Bethesda Jewish Congregation Cuba Mission 2010 Report
We left for Miami to make connections for Havana in the midst of Snowmageddon 2010. Of our original group of 25 travelers, ultimately only 22 made it to Havana due mostly to flight cancellations out of DC. Of the 22 who eventually made it to Havana, 8 arrived a day later than planned. It was only because of herculean efforts by Alex Vincente, Tessie Aral, and the folks at ABC Charters that we were all reunited on Shabbat morning at Centro Sephardi during Shacharit services. We bentsched Gomel and sang a heartfelt Shehecheyanu after our late "DC 8" as they came to be known arrived just before the Amidah.
Fourteen of our party arrived in Havana on Friday and attended a lovely Kabbalat Shabbat at Sinagoga Beth Shalom. We were charmed at the end of the service when the children came up for blessings and then led the congregation in Adon Olam and a series of Zemirot. It was a busy Shabbat weekend in Havana with five other Jewish groups from the US all in town at once. The piles of humanitarian aid and medicines we saw before services at our meeting with Adela Dworin President, and David Prinstein Senorans Vice President, of El Patronato and Beth Shalom, gave everyone a sense of satisfaction.
Saturday morning we attended Shacharit at Sinagoga Centro Sephardi. Our old friends Mayra Levy and Alberto Behar were there to greet us. Once again other Jewish groups were there for services including a group of students from the US led by Dr. Ruth Behar, from the University of Michigan, author of An Island Called Home—Returning to Jewish Cuba. We would run into Ruth and her students again in Sancti Spiritus and Santa Clara.
During services, ably led by Alberto, Samuel, and Tatiana, I was invited up for an aliyah and asked to deliver the haftarah for Parsha Mishpatim and a commentary. I was unprepared, but "a regel echat"—on one foot, read and taught the deeper meaning of the Haftarah, about the three times the Holy One of Blessing has feed us from slavery and how slavery can be a state of mind as well as a state of being.
Rabbi Danny Price of Connecticut was also with us and leyned the first aliyah of the parsha from the Torah.
After our joyful reunion with the rest of our traveling party, we sat down to a lovely Shabbat lunch with members of the synagogue. The exchange between the members of our communities was lively and we had enough bilingual folks at the tables to insure that everyone was part of the conversations. We made a presentation of a battery/AC powered amplifier and microphone to the synagogue for "Albercito," who serves as the hazzan of Centro Sephardi and has been having some throat problems of late. Now he can be heard again by everyone. He was also very interested in the fact that I was an ordained hazzan, as well as a rabbi, and asked that I teach him some niggunim and hazzanut. We learned quickly a niggun (melody without words) by Reb. Shlomo Carlebach and I promised to return in the not too distant future to spend a day or two with him to teach hazzanut (more on that at the end of this report).
Sunday we arrived at 5:30 am at Jose Marti Airport terminal #1 for the flight to Santiago.
It was a quick uneventful flight on an aging Russian jet. We had time during the day to visit historic Santiago before arriving in the late afternoon at Comunidad Hebrea Hatikvah. Nearly 40 members of the Santiago Jewish community turned out to greet us. We began our time together with introductions of everyone in attendance before we had our evening study session on the hidden meanings of Purim and we learned together songs for Purim. This was followed by a wonderful performance by the Rikud group of Santiago in full costume and a delightful dinner where we all got to know each other better. In a quiet moment a few of us snuck off with synagogue president Eugenia Levy to take a look at the congregation's 300 year old Turkish Torah. The Torah is housed in a new "tik," the single round Torah case commonly used by Sephardic congregations. I have seen many Torah scrolls in my lifetime, and have learned a bit about the art of the sofer (Torah scribe), but have never seen a Torah such as this. The hand of the sofer was unique. The Zohar calls the writing of the Torah, "black fire on white fire" and these letters were written in such a style so that they danced on the pages like black flames. Truly remarkable! We also took note of the Ner Tamid. Eugenia shared with us that because oil is in short supply in Cuba, every family brings a little jar of oil periodically, usually in commemoration of a simcha, to the synagogue to add to the Ner Tamid to keep it burning always. This is truly the light of the spirit of the Jews of Santiago.
We also admired the sculpting talents of Robert Segal, a young member of the community who had a number of his works on display at the synagogue. During the evening he presented us with a gift of a wooden sculpture of a man with tallit and tefillin davening. It will take up an honored place in our synagogue along with other gifts of art we have received from Cuban Jewish artists.
