Bethesda Jewish Congregation Cuba Mission 2011 Report
We arrived in Havana on a Sunday morning. We were carrying with us a Torah for the community of Sancti Spiritus, to be dedicated in memory of Jose Barlia Loyarte 'zl.
There was a Torah in Sancti Spiritus prior to the revolution, but it was taken away in 1960 for "safekeeping." No one claims to know what happened to it.
So this is to be first Torah for the Jewish community of Sancti Spiritus in 50 years, made possible through the combined efforts of Bethesda Jewish Congregation and B'nai Brith.
Coming through customs, Rabbi Schnitzer was stopped and asked to open the case in which he was carrying the Torah. Luckily, through the good graces of our friends Maritza Corrales and Mayra Levy, we had received permission to bring in the Torah from the Director of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, who issued the official permissions and called Cuban customs a few hours in advance of our arrival.
At the airport, a young customs officer asked the rabbi to open the bag. He replied that "we have official permission to bring in this package from Isidro Gomez Santos, chairman of the Ministry of Religion." The officer's eyebrows went up and he waved over his supervisor. The rabbi repeated the information. The supervisor said; "yes, but we'd like to see it." Rabbi Schnitzer opened the suitcase and the supervisor asked; "what is it." The rabbi replied in Spanish that it was the Bible of the Jews, the Old Testament in Hebrew. The supervisor then asked what Jews are!
Rabbi Schnitzer thought for a second and replied; "Polacos!"
The man replied; "Oh! So, it is the Koran!" The rabbi laughed, said no, and explained again. The officer then asked what it is made of. "Parchemento," said the rabbi, and the customs agents said, "ok, you can go."
And that was that.
We arrived at the Patronato at the end of the religious school day. The rabbi met with briefly with David Prinstein the new Vice President of the Patronato and then proceeded to teach songs for Tu B'shevat and Shabbat to the students in the religious school. One student asked what Jewish children in the United Sates were like. Coming from a synagogue in Bethesda with a large number of multi cultural and multi racial families with many adopted children, the rabbi was able to say in all honesty; "they look just like you!" The answer really pleased the children and teachers.
We caught up with June Safran, the outgoing director of the Cuba America Jewish Mission, who was with us for the duration of our trip. Having June with us was a special treat and through her we made contact with many new people, leaders of the Havana chapter B'nai Brith, and other notable members of the community whom we had not met before.
Later we had lunch with Dr. Rosa Behar, who runs the Patronato pharmacy, her husband, Aleop Tur, Tania Behar, her daughter Karina, and Karina's new husband Isaac Medina. They had just been married in a secular ceremony and would be going to Spain in a few weeks for a Jewish ceremony. Since they were already married, the rabbi offered them the Sheva Brachot, the traditional Jewish wedding blessings. So the entire staff of Restaurante El Patio (ironically in the shadow of the Havana Cathedral) popped their heads out of the kitchen and offices to hear the sweet melodies. Everyone then applauded the newlyweds and sang a rousing chorus of Siman Tov while June and Karina danced.
We enjoyed a lovely dinner later that evening with Ida Gutstadt and Simon Goldstein of B'nai Brith and got an update on B'nai Brith projects and the dynamics of the changes in the leadership of the Cuban Jewish community. Adela Dworin is still the president but William Miller Jr. is no longer Vice President, having been replaced by David Prinstein who also serves as President of the Beth Shalom synagogue. William is a young man with great ideas and a lot of energy. We wish him well in his future endeavors.
On Monday we visited with Adela Dworin at the Patronato, who sat with us for an extended period of time regaling our group with stories of President Raul Castro's recent Hanukkah visit to the Jewish community and her encounters with former president Fidel Casto. Adela is a strong leader and works tirelessly for the Jewish community. As she jokingly reminded us; "In Cuba, presidents tend to serve for life. I hope to be here for a long time." We also spent time in the pharmacy with Dr. Rosa Behar. Rosa and BJC's own Judy Scott are working together on the Bottoms Up program of the Cuba America Jewish mission, providing for the needs of Cuban Jewish babies and children under five years old. Their partnership is already resulting in an dramatic increase in funding for aid.
Tuesday was a very special day. We visited with Dr. Mayra Levy at the Centro Sefaradi synagogue. Major improvements are underway at Centro Sefaradi with the renovation of upstairs rooms to serve as meeting space and classrooms. A long term project, now being discussed, is the renovation of the main synagogue, which has been closed for decades. The goal is to turn the space into a hall for concerts and performances not unlike many JCC's in the US. The room could also be used as worship space for the High Holidays.
Later that same morning we met with historian Maritza Corrales for a wonderful power point presentation on the history of the Cuban Jewish community. Maritza then took our group out to the two Jewish cemeteries on the outskirts of Havana, one Ashkenazi and one Sefardi. The Sefardi cemetery in particular, is in need of renovation and a fence around the perimeter to keep out the cows and carousing young people from the neighborhood.
Later that afternoon, while the group took a needed break, Rabbi Schnitzer returned to Centro Sepharadi and spent a few hours with two of the young people who lead services, teaching them how to chant Torah. He would do this again in Sancti Spiritus.
