It is the phrase from the torah when Moses sees the burning bush and is a great message to the Jews of Cuba and about the Jews of Cuba. When Moses sees the burning bush, the torah says, the bush was on fire, but the essence of the bush, was not consumed. For two generations the Jewish community had no connection to Jewish life, but someone the essence of the Jewish community, the essence of the Jewish people who remained there, was not consumed…it went dormant and was ready to be reawakened . He takes us to the roof top, where we see the extraordinary tile Mosaic of Jewish life and history, a depiction of scenes from the torah and from Israel. And we learn of the role of his wife, who stood quietly in the corner, but was just as much a leader for her community as is David.
This synagogue building is the place that Jews from Cienfagos and from other smaller towns and areas around Santa Clara come to for the holidays, so that they can be together as a community and celebrate. You have understand what that means- that they come from other towns to Santa Clara. You see only about 15 out of 100 families in Cuba have a car, and gas is very expensive, so it is not like someone can hop in a car and drive to the next town—it is about an hour from Ceinfagos to Santa Clara in our modern bus. And Cuba has very little infrastructure. People stand in towns or on the sides of highways for hours at a time to flag down a car or a bus or an Ox cart to bring them from one place to another—so to go to Santa Clara for Rosh Hashana or Sukkot, can take many hours and a great toll
David then leads us to the Jewish Cemetery. At the cemetery we not only say prayers for those buried there, but we stand in amazement, that here, in the middle of Cuba, far for the center of Cuba and even farther from the center of any Jewish life as we know it, stands one of the most astounding tributes to the Holocaust that any of us can imagine. It is there, with stones from the Holocaust museum in Washington, due to David’s strength and non stop commitment. He reminds us that Judaism is not only about the past, but about pointing to the future. After we say the el malay rachamim and the kaddish, as we begin to sing Hatikvah, as if on cue, a flock of white birds take flight just over our heads.
Adela Dworkin is the President of Cuba’s largest congregation, the El Patronato located in a beautiful neighborhood of Havana. Adela is a polished speaker, a self proclaimed schonorer, who knows full well the needs of her community. The El Patronato is home to one of two Jewish run pharmacies, and we leave them with much of the medicines that we have brought with us. Adela regales us not only with her own history, her meeting with Castro, and how they have brought the synagogue back to life. It is now the religious home to 80 children from Kindergarten through High school, as well as so many others who come for Shabbat. There is a Friday night dinner after services and a Kiddush lunch on Saturdays, and many come not only for the social time, but also to have a meal in a country that is so poor.
Adela is so pleased when we present her with the pictures, cards and greetings that we have brought with us from Shalom Yeladim pre-school and our religious school. We may the first congregation who has thought of this idea We continue upstairs to the beautiful sanctuary, supported by the fact that half of this building is used as a theater.
And who would have thought that there would be a daily minyan in Havana?
As we met with Yakov, from the Orthodox Adath Shalom synagogue, located in a poor neighborhood, even for Havana standards. He told of how this synagogue is the main address for so many of Havana’s elderly Jewish population. Yakov leads a morning a minyan with up to 80 people in the downstairs chapel who stay for the breakfast which follows. Some of them then spend the day making Kippot and Cuban dolls for sale. And since this congregation also serves as the Hevre Kadisha, some of the seniors also make the shrouds for burial. At Mincha, many return for the afternoon service, also followed by a snack. During the day this synagogue also serves as a makeshift clinic, where many of the members as well as others from outside the community come for medical attention by volunteer doctors, and receive medicines donated to them, from us as well as from the many other groups that pass through. All this is necessary because of the poverty in today’s Cuba. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was Cuba’s main benefactor, Cuba has been in economic distress, less now than it was 20 years ago. Even so, people on the street stop us, not for money, but for a bar of soap and some shampoo—we knew that in advance so we took these items with us to distribute. The seniors in Cuba live on a pension of $10 dollars a month, an impossible small amount, so many have to have other ways to get by. So they look for other work and other ways to make ends meet. The people stand in line for food rations, and medicine and visits to doctors are hard to come by, and hospitals are few and far between
Yakov is also a shochet, the only one in Cuba. The Jewish community is the only community on the Island that has red meat on a regular basis, a deal made with Castro many years ago. The kosher butcher shop is just around the corner from the synagogue, open only to the Jewish community. Yakov is also a mohel, but can not practice brit milah since he is not a doctor. (when a mohel is needed a Rabbi is brought in from Argentina) The beautiful sanctuary of this synagogue, which houses a small museum, is in disrepair, with broken windows and awaits much needed work., but it is used for the high holidays, if they can afford the air conditioning in that particular year
We went to Cuba in a hopeful time. Though there is much controversy as to what opening up relations with Cuba might mean, the people we met, including our tour guide, Eric, all hope that a new age is beginning for the people in Cuba. For us, it was a way for us to once again understand the wisdom of our tradition, which reminds us: kol yisrael aravem ze lazeh- all Jews are connected and responsible one for another. We hope our mission will create for those who went with and for our community an opportunity to connect more to this community and to partner with them in the exciting days ahead
In the Megillah, Mordecai says to Esther that she needs to sieze the moment to show her leadership of her community. On our mission, we visited at least four such people, leaders and heroes in their own right, who have seized the moment and who, with help from the conservative movement, from the JDC from Canada and the US, from the community in Argentina, from Israel and groups like ours, are bringing Judaism to life. We were honored to meet such heros.