We concluded the evening with joyful singing and dancing of familiar songs and new songs before finally sharing a few tears as we intoned Hatikvah.
Before leaving the synagogue for the night, my wife Yaffah asked Eugenia if there were any graves in the Santiago Jewish cemetery with the name Benbasset (her maternal ancestors). Eugenia told us that there was the grave of a Shlomo Benbasset in the cemetery and it was just off the road to Guantanamo. We resolved then and there to make a brief stop the next day.
Monday we departed Santiago for Guantanamo, stopping along the way at the Santiago Jewish Cemetery and indeed here we located the grave of Shlomo Benbasset. We didn't know yet how significant this little "find" would be. The understanding would come later.
We arrived in Guantanamo and checked in at the Islazul Guantanmo Hotel. It seems that our arrival generated a good deal of interest. The staff told us that they had never had such a large group of "Norte Americanos" at the hotel before. The hotel was a bit rough, especially compared to our accommodations in most other towns, but this is the only option in Guantanamo. We also ran into our first food shortages as the menu was very limited. No butter, no meat, no potatoes.
That evening we met Rodolfo Mizrahi Tellez and the Jewish community of Guantanamo. To our complete surprise he told us that with 78 members in the community, this was the second largest Jewish community in Cuba. When one considers that Guantanmo is a town of 200,000 people and is way "down east" in Oriente province, it is amazing that so many Jews still live there. The community is quite isolated. We were told that, except for a small delegation of Americans who attended the community's 80th anniversary celebration in the fall of 2009, we were the first group of American Jews to visit in over two years.
We all crowded in to the second floor of Rodolfo's house which serves as the community synagogue with a lovely Aron HaKodesh, Amud, Torah, and a small bookshelf for precious volumes of Judaica. After introductions, exchanges of information, and presentations, we all went out to the terrace where the young people of the Rikkud group danced for us in a space only ten feet wide. And when we all attempted to dance together—OY! But we again had a great evening of teaching the meanings of Purim and songs. Rodolfo walked around all evening with this huge smile, astounded at the ruach we were generating together. Although it is far to Guantanamo, it is my hope that we will visit there again someday.
Now came the hardest part of the trip—long bus rides as we worked our way back across the island stopping at each community for a day or two.
First a return to Camaguey, where we spent two days teaching, and celebrating. Members of our group who were musicians, dancers, teachers of Jewish chant, as well as the two rabbis each had the opportunity to lead classes. We celebrated our last evening together with a fiesta put on by the congregation with a three piece traditional son band under the new roof of the synagogue. A roof financed by donations from Bethesda Jewish Congregation when the main truss of the old roof cracked just before Rosh Hashanah. This was our third trip to Camaguey in as many years. It is a joy to be a part of the community's growth. Just stay away from the Hotel Colon at all costs. The rooms are in poor condition and it was being fumigated while we were still in the building—ugh! If you travel to Camaguey do your best to stay at the Hotel Gran or at least the Plaza.
Friday morning we made our way to our "sister" community of Sancti Spiritus. For eight years we have built a close relationship with the families of this quiet city on the banks of the Rio Yayabo. Each year we spend Shabbat at Casa Elisa, the home of the Barlia family and the "synagogue" for the Jewish community. Kabbalat Shabbat was a revelation. When we first came to Sancti Spiritus only the Barlia family knew the prayers for Kabbalat Shabbat. Now, after eight years of teaching and gentle encouragement, everyone knows the prayers. I kvelled like a parent as different members of the community stood and sang a solo verse of L'cha Dodi and we raised our voices in unison to sing the familiar psalms and prayers. We were also delighted as Ivonne and her brother Jose Jr (whom we hadn't seen in two years while he was studying engineering at Havana University), led the service. Then, over a lovely Shabbat dinner that included Daisy Barlia's amazing gefilte fish, came the stunning announcement that 27 people in the central provinces were beginning to study for conversion, 11 from Sancti Spiritus!
The people studying for halachic conversion have long been a part of the Jewish community, but they were either children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, or were married to Jews but were not born into Jewish families. This display of commitment and affirmation of identity is nothing short of remarkable in a country where, until fifteen years ago, practice of religion was frowned upon. It is gratifying to know that our work and teaching contributed in some small way to this rebirth of Cuban Jewish life.