Before departing Havana we made a stop at the Adath Israel orthodox synagogue.
Cantor / Shochet Yacobo Berezniak gave us a wonderful tour, as always. Yacobo also took us to see the newly renovated Kosher Butcher shop, a renovation made possible in part by donations from BJC and many other American Jewish organizations.
Of course, the main thrust of BJC's Cuba mission has always been out in the provinces.
We spent an evening in Cienfuegos with Rebecca Langus, her family and a few members of the community. The family continues to thrive. The community is hungry to learn more about Judaism. David Langus Rodriguez specifically asked for regular Hebrew training. We spoke about this again when we gathered with the members of Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and Caibarien, in Sancti Spiritus for Shabbat Shacharit. This desire for us to provide more teachers and resources for education was a continual theme everywhere outside of Havana.
In Santa Clara, renovations are well underway on the house that will become the new synagogue. In fact, the building is so torn up that it was unsafe for anyone to go inside, save for Rabbi Schnitzer and June Safran, who had to walk very carefully. President, David Tacher, is optimistic that renovations will be completed in late 2011. It's exciting to anticipate the completion of a project five years in the making, with the assistance of BJC and many other American friends of the Cuban Jewish community. Soon a solar/battery powered Ner Tamid will be completed by a New York artist and we will take it to Santa Clara, to be installed prior to the opening of the new shul.
The trip, however, was not all "wow" moments. There was also an afternoon of sadness in the Santa Clara cemetery where we joined for the unveiling of Jose Barlia's grave stone. The family put together a very meaningful service. Rabbi Schnitzer sang psalms and the El Moleh Rachamim. It was an afternoon none of us will soon forget.
Our sister community of Sancti Spiritus continues to grow both in spirit and in real numbers, while the community leaders, the Barlia family, have been buffeted by a series of personal losses.
Six members of the community converted to Judaism in a ceremony in Havana the day after our visit. It made for a very special Kabbalat Shabbat and Shacharit as these newest members of Klal Yisrael participated in the services and received special blessings at the Torah.
Finally we reached the ultimate moment of this mission, the completion and dedication of a Torah for Sancti Spiritus.
After a spirited havdalah, we intoned the bracha for writing in the Torah together. Each person present placed their hand on the rabbi's as filled in the last broken letters of this scroll that came to us from the Ukraine. They whispered the name of loved ones as a dedication while the rabbi sang the letter as he filled it in, and completed the scroll. Now the members of the Jewish communities of Sancti Spritus, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Caibarien, and Bethesda, as well as other Americans who work on behalf of the Jewish communities of Cuba, June Safran, Judy Golub and Stan Falkenstein, all are in that beautiful Torah.
We finished our trip in Camaguey. We delighted in sharing food, music, and friendship at the synagogue and visited the cemetery where renovations (again made possible in part by the generosity of members of BJC) are nearly complete.
President David Pernas Levy insisted that we take a trip with him to the new local Museum of Culture, where he showed us a room dedicated to religious communities of Camaguey. In that room was a display highlighting the contributions of the Jewish community, and in the display cases were gifts that BJC had bestowed upon the synagogue on previous visits.
Now the entire city knows of this small Jewish community and their friends from Bethesda.
Havana is in the midst of great change, both in terms of leadership and the needs of Cuba’s largest Jewish community. Economic and demographic changes have created an acute need for food support and senior services. Each Havana synagogue is working its own programs to meet the challenge. Notable is Mayra Levy’s work to provide monthly food baskets and senior services through Centro Sefardi. We can best support her work with cash donations rather than importing products from the US.
At the same time it cannot be perceived that US support organizations are favoring one synagogue over another. Donor organizations must move carefully and subtly to provide maximum support with minimal disruption to the leadership dynamics of Havana.
Continuing current levels of support for the Patronato and Adath Israel, their programs for seniors, youth, the pharmacy, and the Sunday school, must continue.
This means that we must increase our sources of funding, distribute these funds more aggressively under the latest OFAC regulations, and be more generous with our reserves.
In the provinces the biggest needs are twofold.
One is the need for food support. The towns of the central provinces are “the canary in the coalmine.” There food shortages are acute. In Camaguey, Sancti Spiritus, and elsewhere, many basic foodstuffs, chicken, peas, coffee, butter, cannot be found at any price and when available are of poorer quality than we have observed in the past.
The other desire expressed by the leaders of every community we visited (and heard anecdotally from Santiago and Guantanamo) is for effective and continual Jewish education for all ages. The people of the towns want to know their Jewish heritage, how to pray and lead prayers in Hebrew, and how to go deeper into the Torah portion of the week.
To this end, we should explore with JDC and others how to meet this need.
One solution might be to send teachers from the US to the provinces on a rotating monthly basis. These teachers and rabbis will teach but also train Cubans to teach also. Within a year, there could be a cadre of young Cuban Jews travelling in the provinces fully capable of teaching Cubans to teach themselves. We will ultimately only have to provide curricular support and continuing education for the teachers.We are at a critical juncture. Economic pressures will increase the number of Cubans who apply to emigrate to Israel unless they perceive that there is a present and a future for them in Cuba. Can we help them create hope and will it be enough to keep the community viable? That is the question.