Saturday morning Shacharit, was a continuation of the revelations of the previous evening. We were joined again this year by the Langus-Rodriquez family from Cienfuegos and David Tacher and Julito Rodriquez Eli from Santa Clara. David again brought a Torah from Santa Clara and Rabbi Danny Price and I leyned from it, giving an aliyah to each community. For the service we used a new Tri-lingual prayer book printed in Costa Rica by the World Union of Progressive Judaism. With simultaneous translations and transliterations in Spanish, English, and Hebrew, this siddur makes it possible for everyone to daven together regardless of native language or ability to read Hebrew. The greatest surprise was when we began to sing the morning prayers and everyone sang along. This was a surprise because the only time Shabbat Shacharit is celebrated in Sancti Spiritus is on our annual visits. It seems that last year someone recorded our Shabbat morning service and the entire community went to great lengths to learn the words and melodies in preparation for our visit this year.
Before the day ended there were two more remarkable moments. The first was when 2 year old Elisa (our God daughter) joined her older sister Claudia to sing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav. Two years old and already singing Hebrew—Wow! Then the other children joined in for a medley of Purim songs.
The other was a more personal moment. As I mentioned earlier in this narrative, my wife, Yaffah, is of the family Benbasset, originally from Turkey, then settled in the US and Cuba. I had recalled just before this trip that Julito Rodriquez Eli had a grandparent with the same name, as was related in Maritza Corrales book, Chosen Island. In conversation with Julito, Yaffah learned that Julito's great grandfather Benbasset was a rabbi in Istanbul Turkey. So was Yaffah's great grandfather! They were distant cousins! But that wasn't the end. I have known Rebeca Langus Rodriguez of Cienfuegos for eight years, but never knew that she and Julito were first cousins! So, Rebeca, Julito, and my wife are all related. Amazing!
Our last stop before returning to Havana was a day in Santa Clara, our other "home" community. I was the first Jewish Clergy to intone the El Maleh Rachamim in the restored Jewish cemetery and at the Holocaust Memorial. Our congregation has been deeply engaged in fundraising to obtain and renovate the house that hopefully this year will become the new synagogue. David Tacher and I consider ourselves true brothers.
When we arrived at the cemetery along with the entire Jewish community of Santa Clara, there was a white dove sitting atop the center of the twenty foot tall main gate. The Santa Clara folks were all quite surprised. No one could recall seeing a white dove in Santa Clara before. David became very emotional, nearly overcome by the moment. We would soon learn why. The community presented to me a gift in honor of my recent ordination as rabbi (after 14 years as a hazzan), and in gratitude for all of our work in Cuba. When unwrapped, the reason for David's reaction to the dove became evident. The gift was a stained glass panel of Noah's dove with a rainbow streaming from the tail. A vivid reminder of the covenant and that there are no coincidences when one is on the path with the Holy One of Blessing. We also located more graves of members of the Benbasset family, and then made a brief visit to the community "house" before departing for Havana.
On our last day in Havana we visited once again the Adath Yisrael Synagogue, spoke with our good friends there, and looked at pictures of the nearly completed renovation of the kosher butcher shop, before departing for the airport and our return to Miami.
So, what did we learn during our ten days travelling across the island.
There is a real hunger for knowledge that our current mission structure does not support. While our visits for an evening or a day in each community serve a need for contact with Klal Yisrael (the larger world Jewish community) and our Shabbat Shacharit services are a unique annual event in Sancti Spiritus and the central provinces, the people are hungry for more. In the provinces people want lessons in Hebrew, liturgy, history, philosophy, and just plain yiddishkeit. To this end I will be returning to Cuba sometime in early summer with one or two other rabbis. We will spend two or three days in as many communities as possible teaching Judaica intensives. Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler of Chile was in Camaguey immediately after our visit teaching the conversion class of the 27 people from the provinces. I hope that our visit will deepen the knowledge of not only those working towards conversion, but everyone, in a way that our larger missions cannot.
All in all we delivered over 1000 pounds of medicines, hospital supplies, and personal hygiene items, as well as books, and instructional Hebrew and English language DVDs to the Jewish communities of the island. We made contact with every Jewish community in Cuba in a single eleven day trip. It was a grueling and difficult trip logistically, but the rewards were great. We met new communities and celebrated again with old friends. Every community received, and we received, precious mementos to serve as physical reminders, precious "ot" (symbols) of our friendship. We sang together, learned together, prayed together, ate together, danced together, and celebrated as Jews. We experienced together the singular Jewish unity that transcends all barriers and embraces all differences of language and culture. We were truly ‘echad."
—Rabbi Elhanan ‘Sunny’ Schnitzer